Much has recently been said about the tendency in the modern game for clubs to opt for just the single attacker in their starting line up rather than two.
One centre forward or two, Sir?
No, just the one for me please. This is football in the 21st century after all. You can’t be too careful. Today’s mantra revolves around the game being won – or in some cases, not lost – in the proverbial ‘middle of the park’; a contemporary tactic that has seen, in some instances, midfields as crowded and congested as the back of a veal truck on its way to the slaughterhouse. No room to breathe, think, act; just lots and lots of bodies jostled together in a tiny space. That’s the modern midfield for you. Ian Crook would have suffocated.
Just under four decades ago it was the most quintessentially English of football managers, Sir Alf Ramsey who first shook the traditions of English football to its foundations by dispensing with the typical wingers; that most English of player with whom we’d had become so familiar and which identified the art of the game in this country.
Sir Alf’s preference for what was then the unfamiliar 4-4-2 system disposed of the traditional winger both tactically and personally. Instead the players chosen to perform on the periphery of his rigid four man midfield were redefined as right and left midfielders. Where once their holy remit was to do doing nothing but get chalk on their boots as they raced like a sporting will-o-the-wisp along the touchline leaving opponents in their wake, now it was rewritten to accommodate shape, formation, rigidity and defensive responsibilities; the ability to defend every bit as important as beating their full back ever was.
The old fashioned winger of yore has never completely disappeared of course. And their modern equivalents, players like Aaron Lennon or Theo Walcott, still have that licence to thrill on occasion. But that right is no longer an exclusive one and they will have, and be expected to carry out, a wider range of team related responsibilities than dancing along the touchline for ninety minutes.
Indeed, the birth of Ramsey’s 4-4-2 did its worse in an attacking sense by featuring players in those wide positions whose on-field space was, by design rather than accident, occupied with defence in mind as much as attack; those two wide players seen as responsible for protecting their own full backs as much they were for taunting the oppositions.
Ramsey’s abandonment of the orthodox winger in favour of a more rigid midfield was seen as revolutionary at the time. This was, after all, an era when, if England didn’t rule the game, they certainly played a big part in it. England were the World Cup holders whilst the President of FIFA, the Sepp Blatter of his day, Stanley Rous – a former referee – was also an Englishman as well as a supporter of Norwich City; his regular trips to watch the Canaries being the catalyst for his lifetime love and involvement in the game.
Thus, as Ramsey and England led the way, the rest of the world* followed, especially in Europe where the formation perhaps reached its zenith in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with such devotees as Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello; coaches revered in this country for their apparent ‘progressive’ nature used it to great effect as their skilful yet ultimately hugely organised and disciplined sides won a squadron of domestic and European honours between them playing that formation.
Ironic therefore that, with his appointment as England coach in 2008, Capello was seen as the progressive one, the ‘flavour of the month’ foreign coach who would revolutionise English football and lead us out of the darkness with his touch of continental flair and genius. Yet in reality, England had, with that appointment, merely resurrected the footballing philosophy of Ramsey with Capello’s blind adherence to the 4-4-2 formation eventually being condemned as ‘outdated’.
A theory which is now championed by critics throughout the game with claims that the much vaunted 4-2-3-1 formation is more progressive, advanced, contemporary – even intelligent in both its means and applications.
That debate is one for another day. The point I am basing this piece upon is the simple change at the tip of that formation that has come about as a result of the games progress (perceived or not); the dearth and death of the two pronged attack, something which now looks to be headed to footballing oblivion in much the same way as wingers did in 1966. And, like England nearly half a century ago, it has turned out to be the fashion of a World Cup winner that has changed football again, with Spain’s 4-2-3-1, utilising a lone striker in David Villa winning the trophy, taking the glory and leading the way for others to follow as a consequence.
