If we scour the top scorers charts of all the European big leagues it is clear that a certain type of player is dominating the rankings, not conventional strikers but more support strikers who, with the death of the 4-4-2, have converted to the lone striker role. Clearly Messi and Ronaldo play as part of a front three, but it is a rotating front three that often sees both players spear-heading the attacks. Messi has played as a false nine and Ronaldo often switches with Benzema to play down the middle for Madrid, despite both players beginning as wide men. RVP also began as a support striker or a winger, and Rooney and Aguero also operate as goal scoring support strikers come lone strikers when their sides play one up top.
ClubGoalsAssistsDribbles per gamePasses per gameKey passesRonaldoReal Madrid44121.837.31.6MessiBarcelona46164.964.72.6RVPArsenal28220.127.116.11AgueroMan City2271.625.21.6IbrahimovicAC Milan266245.62.6RooneyMan United264151.41.5
If we assess all of the data in the above table we can see that the player share some characteristics. Notably they complete far more dribbles per game than typical players such as poachers who tend to all record less than one dribble per game. Diego Milito only records 0.2 dribbles per game for example.
As well as this the players all record a relatively high number of passes per game which indicates how involved they get in all-round play, as well as just through scoring goals. Compare their high passing rate to that of Mario Gomez who only completes 15 passes per game.
The number of assists as well as key passes also confirms this as the players not only score crucial goals but bring into play other attacking players. Essentially this role is the forward performing the duties of both a number 9 striker as well as a playmaking number 10.
This coincides with two tactical trends, firstly, the decline in the use of the two man strike partnership. United as well as City do operate with two up top at times but it’s usually with Rooney behind Wellbeck and Aguero behind Dzeko/Balotelli, however in big games both sides usually opt for just Rooney and Aguero, without the player in front. Milan also play Ibrahimovic with Robinho, but this is hardly a conventional two man strike force such as the archetypal in Yorke and Cole for instance.
The second tactical trend being the decline of the trequista, or number 10 play-maker. Players such as Rui Costa, Zidane etc who dictate the game from the middle of the pitch behind a forward are definitely in decline. Now sides often use inverted forwards, players who can influence the game from wider positions coming inside and out, as they are more difficult to pick up, for example Mata or Silva. The creativity is expected to come from other positions rather than just in-behind the striker.
We can argue that these players now encompass the characteristics of both a poacher and of a trequista playmaker. RVP for example has recorded a large number of assists often with great craft such as his through ball against Blackburn to assist Oxlade-Chamberlain, as well as scoring ‘poachers goals’ such as tap-ins that we wouldn’t usually associate with such a technically gifted player. RVP has previously spoken about how he himself was not confident of converting to a central striker, but clearly the move has paid dividends. Below is a heat map for RVP versus Wolves earlier this season which shows how involved he gets across the middle area of the pitch as well as the heat spot for him in the opposition penalty area:
This is in stark contrast to Mario Gomez heat map for the recent defeat to Dortmund:
Gomez is as previously stated a quintessential poacher rather than the converted support striker that RVP is which explains why RVP’s heat map demonstrates a wider range of positions.
These forwards often drop deep to get involved in the midfield as well as then getting forward and getting into the box or running on the shoulder of the last man. Rooney for example when playing with Wellbeck in-front of him often attacks from deep and is comfortable slotting into a 5 man midfield.
Ibrahimovic is a very good technical footballer and again can comfortably link up with midfield players and bring in the likes of Robinho or Pato to great effect, as his high number of assists indicate. Generally speaking all of the players listed are very good technically, clearly comfortable on the ball as well as off it.
The emphasis on strikers to do more than just score now is most evident with players such as these, who I’d argue represent the future for World class forwards. These players both score goals and create, dropping deep when required to help out their midfield in central as well as wide positions and getting into the six yard box to score ‘strikers’ goals when required.
Ronaldo is probably the most complete player here, able to operate on either flank or up top, can score a wide range of goals, headers, long range strikes, set-pieces and tap-ins. He could conceivably play as a number 9, 10 or a winger at a very, very high level.
Messi is a bit of an exception however as he has played often as a false nine with players like Sanchez running in behind him to take up central positions from wide, rather than himself looking to get into the six yard box off the ball. His incredibly high number of dribbles show that he is basically a midfield creator, a number 9 and a winger rolled into one and it is this that makes him arguably the best player of his generation.
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All stats from whoscored.com and heat maps taken from ESPN Soccernet