On Monday Night Football, guest analyst Craig Bellamy correctly pointed out about how Didier Drogba had changed the striker’s position forever.
Everyone tends to play the one up top now, he will tend to be a combination of height, strength and power with a hopeful bonus of speed that crops up in some of the younger players. It works for some teams, it has shifted the quicker players out wide and has dynamically changed how teams play.
However, I would like to argue the point that teams are moving forwards with this model and the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 style because of the changes in how wide men play, rather than how the front man has morphed into a physical behemoth.
Let us start where they did on Monday night, back in the 2004-05 season when Drogba first came to Stamford Bridge. In that season, he scored 10 goals in 26 league appearances with eight coming off the bench as he split time with Eidur Gudjohnsen, who got 12 in 37.
They are by no means measly goal totals, especially for his first season in English football, but once you start seeing where the other goals came from, the picture becomes a little more clear.
Frank Lampard led all goalscorers with 13 goals. Some may think that because he’s a midfielder that it doesn’t show how wingers influenced the games but taking out some of his individual finishes, the “classic” Lampard goal comes from a cutback as he ghosts into the edge of the box.
A type of ball, usually, played by a wide man getting to the byline and creating the chance.
In that record title-winning season, they essentially rotated three wingers when they were fit, Arjen Robben, Joe Cole and Damien Duff. They scored seven, eight and six goal respectively, very healthy totals from wingers that were a little different from what we were accustomed to in a 4-4-2.
They enjoyed cutting inside a little more, they enjoyed creating the space in behind from advanced positions rather than taking players on (although they certainly did that too). That was the original role of the second forward but with players doing it on either wing as they were given less defensive responsibility that they would have had in the former in-vogue formation.
The main striker had to be morphed into a target man, much like they discussed on Monday Night Football, to accomodate those buzzing around him in those areas. However, it was still those quick wingers that changed that, Drogba was just the ideal forward man that could perform that role and score goals.
The growth of the defensive midfielder has also helped mould that. A central player willing to stay deep and distribute to those around him that are better in advanced areas allowed wingers to be covered when they ventured forward, sometimes with a box-to-box midfielder who would do all the running or even a second DM in a 4-2-3-1.
It also opened the role of the advanced playmaker, adapted to the number 10 role for some teams, who would get you those vast amount of goals that the second, quicker striker used to pick up. Lampard scored 20 goals in the 2005-06 season as Chelsea won the title again, with Drogba only beginning to pick up steam as their top scorer the season they finished second.
That’s not to say Drogba didn’t change things with his incredible play but pacey strikers still have a role. Look at the successes of Sergio Aguero, Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann, who do have a decent amount of strength for their size, but also have advanced wingers that support them much like bigger forwards do.
This is never to say that 4-4-2 is dead, it’s not too long ago when it was used regularly by Sir Alex Ferguson when he could and there are always reasons to experiment with what works best with the players at your disposal.
In fact, the 4-3-3’s we see are always adapted from that 4-4-2, shifting some of the faster forwards out wide and giving a playmaker more freedom by adding a shield.
That quicker striker no longer has to face that strong, powerful defender that can occasionally bully him in matches, he gets to face the also pacey full-back but he can cut inside and use the runs in behind. That’s where it has significantly changed, as wingers are much more advanced and look to be played in behind.