Heading for glory

The opening round of fixtures in Poland and Ukraine, have been inundated with missed chances, impotent attacks, and just too much possession. It is a tournament that will rely on the potency of dependable marksmen for their countries, and could see the rebirth of the traditional centre-forward.

In the fluid modern game the old fashioned number nine has been superseded by the combination of the ‘faux nine’: the floating frontman, and the trequartista: a deeper lying goal-scoring forward. The prominence of these two roles has been built on the popularity of less rigid formations incorporating interchangeable, nippy, technically outstanding players, that threaten to make the target man obsolete. Two of the world’s finest goal-getters: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo of course fit these moulds, and between them last season somehow managed to plunder over 130 goals, including record breaking La Liga figures, and they have been part of the revolutionised way that attacking football is now played.

This season has also been a fantastic one for some of the most prolific European number nines, and they are currently showcasing their capabilities on the most important stage of the continent. They range from the talismatic Swede Zlatan Ihbrahimovic, and Pole Robert Lewandowski, to the mercurial goal machines: Karim Benzema and Klass-Jan Huntelaar. They are players oozing class and ability, but also have the responsibility of being the first line of both defence and offence for their countries, and the most pressure on their broad shoulders. It is their presence on the field that can lift an entire nation.

In the past, countries have employed a battering ram of a centre-forward to get themselves an outlet when under the cosh. Two of the most infamous tournament target men were World cup winner: Stephane Guivarc’h, and Euro championship victory goal-scorer Angelos Charisteas. Neither of these front men could ever claim to be prolific in front of goal, nor mobile, but both played integral parts in their nation’s glorious campaigns, giving their teammates relief when under pressure, and ushering the side forwards.

These strikers are more integral for their goal-scoring prowess than their team play. It is the killer touch, that most valuable commodity at a knockout tournament. The opening night of the competition painted a clear picture of this when Lewandowski opened the scoring, thumping a header past the flapping Chalkias, it was one of very few chances for the Poles, yet with the potent Dortmund man on the field they garnered a point from what became a tough contest. Another example of this of course comes in the form of German goal hulk, Mario Gomez. He has the impeccable knack to position himself in the box at all times, and his record for Bayern this season was outrageous. He has however shown time and time again that he is not a team player, and this week he has been criticised for his lack of effort by Bayern legend Mehmet Scholl. He was having an anonymous game against Portugal, and just as he was to be replaced, headed Germany to victory from his favourite six-yard box position. He has his off days, but always persists to find the back of the net, and it will be this potency that could very well be the edge that sees Germany becoming champions of Europe.

There have already been games when the deficiency of a traditional centre forward has cost countries dearly. Both Spain and Italy lined up without recognised centre-forwards in their sides, and although the Spanish played interchangeable, glorious tika taka football, when the ball needed to be whipped into the box, there was no target to be hit. Balotelli and Cassano lined up together for the Italians, but neither is a true centre-forward, and they lacked the composure and nous, when in a dangerous position. It was only when Di Natale was introduced that the Italians had a finisher, and with almost his first touch put his side ahead. Fabregas found the space to equalise, following a sumptuous pass from David Silva, but if Fernando Llorente had spearheaded the attack, it would have been a straightforward victory for the Spanish. He has been in lethal form this season for Bilbao, and he would have given them an outlet, and created more space for his compatriots to buzz around him.

Finally there is the problem of the ineffective lone centre forward. This must sadly include Milan Baros, Nicklas Bendtner and Danny Welbeck. None of this trio are marked out to lead the line on their own for their prospective countries. The Czech Republic, admittedly do not have a glut of talented frontmen, but pinning goal-scoring hopes on a man whose international goal drought currently stands at two years is comparable to Mike Bassett agreeing to let Rufus Smalls take that penalty. He looked desperately shorn of confidence, and ability against Russia, and with this lack of a goal scorer, his country would appear to be among the favourites for an early flight home.

Nicklas Bedntner is unfortunately the only option for Denmark in the centre-forward role. He cannot be questioned on his confidence and level of self-esteem, but his form at times is patchy. There have been times in an Arsenal shirt when he has looked the real deal, but others when his profligacy has cost his side three points. Against the Netherlands he looked short of ideas, and tended to drift deep in search of the ball when his teammates needed him to hold his position. Despite being physically capable, he has never looked comfortable challenging aerially with a robust centre-half, and he was well marshalled by Heitinga. Bedntner’s movement was sloppy, and unrefined, and poor, when playing as a lone frontman, he needed to spend more time in the box than on the wings, and if he had gambled more he would have made the scoreline more flattering for his victorious side.

Finally there is the problem of Danny Welbeck. He has been in sparkling form for his club-side, in what has been his first full season at Manchester United, but this has been playing alongside Rooney or Hernandez. In an England shirt he needs this support, and against France, his partner Ashley Young dropped too deep to help out, leaving him isolated. The defensive manner that England had lined up made it very difficult for Welbeck to play to his strengths, and despite facing a cagey French defence of Mexes and Rami, he didn’t record a single shot.  It was a game that required a more physical presence up front to hustle and harry the wary backline, and would have been tailor made for a player of the sadly retired Dean Ashton’s ilk. A fully on form Any Carroll would have terrified the French defensive five, and when they were worn down and battered, Hodgson should have sent on Welbeck and Defoe to scamper past tired passengers. There is no doubt that Welbeck is talented, but he is not physical capable of playing the lone frontman, and if he continues in this position, England may find it difficult to make it to the knock-out rounds.

As the tournament progresses, the footballing community will no doubt be given a masterclass on finishing by the continent’s best front-men. They will be the difference between glory and despair, and more likely than not, a hero will come to the fore, just when their country needs him most.