In English footballing folklore the front two strike partnership has a magical game winning, season shaping, team defining aura. I don’t know much about Blackburn Rover’s title winning side of 94/95 save that Shearer and Sutton played up front. Equally other teams of the era and before had emblematic strike partnerships; Cole and Yorke at Man Utd, Fowler and Rush at Liverpool, England had Sheringham and Shearer even my Sunday League under 10s had myself and some nippier smaller kid whose name I have forgotten.Strike partnerships the cliched big lad and the little lad duo, one sets them up the other knocks them in were ubiquitous.
Now though they are a rare species all but extinct in top flight and european competitions. Out of the premier league teams playing this weekend only three teams are probably going to start with two up front. Out of these Liverpool seem to have fallen into a 5-3-2 in order to accommodate the currently free-scoring Sturridge and Suarez, Villa are doing so due to injuries and Sunderland are awful. Perhap even more telling than this is the perceived decline in the power of the lone forward as well. Strikerless formations are not unknown. Barcelona, or more specifically Pep Guardiola, pioneered this but the innovation has spread being used by other teams sometimes fairly successfully as by David Moyes at Everton other times less effectively, even comically, by soon after sacked Scotland manger Craig Levin. Even Sam ‘I could manage Real Madrid if I had a cooler name‘ Allardyce has given the strikerless thing a go beating Spurs 3-0. Although this was due to injuries and a short sighted transfer policy rather than any deliberate choice.
The question should be asked then is a front two strike partnership an anachronism that will never receive wide spread use again. As the title of this post suggests I think not. Firstly, a front two offers great offensive benefits. Secondly, the sacrifice of a second striker is primarily due to the need/desire of an extra midfielder to contest the midfield battle winning control of the ball and keep it protecting it from the evil opposition like an angry momma bear with a cub. More recent tactical development (more on this later) now mean that this third midfielder can be retained whilst also playing two strikers.
What then are the offensive benefits of two up front?
The dynamic of a front pairing is simple. If you can get the ball to forward A and he has the option of giving the ball to forward B then the quality of possession your team can quickly get in the final third of the pitch were goals are scored is improved. And goals of course win games. When you don’t play with a front two then the reliance is on the midfielders to link up with the forward getting the ball to him and then making lung busting runs to get past him opening up space. The best teams often manage to do this very effectively but when the midfielders are prevented from or fail to link up with forwards as for example happened to Chelsea at Newcastle last week or Spurs at Everton then the cutting edge is lacking. As a consequence the game becomes a stalemate. The more technically adept team is allowed to keep the ball until they enter the final third where effective possession can be strangled by the three central midfielders.
By contrast both good and poor service with two up front can more easily been turned into a chance. A long clearance from the back flicked on by forward A and finished by forward B. With only one up front however, forward A has to do this all alone This of course isn’t impossible. Players like Lukuka, and Benteke often manage this and Didier Drogba made his career through bullying big centre halfs one second dropping to the floor a the slightest touch the next. It is however, much harder especially for teams with less quality. It also means that the forward who plays as the poacher the classic example being Inzaghi who famously used to run away from possession until the ball reached the penalty area is an unaffordable luxury. This is a great shame because, simply put goals not only win games but they make them fun.
If the benefits of the front two are so apparent why did we ever move away from playing it?
As I stated above playing two up front should make it easier to increase the quality of possession in the final third but particularly in a 4-4-2 it does leave you outnumbered in midfield and so reduces the quantity of possession. Against an opponent that outnumbers you in midfield this can be fatal. Without the oxygen of possession teams suffocate being slowly worn down into exhaustion under the pressure of chasing the ball. This system came to prominence/was perfected with Pep Guardiola’s ascension to Barcelona manager whose team were masters of keeping the ball. Faced with a need to compete in midfield teams sacrificed a forward for an extra midfielder. And so playing two up front became unfashionable. Now though the tactical developments that have followed over the last ten or so years mean that the advantage of playing two up front can be gained again without weakening the midfield.
This key tactical development development has been the alteration of the role of the winger to essentially an inside forward who floats throughout the final third and the consequent shift to the full back as the made supplier of width. This change to the nature of the winger was brought about and reinforced the move to three man midfield one striker formations. As to simplify it to an almost excessive drunken pub level the presence of only one out and out striker forced wingers to push forward and often inwards in order to provide a direct goalscoring threat. The perfect example of this is Christiano Ronaldo who in the words of Gary Neville redefined the position “He would go wandering off to the left, to the right, up the middle” until he could find a weak link in the back four and mercilessly bully said player. Although no one but Messi was near Ronaldo in quality other wingers like Ribery, Robben, Reus became important goalscoring/creative threats able to pop up anywhere on the pitch. Once they were doing this though it became imperative for the full backs to provide the out and out width that the new inside forwards did not. The shift to a central midfield three by sacrificing a forward had lead to the the more mobile attack where only one forward was used.
This is the general tactical makeup of most of the ‘big’ teams today. Arsenal are a great example of this with Giroud upfront being the only out and out forward with the rest of the attacking midfielders Carzola, Ramsey, Ozil, Wilshire etc moving fluidly into space. Part of the reason this works so well is not just the undoubted technical ability of the players but the difficulty defenders have in countering players who can pop up anywhere. As anyone who have ever played centre-half can tell you playing against a forward who is up against you is much easier than trying to mark the open spaces to which any player can move into.
If this is all working so well then why should the front two make a comeback?
The answer to this is that it should make a comeback as a way for smaller less well resourced teams to compete with bigger clubs. At the moment the smaller teams are all to often simply mimicking the bigger teams. The tactical construct is if they play a 4-5-1/4-3-3 then we shall do the same and defend with a bank of four and a bank of five closing down only when the ball comes into our own half. This is highly defensive negative football and it makes for all too often highly boring games. It is not that it cannot be successful just that it is boring. Chelsea won the Champions League playing this way. England played like this in the 2012 Euros. Greece won the Euros in 2004 doing this. Two of the most successful promoted teams this year Cardiff and Hull do this. Along with more established teams such as West Ham. I could name more but I feel the point is made.
Instead of going negative and matching better teams up player for player. Someone should have a go at playing a 5-3-2 that moves to a 3-5-2/3-3-4 with the ball. Playing this system would keep the three central midfielders who are essential whilst accepting the fact that fullbacks are now essentially wingbacks in all but name and can provide all the width necessary. On top of this since teams now only play with one up front there is the possibility when in possession to use centre halfs who are technically good on the ball to overload the midfield area negating the oppositions midfield three. Afterall there is no need to keep three players back to defend against one forward at least one possibly even two of these players is wasted. And lastly, of course this shift would bring back the front two partnership which when done well can pose a greater tactical threat.
I’m sure its just me but I reckon this idea has got legs.