Luis Suarez, and the Rise of the ‘Non-Scoring’ Centre-Forward
Throughout football’s long and storied history, forwards have been judged by how many goals they score. This is regardless of which era they have been a part of or which part of the world they play in. Ask any coach, fan or football journalist by what criteria they judge the forwards in football and their answer will be simple and unequivocal: GOALS! Being the furthest positioned player on the pitch, centre-forwards naturally carry the bulk of the team’s goalscoring burden by being the spearhead of the team’s attack. Even the most vocal extant protagonist of Dutch style “total football”, Pep Guardiola once said “in order for the strikers to score and appear in the papers then the midfielders have to give them a good ball and to do that they, in turn, have to receive a good ball from the defenders, so pass it to us and we pass it on to them” putting the onus for goal scoring clearly with the forwards and framing the other players in the team as the supporting cast.
This state of affairs is a historical certainty and has been the yardstick for judging the great strikers that have gone before: Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Thierry Henry, Delima Ronaldo, e.t.c. all of these players have had more to their game than just goals, but what wrote their name in history and in the collective memory of the footballing world was, their goals. These other aspects of their games being viewed as simply extras or bonuses.
However, the last few years, we have witnessed a sort of revolution in football, one in which the centre-forward is no longer solely judged by the number of goals which he scores but by his all-round game. Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona is not the progenitor of this revolution but is the one that has brought it into focus for me. His goal statistics have been steadily declining for some years now and he is yet to hit his stride so far this season. However, he remains a consistent fixture in Barcelona’s line up and is still considered so important that the only back up to him in Paco Alcacer was sold in the summer. Now, he is banging goals left, right and centre for Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, all the while the person he was backing up still labours in La Liga. So, what exactly does Luis Suarez bring to the team that ensures that he has an undisputed starting place in the line-up even when he is no longer producing the goals so key to a centre-forward?
The revolution is still in its infancy, and so naturally, there isn’t a high quantity of players for our analysis, so I only picked out four such individuals. In looking at this kind of centre-forward, I came up with two broad categories: 1) The binding centre-forward comprising of Olivier Giroud and Luis Suarez, and 2) The dropping centre-forward comprising of Roberto Firmino and Karim Benzema. Of course, there is a certain level of overlap and in some situations, a “dropping forward” could be used to bind opposition defenders and a “binding forward” could also drop to link the play, but the categories I have used above speak in a general sense in which such players are, for the most part, employed.
The Binding Non-Scoring Centre-forward
As earlier mentioned, the strikers who fit into this category are Luis Suarez and Olivier Giroud. They are usually used to “bind” defenders in place by occupying them with their positioning, to the point of blocking the defenders in order to create space for their teammates to exploit between the lines. In Giroud’s case, Eden Hazard fills this role, while for Suarez, it is Lionel Messi seeking to profit from the off-the-ball actions of his centre-forward.
Apart from binding defenders in place with their positioning and runs, Suarez and Giroud act as a focal point around which the team can build their attacks; while using their strength to hold off defenders, they are both adept at one-touch passing and quick flicks in combination play and when the occasion calls for it, intelligent dummies to fool defenders – Suarez’s stock in trade.
Both Giroud and Suarez have not been exactly prolific in the past few years, Suarez still scores in double figures which may not seem so bad, but when taken in context, the steady decline in his goal scoring numbers is obvious
The Dropping Non-Scoring Centre-forward
In this category, I identified the main expositors of this role as Roberto Firmino of Liverpool FC and Karim Benzema of Real Madrid. These strikers like their binding counterparts are not known for being especially prolific but are nonetheless absolutely vital parts of their team’s attacking play. They do this by dropping away from their normal centre-forward positions either into midfield or sometimes out wide, wherever they go, their intent is the same; to overload the area into which they drop and help their team to establish numerical superiority in such areas. Also, to invite the opposition defenders to follow them and open up space for their teammates to exploit for runs in behind as a “rip” is created in the opposition defensive structure.
These movements are ‘Messiesque’. When he was so devastating for Barcelona playing as a false nine, however, unlike Messi, these strikers do not even approach the goal scoring numbers that Messi achieved for Barcelona while fulfilling this role.
Last season, Liverpool’s front three of Mane, Firmino and Salah was one of the most prolific in Europe, of the aforementioned three, Firmino, the nominal centre-forward scored the least amount of goals, but even that was an improvement on his previous seasons with the club.
However, despite his poor goals return, he continually keeps Daniel Sturridge out of the team, someone who is arguably a better goal scorer than him, and once again, we see a striker that is valued not so much for his goal-scoring prowess, but for everything else that he brings to the team.
It’s a slightly similar story with Karim Benzema at Real Madrid, who for several years has had to accommodate his game to his more illustrious teammate in Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese’s unreal goalscoring exploits have overshadowed the quiet work done by the Frenchman that made such goals possible. His ability to link the play, dribble past defenders in tight spaces and create space for Ronaldo to finish have been key to Real Madrid’s success in the past years. In that time, more prolific strikers in Gonzalo Higuain and Alvaro Morata have tried and failed to dislodge him from his place in Madrid’s first team.
Coaches have come and gone from the Los Blancos dugout, from Jose Mourinho to Zinedine Zidane, and now Julen Lopetegui. Despite this, Benzema has remained a constant fixture in Real Madrid’s XI, not because he is the most prolific centre-forward in the world, that honour goes to Tottenham’s Harry Kane, but because he is so good at linking up the play. Not forgetting that he is comfortable dropping outside the box to create space for others and has the technique and quality to find his teammates when they make runs into the space vacated by him.
However, his understanding and ability to combine with Messi and create space for the latter to work with is rivalled perhaps only by fellow Barcelona teammate Sergio Busqests. This ensures that Suarez plays, whether or not he is in-form in front of goal. Unlike Suarez, Giroud has another striker to compete with – Alvaro Morata, and though the Spaniard has not lived up to his price tag, he has still outscored his teammate, so far in their time at the club. In fact, Giroud is yet to score a single goal for Chelsea in any competition this season, while Morata has registered twice in the Premier League and once in the Europa League. The latter turned out to be the match winner against Vidi. Even more damning is the fact that Giroud played the entire World Cup without registering a single shot on target! Still, the striker was amply appreciated even by fans back home after Les Blues returned triumphant from Russia. Morata finds himself playing second fiddle to Giroud, not because of his goals, but because of everything else that Giroud does to help the team play better that he is unable to do.
You may not know it yet, but there is a paradigm shift going on in football right now. When Guardiola took over at Manchester City, he demanded “more” from Sergio Aguero, one of the Premier League’s most prolific forwards. He didn’t mean more goals, he meant more non-goal contributions to the team. We are entering a footballing age where for centre-forwards, scoring goals is no longer enough, and not scoring does not immediately spell failure.
Of course, teams with such centre-forwards will have to find goals from elsewhere and ensure that their players can capitalise on the advantages created by the non-scoring centre-forward, Barcelona have Messi, and so far Hazard has stepped up with the goals for Chelsea. Last season, Mohammed Salah did that job for Liverpool and that is perhaps the reason behind Real Madrid’s goal scoring problems. With Ronaldo’s exit in the summer, Benzema has been asked to play a different role for Los Blancos, but old habits die hard and neither Marco Asensio nor Gareth Bale are able to take advantage of Benzema’s dropping proclivities to the level that Ronaldo was.
In the meantime, welcome to a brave new footballing world, where centre-forwards are no longer judged by how many times their names appear on the score sheet.