From Van Persie to Suarez to Falcao: The Anatomy of a Perfect Striker
If the possibility existed to build a striker from scratch—a Frankenstein-like amalgamation—with the ability to pick any characteristics available, which ones would be needed to create the perfect striker?
Taking a look at the world’s elite strikers from the past two decades, here are the qualities that would have to be included.
Many strikers, especially at a young age, achieve success because they happen to be the fastest player on the pitch, possessing the kind of tremendous pace which allows them to simply run past defenders. Those who can harness that speed, control the ball at speed and learn to finish the chances that speed creates have the ability to become world-class strikers.
One of the best examples of a striker/winger in the world of football today who dominates the game with his speed is Arsenal’s Theo Walcott.
Many of Walcott’s 66 professional goals have come as a result of his stunning pace—and ability to control the ball while running at speed.
Like speed, strength is often a natural ability and often helps young players dominate the game at the youth level. Again, like speed, if a player can learn to use that strength to hold the ball up under pressure, bully opponents in the air and out-muscle defenders for the ball, they can become a world-class talent.
One of the best examples in recent memory of a striker who uses their strength to dominate opponents is Didier Drogba. Drogba’s ability to score off a header, a thundering set-piece, or simply running through a center defender was key to Chelsea’s success for most of the past decade.
Perhaps the most important ability any perfect striker would have to possess is technical mastery. While speed and strength give any player an advantage, without the technical prowess to finish their chances, a striker holds little value.
Robin van Persie is a terrific example of the type of player who is a technical maestro. No one would pick Van Persie for their team based on his strength or speed, but his quality is undeniable. He can score with his head, a perfectly placed shot into the side netting, on free kicks or in the type of tight spaces where most other strikers wouldn’t even try to shoot. Many of his 25 goals for Manchester United this season have been jaw-dropping.
Movement off the Ball
While this quality is difficult to quantify, any truly great striker has the ability to see and create space for themselves. Whether that is by sitting off the shoulder of a center-back looking to get in behind, making a diagonal run across the defense, checking back for the ball or by ghosting into the penalty area unseen to poach a goal, movement off the ball is critical.
Competitiveness and Work Rate
Some players seem to have the ability to score goals through nothing other than pure determination. One goal that comes to mind from recent memory that demonstrates that concept is Ivica Olic's in the 2009-10 Champions League quarterfinals.
With the game tied 1-1 in the 92nd minute, Mario Gomez was driving through the Manchester United defense when he was seemingly fouled. Olic, however, didn’t turn to the official to remonstrate, instead continuing the play and taking advantage of some lax defending by Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand to ghost into the box, steal the ball and calmly deposit it in United’s net, winning the game.
While few would classify Olic as a world-class striker, another player who has demonstrated that type of fierce competitiveness through much of his career is Wayne Rooney. While Rooney is talented enough to beat a defense with his tremendous skill set, many of his goals are seemingly generated from pure willpower and the fiery competitiveness which burns deep inside him.
No matter how technically skilled a player might be on the training ground, the ability to finish one’s chances when the pressure is on separates the men from the boys. Which player on the field has the ability, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer-style, to come up with the winner when the chips are down and the clock is almost up? Which player is the manager and the fans alike counting on to get the goal when the game is on the line?
One recent example that comes to mind of fantastic composure in the highest-pressure environment is the brace scored by Diego Milito in the 2010 Champions League final as Inter Milan beat Bayern Munich 2-0.
On Milito’s first goal, with one defender closing him down from behind, another defender closing him down on the left and goalkeeper Hans-Jorg Butt coming off his line, Milito calmly took a little stutter step under immense pressure and with seemingly no time or space to do so. The little step was just enough to freeze Butt in his tracks and give Milito the angle he needed to calmly slot the ball home.
When Milito scored again, he torched Daniel Van Buyten on the dribble before once again calmly settling himself and beating Butt.
Another recent example is Sergio Aguero’s goal against Queens Park Rangers last year. On the final day of the season, with Manchester United seconds away from winning the league, Aguero found himself a bit of space on the left side of the QPR box, juked his defender and slotted home to win the game and the EPL title for Manchester City in the 94th minute.
And finally, another great example is Didier Drogba’s 88th-minute header against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final last May. After a magical run through the Champions League, including a stunning comeback against Napoli in the Round of 16 and an unlikely victory over Barcelona in the semifinals, Chelsea found itself down 1-0 to Bayern Munich in the finals in Bayern’s own stadium. Drogba scored the late goal to force overtime on a powerful header and then, to top it all off, he scored the game-winning penalty in the shootout to win the trophy for Chelsea.
The ability of strikers like Drogba, Aguero and Milito to avoid that bit of panic that all other mortal strikers feel in those moments puts them among the best of the best.
