This story first appeared in the January 2015 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
Throughout history, the superstars of football have generally been the centre forwards. The goalscorers, match-winners – the figurehead of the team. From Pele, Eusebio, Gerd Muller, Romario and Ronaldo to the modern day greats Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi - the strikers have always attracted the plaudits.
But over the past few years Arsène Wenger has noticed a definite decline in the quantity of top-class centre forwards. Arsenal were linked to a host of attackers during the summer, but in the end the manager revealed that none were available of the required standard to star in the Champions League and Premier League. It's a complaint echoed by other top mangers across the continent. So where have all the strikers gone?
What is behind the lack of genuine number nines in the modern game, and what can be done to buck the trend? It's a subject Arsène has given considerable thought to recently, and the boss shared them exclusively with the Official Arsenal Magazine.
You have mentioned this season that there are fewer strikers around at the top level than previously. Why do you think this is?
It's certainly down to the education of the players. We have gone for a more technical education from a very young age, and the quality of the pitches has become much better too. So you kick the ball forward less and you develop less of that kind of fighting spirit that strikers need.
You are dealing with fewer higher balls, using your body well. Instead the strikers receive the ball in more areas that a midfielder. Also there are less crosses than before, the ball is played on the ground more. Overall maybe life is not as tough as it was before for the striker. They are more protected now.
Before they were always ready for a fight. The fact they are better protected now means they score more goals, certainly, the number of people who develop that kind of aggressiveness of commitment is reduced.
When did you first start to notice it?
You notice it first of all when you are on the transfer market! We are quite lucky though because we have Giroud, Walcott, Welbeck and Sanchez, but when you look around on the transfer market you see that it's a rarity.
When I arrived in England you could see in every club a forward who could head the ball, who was dangerous on the crosses and who was highly committed physically. But when you look around now, you see that less. It makes you think 'what's going on there?' Then when you look to Europe and see who scores most of the goals, you realise a lot of them are South American.
So it started coming into my mind, and I must say it's become a debate lately. I have raised it a few times, and people accept it.It raises the question 'what can we change in the education?'
Have we to create schools for the strikers?
Yes, I'm personally convinced that we have to do that, like we do with goalkeepers. We want to develop the players more specifically at a younger age. Naturally they are playing less in the park, less in the street and that's where you develop that kind of shrewdness.
The level of the Premier League has become so high that the transition from the academy to the Premier League becomes more and more difficult, unless you have exceptional talent. Maybe the best way is to build a bridge between the academies and the top level Premier League sides, this bridge could be in the lower leaguesArsène Wenger
When you play in the street you might be 10 years old, playing against someone who is 15 years old, so you have to be more shrewd. But today the academies are more categorized, so you develop less of these kind of qualities.
Are Arsenal going down that road of coaching strikers more individually? Yes, I think we have to go down that road. We are not organised yet as to what age category we should do it from, but I believe we have to go down that road. Well Thierry Henry is currently coaching the youth players…. Yes, of course Thierry can help to develop the young boys when he is with them, but I believe it's not only the strikers who can coach that.
Strikers have the little tricks, but for the overall education you need coaches who can develop that.
Does it worry or sadden you to see fewer strikers, or do you think it's just part of the evolution of football?
We are going more to a handball style of play, where the teams regroup so quickly when they lose the ball that you are confronted with 10 against 10. You might develop a different kind of striker.
But as well let's not forget that if you face that kind of situation, and you cant get through on the ground, sometimes you need the aerial route as well. So I still believe in all types of strikers. Football is great because no matter how tall or how small you are, if you are good enough, you have a chance.
If you are intelligent enough to use your strengths, you have a chance. I believe we have to continue to develop the technical level, but as well as the desire to fight. You teach them not to only wait for the perfect ball, to use your body well, to provoke your defenders.
What's terrible as well, and where the alert comes from, is that because we have fewer strikers, you also find there are fewer central defenders. It looks like the rarity of the strikers is linked to the rarity of the central defenders. The less you give them problems, the less they develop their game as well.
So soon we will just be left with lots of technical midfielders?!
Yes, just with midfielders, and the ultimate example of that was that Spain became world champions, basically with Cesc Fabregas as a centre forward in some games. Germany as well played with six midfielders when they won it.
They were all top, top quality technically, but less with a typical striker. Do you think Spain and Germany played without a typical striker because they were forced to, or because they found it more effective not to have one? I believe once the technical level goes up everywhere in the middle of the park, they also want a technical player up front.
But also, maybe they didn't find a striker who could make the runs in behind that they wanted. They went to the extreme of their theory, and try to see if it works. Of course they had incisive midfielders though, so it looks like when you play this kind of game, incisiveness and penetration has to come from the middle of the park.
For this to succeed though you need to be absolutely top, top level technically. Sometimes it doesn't work because for example, when South Africa beat Spain in the World Cup, they did it by playing very deep and waiting for them. The top scorers in Europe over the past few years are Messi and Ronaldo, but they didn't start as strikers.
Will the forwards of the future first of all be developed as wingers?
Well Messi and Ronaldo were certainly both wingers at first, I agree, and they developed their dribbling capacity in a very short space. That's a very important quality, I've always said that. We have another example - Thierry Henry started as a winger where he developed his technique, then afterwards he could dribble and that became a weapon as a striker as well.
All three of them are very intelligent players, so they used their capacity well. Overall all three have pace in their brain and can run at people. But they are not specifically players who had a traditional way of striking - of holding the ball up, of looking for impossible headers on crosses. They are more players who depend on accurate passing around them where they can use their pace and clinical finishing.
Jamie Vardy was playing non-league football five years ago, is his ability a result of the less refined academies and youth coaching at that level?
Yes, we see more and more of these guys. It's quite amazing, we see more players from the lower leagues in England. You would be amazed if you counted the number of players who had been down the leagues, but have come up and also played for the national team.
That's a big surprise for me, but I see exactly the same phenomenon in France. You have players like Koscielny, Giroud and Ribery who have gone through the lower divisions. They come through the lower leagues where they have had to fight, but they come up again. They had to show mental toughness, the motivation. They are not on the motorway where they just glide though to reach a Champions League team.
So could the lower leagues replace park and street football as breeding grounds for strikers?
Maybe this is a solution where some players can find a way through to the top level.
Well firstly the level of the Premier League has become so high that the transition from the academy to the Premier League becomes more and more difficult, unless you have exceptional talent. Maybe the best way is to build a bridge between the academies and the top level Premier League sides, this bridge could be in the lower leagues. I don't necessarily mean the Championship, because it is difficult for our young players to play there too.
But maybe League One and League Two. There is no shame in that for a young player - show me you can deal with football at that level and then come up again. I'm not really talking about loan deals, personally I prefer feeder clubs. The problem with loan deals is that managers will naturally favour his own permanent player whenever there is a 50/50 decision, unless the loan player is at a much higher level. So if we could manage that ourselves, it would be more efficient.
Finally, will this trend ever be reversed? Can you see a see a time when teams go back to 4-4-2? You can never rule it out, because the 4-4-2 formation is basically the best way to occupy the field from a mathematical perspective, on length and width. In 4-4-2 you have 60 per cent of the players covering 60 per cent of the surface. And you have 40 per cent on the flanks, which is 40 per cent of the pitch.
So rationally it makes sense as the best mathematical solution. The only difference is how high up or how deep the second striker plays. That is also linked to the quality of the player. For example when I arrived at Arsenal, Dennis Bergkamp played higher, but when he was over 32, he dropped off much more and Thierry Henry played higher. It was a disguised 4-4-2, so it could come back in some form, and I certainly think it will.Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source