Funny isn’t it how football, as it has gone forward, has gone backwards – both tactically and in terms of adventure. As far as attacking emphasis goes, and, with no apologies to something called the Spice Girls, four became two, two became one – and, if you have been witness to, amongst others, either Scotland or Spain in recent internationals, one has even become zero with the advent of the infamous 4-6-0 formation; one that West Ham are tipped to play at Carrow Road on Saturday.
This sees the traditional striker completely replaced by a mobile attacking midfield, operating from a position so deep from within their own ‘territory’ that opposing defenders cannot mark them without being pulled out of position. Once said defenders have been tempted or cajoled to do so of course, those players within the six with pace are free to make use of their opponents’ loss of shape and the consequent space that has been left for them in which to do so. In effect, wingers have been redefined, only as players that attack through the middle of the pitch rather than from the flanks.
It’s a tactic that might mean a game of football is mind numbingly tedious for 89 minutes or so before exploding into a brief few seconds of glorious sporting violence – the fast break, the execution, the kill. The result.
Not losing has become the new winning. And it’s catching.
We’ve certainly caught it at Carrow Road. Was it really only four or so years ago when our brave new world of the diamond was tearing League One asunder, the attacking tip of Grant Holt and Chris Martin backed by the trickery and flair of Wes Hoolahan? Yes, the opposition might have been, in the main, modest, but we cut an attacking swathe through that division back then, scoring a total of 89 goals in 46 league games. From that, Holt and Martin scored 41 between them thanks, in the main, to the teasing, tantalising and telling influence of Wes Hoolahan; the creative force behind the team and the pivot on the style of the team’s play then and into the next campaign when we scored a further 83 goals. That’s 172 goals in 92 games – and another 21 for Holty.
Feed the strikers and they will score.
Fans love attacking football, end to end action and goals. As does television and radio. Likewise our embattled press. Football managers and coaches, of course, pretend to despise it. Interview any manager after a high scoring game and he’ll dourly say how much he hated it. But don’t be kidded. Any football manager would rather win 4-3 than 1-0. It keeps the fans happy, it keeps his players happy, it keeps his critics happy and, crucially, it keeps his employers happy.
It’s a win-win situation. The more chances you create, the more likely it is that you will score a goal. Thus the more goals that you score, the more likely it is you will win the game. The more likely you are to win the game, the happier the fans, the management, the boardroom, the sponsors and the players.
Football hasn’t always been, contrary to popular belief, a funny old game. But it is a simple one. If we score more goals than you we win the match – and with it the points, the trophies, the glamour and the glory.
I still don’t understand the finer points of either of the two rugby codes. American Football is sport dressed up as calculus as far as I’m concerned. And as for cricket? Forget it. I’ve just finished reading a book by Phil Tufnell. Now Tuffers may well be regarded as one of the games more simple souls but when he speaks of the finer points of the game in this book, it’s quirky nuances and little phrases, the way he describes how a ball is bowled, the techniques involved….
But football, glorious football? Easy. Score more goals than the other lot do. I understood almost before I could talk. And I was hooked from that moment. In fact millions of us could say exactly the same thing.
And if you wanted to win games you picked a team that had goalscorers in it. And as many as possible – with at least two of them being centre forwards, the alpha males of the game who hunted in pairs, each with their own particular strength that they bought to the side, one that was, quite often, complemented by their partner in goals. Every team had its strike partnership, a pairing who, in many cases, defined that club because, in many cases, it was the pair of them and nine other blokes. The extras.
I’ve just finished a book detailing the ups and downs of the Norwich City teams and players of the 1970s. And boy oh boy, did we have some strike pairings during that decade. The names reel off the tongue like the fine wines they were, uttered and spoken of in hushed, almost reverential terms.