Ability to Achieve Greatness in Multiple Leagues
While this isn’t a deal breaker in putting together a striker, as no one in their right mind would deny Lionel Messi’s greatness despite playing his entire career for Barcelona, it is still a good quality to have.
Each of the big leagues in Europe has a style (whether accurate or not) that it is known for. Italy is known for Catenaccio, the English for a fast-paced game full of speed and power, the Germans for their defense, organization and counterattacking and the Spanish for their free-flowing, possession-oriented style.
When Cristiano Ronaldo moved from Manchester United to Real Madrid in 2009, he didn’t stay at the high level of performance he established at United—he improved.
The same cannot be said, however, of Andriy Shevchenko. Shevchenko, who was the second all-time leading scorer for AC Milan and had helped the team win the league, the Champions League and, for himself, the Ballon d’Or, only managed to score nine league goals in two years at Chelsea, never fully settling into the squad and struggling to adapt to the style of play in the English Premier League.
1 v. 1 Skill
Perhaps no player in the world exemplifies 1 v. 1 talent like Cristiano Ronaldo. While not a true striker in the No. 9 mold, Ronaldo is still without a doubt one of the most feared goalscorers in the world.
Ronaldo’s pace, touch and, most importantly, ability to combine the two at full speed, makes him a threat to go the length of the field at any given moment. And every defender knows that if they stab, or even get caught off-balance for the slightest moment, Ronaldo will be behind them.
Of course, none of this is an attempt to over-simplify Ronaldo’s talent. Like many of the strikers already named, Ronaldo’s abilities go far beyond any one particular talent. Ronaldo has proved time and time again that he can score in a multitude of ways.
One that comes to mind was his fantastic header against Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow when he rose over Michael Essien and fired a header past Petr Cech for United’s goal.
One of the greatest qualities a striker can have is to see something that no one else on the field, or the stands, can see. And one of the greatest examples of this is the goal scored by Dennis Bergkamp against Newcastle in 2002.
In fact, the goal itself almost defies explanation—it’s much better to just watch it yourself.
All great strikers have an almost inherent belief that they are invincible. Or, at least, that the normal limitations on what is humanly possible, simply don’t apply to them.
But, to bring Falcao into the discussion, one of the most audacious attempts on goal ever taken in a football match has to be Falcao’s spectacular scissor kick from 15 yards out last May against America de Cali, which Falcao deposited on a rope into the upper 90 of the net.
Lionel Messi is another player who seemingly has no fear of missing, leading him to become a master of the close-distance chip shot. Over the past decade, Messi’s performances have become so dominant and routine that they have been taken for granted.
While Messi is yet another player who can score in a great many ways, his mastery of the chip shot seemingly defies the laws of physics. Despite the fact that every keeper knows it is coming, Messi is still able to bait them off their line, wait for them to go into their slide and then, just at the last second, dink the ball over them and into the net.
While plenty of players are capable of the chip, what separates Messi is the regularity in which he uses it and his ability to do it from seemingly any angle while off-balance and running at nearly full speed.
A final example of a striker’s audacity can be found in the 2006 World Cup. In the Round of 16, an aging Ronaldo scored one of the gutsiest (crazy) goals for the game-winner against Ghana. After being sent in on a breakaway, Ronaldo decided to use a scissor move to beat the goalkeeper and shoot the ball into the empty net before the Ghanaian defense could close down the shot. The goal put Ronaldo atop all World Cup goalscorers in history.
A Touch of Crazy
While it can be both wildly entertaining and maddening at the same time, fans are usually forced to accept that most world-class strikers are also a bit off-balance mentally.
Luis Suarez is a great (horror) example of this, twice biting players on the pitch, serving a lengthy ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra and, in one of his more rational acts of insanity, cheating in the World Cup by punching the ball off the line in Uruguay’s quarterfinal matchup against Ghana.
Mario Balotelli is another player who comes to mind when the crazy genius tag is applied, as he can be absolutely brilliant on the pitch while also almost burning down his own house shooting fireworks off at 1 a.m., struggling to put a training bib on in pregame warm-ups and once being pulled off in the 29th minute of a preseason friendly after trying to backheel in a breakaway.
But perhaps the craziest of all brilliant strikers is former Manchester United frontman, Eric Cantona. Cantona, in a now-famous incident from 1995, went into the stands to “kung-fu” kick a Crystal Palace supporter and earned an eight-month ban.
In a press conference following his sentencing to 120 hours of community service for the incident, Cantona infamously, and confusingly, said, “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea,” before walking away from reporters.
As crazy as Cantona could be, any United fan will tell you that he could also be brilliant and score goals that will forever go down in lore, not only for Manchester United, but in the history of football.
One of his most memorable goals came against Sunderland in 1996, which he celebrated by simply looking at the Old Trafford crowd and waiting for them to acknowledge his genius.
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