Even with evolution, what makes a good striker, nigh a good footballer is continually trivialized to statistics by some worrying sections of football fans. Yes, stats can be an indication, but stats never tell the full story of a footballer’s value or impact.
I might belong to a breed that jettisons stats almost every time, but I will subscribe to it if needed.
One position that numbers continue to fundamentally matter to is the role of the Centre Forward - the stat that matters; goals and to a lesser degree conversion rate.
Over the years, formation and tactics have evolved - from the days of Ferenc Puskas where teams were playing outrageous formations like 1-2-5 with inside left forwards and whatnot. Football tactics are now both an art and science, incorporating tenets of vision, emotional intelligence and responsibility.
Unless you're José Mourinho, it has gone past 'you need a goal, play 2 strikers'. It's about emotional awareness and X-Ray vision to spot what makes the opponent tick; nigh weaknesses most people wouldn't spot.
A few months ago, in the thick of Manchester City’s molestation of the entire league, I watched analysis of Everton vs. Manchester City, it was funny how Pep Guardiola used Everton's design to play high up the pitch, leaving just Morgan Schneiderlin, as the only non-defender in and around midfield.
What he did was simple; whenever Ederson had to kick the ball, Leroy Sane or Sterling switch into centre midfield to take the ball, and set off on magical counter attacks. It was a pure joy to witness.
With this evolution in football, teams realize goals win games. Thus, more emphasis is mostly placed on attacking than almost anything else. The advent of this is that almost every contemporary player of this generation is required to have some attacking/ball playing instinct - even Centre Backs.
Inevitably, with the existence of Frank Lampard, Francesco Totti, Fernando Hierro, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes, Central midfielders now have huge goalscoring responsibilities. Football Academies around the world train the minds of Central Midfielders to drift into the box for late runs, and score goals.
In England, the worrying standard of stiff footballers is shedding away its last vestiges. Expectedly, wingers are now as expected to score goals as much as strikers. In fact, it's scarce to see typical run-to-the-byline-and-cross wingers anymore in European Football.
They're now more like inverted forwards - breaching offside traps, having almost as much box presence and possessing as much threat as Centre forwards. In this modern day, would be wingers like Ronaldo - the revolution himself, Salah, Messi - previously, Bale, Sterling, Robben and so forth even outdo Centre Forwards – sometimes, those in their respective teams.
Today, strikers like Benzema and currently, Firmino continue to bend and warp what a Centre forward means. Historically, a Centre Forward was referred as such because the impression was that the middle harbours most action, thus a man with natural goalscoring instincts is likely to excel and put his skills/instincts to use there.
It was right for a moment. I however think it later evolved to teams playing to the striker and overloading the middle to get goals, than the action being inevitably in the middle - a subconscious conviction, inspiring action and faux fact finding. It’s also aided by how goals win games and how the goalpost is in the middle of a pitch.
If they had attempted to create chances from the wings in the old days too, they would have created as much chances and scored as much goals from the wings.
In fact, Ferenc Puskas was not really a Centre Forward – he was an Inside Forward, yet he scored more goals than a fair bit of strikers. Yes, I can't really blame that mindset as there will always be a place for evolution - the would-be dictator/custodian of changes and improvement. Nonetheless, this role of the modern day Wingers/Inverted Forwards didn't start in the '90s.
Back to the matter
The evolution of tactics now demand increased activity and participation from all sides of the pitch. A man with goal scoring instincts can now be anywhere across the frontline – all he needs to excel; intelligent movement, positioning and a great sense of timing.
There are still archetypal Centre Forwards, but how long will the role of the centre forward, as the major hope of goals hold sway of goals in football?
Probably not for long, but the goalpost will always be in the Centre of the byline, as such, the guy with a great goal scoring instinct will always be shoved right there, but the greatest hope for goals does not have to be the Centre Forward anymore – these days, the Centre Forward is starting to look like another attacking footballer who work best in the middle while the greatest hope for goals might be him or the guys on the sides or even the guy behind the Centre Forward.
As I watched Roberto Martínez's pre game analysis for Spurs vs. Manchester City - a few weeks after the Everton vs. Manchester City game - where he moved the virtual screen representation of Son, Allí, Kane and Lamela, all over the place for attacking analysis, I had to ask this question; why? Because it seems anyone - asides the striker now has license and responsibility to roam into goalscoring positions, so far as he's got tactical awareness and tactical discipline - and therein lies another answer to my query.
Yes, modern football tactics also demand other players to hold position and cover for more their advanced teammates who surge into goalscoring positions to prevent counter attacks and that means Centre Forwards might constantly act as positional cover/filler when their teammates, with equally quality goalscoring instinct run into space.
That said, while it could be said that the place of a striker - as a goalscoring threat - will never be obsolete, the truth is that, what the future holds could include;
1. The Centre Forward’s job description and responsibility to always score goals might change – it’s already changing. This responsibility will now be shared by all footballers, positionally and tactically north of the Defensive Midfielder(s) - especially those footballers ahead of the Centre Midfielders.
2. What makes a striker is his goalscoring instinct. In fact, most footballers' positions will always be primarily determined by instincts first, and secondly skill level. Sometimes, footballers hone skills based on the positions assigned them early on in their careers, but I believe if your instincts were not suited in some way, you might find it hard excel there.
Unless future technology also manages to make goalposts subject to flexible positional ubiquity other than the Centre of the byline, the most activity will always be in and around the box - the centre.
What contemporary wingers like Ronaldo will most likely inspire is better emotional intelligence from academy Coaches, not to stick players with huge goalscoring instincts on the flanks or in midfield. They will most likely have demands to spot these players early and stick them in the Centre, regardless of their physical size or pace – key factors in recruiting strikers for scouts.
Even now, footballers like Salah and Ronaldo, who show goalscoring instincts early on, despite their flair and pace - atypically more suited to the flanks, or small stature – a usual red flag for scouts scouting Centre forwards, will end up playing as Centre Forwards early on in their careers.
3. Level of talent will also play a role; some footballers are more talented than others. In football, the wing will never be obsolete. Someone will always play from there and he/she will always have better demands of technical skills, flair, pace and the ability to be more elusive than others.
Thus, certain flair footballers, even while imbued with natural goal instincts might remain on the wing. More so, stature will also determine positions naturally skilled footballers play more often than not. Yes, football is evolving and the ball is played more on the ground, but Centre Forwards are still big, mean and strong.
Most people won't stick a 5'7 frame between two 6'4 Centre Back frames, with 84kg of solid meat - I'm talking muscle and flesh.
Am I saying we have reached the epoch of football evolution? No. Where we are is however instructive on the future. Thus, we can speculate. The Centre Forward might currently carry reduced goalscoring burden and share his box and goalscoring positions with other advanced footballers, but usually, he will always carry the a great burden of goals.
Why? Until some changes and this era inspires radical changes across football academies on what a Centre Forward should be physically, and it becomes more about skill and instincts, the Centre Forward will most likely have the greatest goalscoring responsibility, with teams built to play to his strengths.
That said, the future Centre Forward will own that position upon greater scrutiny that will ascertain he possesses greater goal instincts than most, and he is most suited to that role. It might be that the ‘Ccentre Forward’ might become more like a position than the greatest source of goals, but what makes a centre forward will forever be instinct.
Nonetheless, there will always be teams where wingers carry as much or even more goals instinct than the striker. I am not sure what the future holds, but for now, I believe the Ronaldos and Salahs will always exist. Likewise, the Lewandowskis will also always exist. We might just see more Salahs play Centre Forward from early stages in their career.