It’s a roll call of distinction, one that can trace its roots right back to the 1950s and beyond when the likes of Ralph Hunt, Johnny Gavin, Terry Allcock and Terry Bly tore apart opposing defences with the happy abandon that came from teams and systems that were top heavy with goalscorers. Their everlasting legacy was ultimately followed by the more traditional pairing of two strikers – Ron Davies and Gordon Bolland; Hugh Curran and John Manning ; Ken Foggo and Peter Silvester; David Cross and Jimmy Bone; Ted MacDougall and Phil Boyer and Kevin Reeves and Justin Fashanu, right up to that vintage of the early Lambert years of Chris Martin and Grant Holt.
Weapons of goalscoring destruction all.
But can we now look back at Holt and Martin and wonder if they are going to end up, as football evolves, as the last great striking partnership that the club can boast, certainly for the foreseeable future?
That fashion for one striker took its toll, as we all noted, on Grant Holt last season. He often cut a lonely, isolated figure in attack, a peripheral figure reduced to looking for the action rather than seeing it brought to him in order that he might deliver the coup de grace – as he did, again and again and again for two consecutive seasons in the lower leagues. Indeed, even in our first season back in the Premier League he was a sight to behold, whether working in tandem with Steve Morison or Simeon Jackson. Their contributions in the 4-2 dismantling of Newcastle just under two years ago illustrated perfectly the ability of good front pairings to win games – especially, as they were on that day, when the creative, pass-finding abilities of a player like Wes Hoolahan are also part of the yellow and green equation.
By then the trend for 4-2-3-1 was already beginning to weave itself around the Premier League, yet, gloriously and without fear, Paul Lambert sent out a side to attack from the off. It was a side short on big stars and big money but it had belief; belief enough to know that the surest means of defence was attack. And how it paid off, not just on that afternoon but in several other fixtures that season. Two strikers, chances galore, goals in abundance.
Yet no-one seems to want to play that way anymore. We certainly don’t.
Because such are the rewards in the game now. Not losing, as I wrote earlier, has become the new winning. The fear of losing seems to be in the process of crippling the game at all levels, no more so than in the Premier League when the rewards of success, currently seen as finishing in 17th place for nearly three quarters of its membership, are only outweighed by the fear of the pending oblivion that might come in failure. IE. Relegation.
And no wonder. In the seven seasons from 2005/06 to 2011/12 inclusive, eighteen different clubs have been relegated from the Premier League. Of that number, just seven have managed to get themselves back again since, less than half – despite the parachute money and despite the fact that relegated clubs always start their first season back in the Championship as the favourites for promotion.
Alan Bowkett won’t be the only club chairman instructing his manager to maintain Premier League status at all costs – it’ll be him and about ten to twelve others. And those clubs will do whatever it takes to preserve that lofty status. If that means club managers setting up not to lose then that’s what they’ll do – and to hell with entertainment, goals and centre forwards.
And, like it or not, you can hardly blame them – no boardroom member, no player and no supporter wants to see their club back in the Championship. Even if it does mean seeing a few more goals in the process.
2-3-5, 4-2-4, 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 5-4-1 and 4-6-0.
With each step of football’s evolutionary process the number of strikers and offensive players in the team has been steadily reduced.
And with its gradual passing we might yet, though we little suspected it at the time, soon look back on Grant Holt and Chris Martin as being amongst the last of their kind.
Because football teams no longer want to win. They want to not lose.
Which is rather sad.
*Brazil being a glorious exception, their 1970 World Cup winning side generally being seen and recognised as the last of the great exponents of the dominant system before 4-4-2, namely 4-2-4 system that was so beloved to wingers with Jairzinho and Rivelino flanking the twin attacking talents of Pele and Tostão in the middle.
ED’S NEW BOOK ‘NORWICH CITY: THE SEVENTIES’ IS NOW AVAILABLE FROM ALL GOOD BOOKSELLERS. THE OFFICIAL LAUNCH OF THE BOOK IS AT JARROLD ON TUESDAY NOVEMBER 12th FROM 6-9PM, PART OF THE JARROLD CHRISTMAS SHOPPING EVENT.