Football is a grown-up sport now, and its various tactical roles have matured alongside it.
Centre-backs have mellowed out a bit from aggressive stoppers and now like to spray it about a bit, and the box-to-box midfielder has accepted that you’ll get nowhere charging around the centre of the park forever – the role of the goalkeeper has even had its own midlife crisis of sorts, although instead of learning how to make home-brewed lager it involves pushing up to the halfway line.
When it comes to this coming-of-age story, the modern day striker is almost unique. Certainly, the exuberant, energetic ‘classic’ forward would have a hard time recognising himself in the contemporary ‘nine and a half’ – you have to wonder what on earth Nat Lofthouse would make of Roberto Firmino – but at the same time, Firmino is the latest representative of a position where some of the old habits die hard.
Something which, though perhaps getting a little old itself as terminology, helps us draw a through line from the infancy of the striker position to its adulthood is the idea of the ‘second striker’.
The beauty of hindsight is that it seems obvious that a football team cannot simply play a flat bank of two or more advanced forwards – there has to be somebody in the attack responsible for linking play, for shuttling back and forward from the midfield, playing with their back to goal, creating space and doing the occasional bit of defensive work.
And yet in the youthful enthusiasm of the sport’s earliest days, an entire five ultra-direct forwards was more or less ubiquitous in the 2-3-5 formation which dominated the tactical outlook (or lack thereof) of the newly-codified game.
Someone had to come along and get football to buck up its ideas, and that man was Herbert Chapman, the father of modern football formations whose wisdom in inventing the ‘W-M’ formation (3-2-2-3) was to make use of the spaces between the forward line and the midfield in the two ‘inside forwards’ that he pulled back from the front five.
There was nothing explicit in Chapman’s theory about supporting the striker, or using the striker as support, but the powerful implications of his ‘discovery’ were regarded with interest by other footballing nations, and it wasn’t long before the children of the W-M began to experiment with their own notions of auxiliary attackers.
Brazil pushed up one of their inside forwards as the ponta de lança at the 1938 World Cup, Austria had the ghostly figure of the great striker Matthias Sindelar flitting between the lines, and Hungary most famously turned the revised W-M against the nation which birthed it in their 6-3 victory over England in 1953, where the withdrawn forward Nándor Hidegkuti ran riot as the Three Lions could not figure out who was meant to be marking him.
All very different tweaks of the traditional forward line, but all ones which led to the same conclusion as football began to progress beyond its adolescence – there was much more to being a striker than scoring goals, and you could be an extremely effective one by operating deeper in the pitch.
Of course, the whole notion of a ‘second striker’ comes from the deeper forward in a traditional 4-4-2, and as four at the back became the norm, many teams would look to build an effective strike partnership, some where a physical target man would look to play in a nippy forward (roles respectively played by John Toshack and Kevin Keegan at Liverpool in the 1970s), others where the selflessness of a smaller, intelligent second striker would create openings for another (as with Tostão and Pelé at the1970 World Cup)
But even if the number of attackers up front wasn’t exactly two, the thinking behind the second striker could be seen in other innovations of the era – Johan Cruyff wasn’t the type to play second fiddle to anyone, but was predictably ahead of his time in appearing to start out as a number nine, but dropping into midfield to flummox defenders with his dribbling (but more on that later…)
As the archetype of the striker got older, it got trendier, and it even had the slightly questionable dalliance with an indie phase to show for it, as the responsibilities of the second striker were increasingly synonymous with the iconic number 10 of Roberto Baggio, Zinedine Zidane and Zvonimir Boban after the transition from 4-4-2 to 3-4-1-2 in Serie A of the 1990s.
The positional lines were blurred as the robust, hardworking deep-lying forward was supplanted by the languid trequartista role which pushed the auxiliary striker’s duties closer to that of an attacking midfielder, and it was only when the second striker lost the ponytail and started to think bigger that the ambitions of the role truly accommodated the current epoch of football.
Though the number 10 survived the 2000s (despite Juan Roman Riquelme sometimes appearing to nod off midway through a match), the grown-up game was appropriately increasingly conservative in its outlook, asking that players stick to detailed positional instructions rather than floating around the pitch with limited defensive duties.
The genius of Pep Guardiola’s ‘False Nine’ was that it used a nostalgic form, adapted from the gleeful excesses of Sindelar, Hidegkuti and later Cryuff, to take advantage of this parsimonious paranoia.
Lionel Messi, as Barcelona’s ‘second striker’, wasn’t really an out-and-out striker at all, forcing players to crowd around him in the centre of the park by dropping back into midfield, which in turn gave Barcelona’s dangerous wingers the luxury of plenty of space, and the best playmaker in the history of football looking to find them.
As with the progenitors of the role, it confused the hell out of defenders, and was Guardiola’s party trick for big games, you needed a pretty good player to emulate the combination of positional sense, high-speed dribbling and playmaking which made Messi perfect for the job, and plenty of clubs have effectively blunted their attack by experimenting with a false nine whose lack of quality robs them of a forward altogether.
This is where we reach the most fully-realised embodiment of the second striker yet in Liverpool’s Firmino, a player who has occasionally been derided as symptomatic of a role entering its autumn years – poachers are the in-thing once more, Robert Lewandowski is the best striker in Europe, so what’s the point of structuring your attack around a relatively modest goalscorer?
The point is that this wily, unassuming interpretation of the shadow striker is as mature as it gets, a measured acceptance that being the ‘second’ (i.e., not the first) forward revolves around self-sacrifice and an influence exerted from, well, the shadows – Firmino’s own returns could admittedly be better, but his worth is in part measured in the much more lavish goal contribution statistics of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané.
Firmino’s intelligence and work ethic help him to combine the virtues of a conniving Tostão and a battling Toshack, pressing defenders high up the pitch when out of possession, and transitioning to a space-creating number 10 role when Liverpool have the ball.
The Brazilian would be the first to admit he’s nowhere near the most talented player to have put his twist on the role, but he has hit upon the strand of DNA which unites target man and trequartista, the genetic disposition not just to score goals, but to make scoring goals a possibility.