The Death of The Striking Partnership

Cian Tracey
By Cian Tracey
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Football has evolved remarkably over the last ten years or so. Games have become faster, players have become stronger while tactical nous has become an even bigger factor in the game. Managers have had to adopt to the way in which others have began implementing new strategies and formations. The most interesting tactical development has been the complete disappearance of striking partnerships amongst the top teams in Europe.

When you look back through the '90s and early '00s, the majority of teams played a 4-4-2 formation which usually included two conventional forwards playing in tandem with each other. The Barcelona team of 2003-04 under Frank Rijkaard are the most obvious example to point to, as the first 'big' side that abandoned the striking partnership. Graham Hunter has written a fantastic book called Barca:The Making of the Greatest Team in the World which deals with the shift in ideologies at the Camp Nou.

That season the Catalan giants played Javier Saviola up front with Ronaldinho and Luis Garcia playing either side of the Argentinean. Prior to that under Louis Van Gaal, Saviola regularly played up front alongside Patrick Kluivert. But so began a new era at Barcelona and conseqently in the world of football.

Turning our attention to the Premier League, we saw plenty of striking partnerships that were formidable forces in their own right. The two most successful of these partnerships were Man United's Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke while Arsenal had the elegant Denis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry within their ranks. Success in this period and earlier was largely based on a strong forward duo.

The Premier League started in 1992 and it took until the end of the 2005 season for the 'Barcelona influence' to kick in to the mindset in England. The early Man United team had the likes of Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona, Brian McClair and Andy Cole to call upon and their success was primarily based on a front two. Blackburn's title winning season in 1994-95 was all about the front duo of Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton. Between them, they scored 49 league goals which propelled the idea that the way to be successful was to have a two forwards that had an intrinsic understanding of each other's movement.


The Cole and Yorke partnership was a joy to watch regardless of what team you supported. At times they didn't even have to look to see where each other was. They simply just knew. Their partnership was one of the main reasons why United went on to win the treble in 1999. Other partnerships that worked so brilliantly were Eidur Gudjohnsen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at Chelsea and Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips at Sunderland. The ultimate big and small combination illustrated another way in which strikers can work so effectively off each other. Phillips scored 30 goals in the 1999-00 season, many of which came from knock downs from his partner.

When Chelsea signed Didier Drogba in 2004, he almost single handedly forced the change in mindset of how English teams set up. Having been played with the likes of Gudjohnsen and Kezman up front, Chelsea found that the powerful Ivorian was far more effective playing up front alone with supporting players playing either side of him. Chelsea won the Premier League title for the first time in 50 years that same season. Guided by Jose Mourinho, they played Drogba through the middle with Damien Duff and Arjen Robben playing the supporting roles. Chelsea were unstoppable and set a number of unprecedented records. They conceded the fewest goals against in a Premier League season (15), kept the most clean sheets (25), recorded the most wins (29), and also won the most points in a season (95).


Such was Chelsea's dominance in this relatively new style of play. Others were forced to follow suit. United signed a Portuguese winger by the name of Cristiano Ronaldo but he was soon moved to a more advanced positon to play off the main striker, Wayne Rooney. United's title winning success in 2007-08 was founded on the 31 goals that Ronaldo scored that season. If you look at Ronaldo at Real Madrid now, he has been completely transformed from a winger to an out and out attacker.

The trend has continued nowadays, when it is a rarity to see a two man striking partnership. A quick scan through the top teams in Europe and you will struggle to find any side that continues to adopt this seemingly outdated approach. Barcelona play a devastating diminutive front trio which follows on from the foundations laid by Rijkaard all those years ago. Real Madrid do the same, even though they have the likes of Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain in their ranks. Switch on any Madrid game and you will almost never see both strikers on the pitch at the same time.

In Germany, Bayern Munich and more recently Borussia Dortmund have dominated the Bundesliga by adopting a similar approach. At Bayern, Mario Gomez has lead the line with the likes of Robben, Muller and Ribery playing the supporting roles. While for Dortmund, Robert Lewandowski has been prolific when playing the lone striking role.


This season the Premier League is no different. None of the top teams in England adopt a two man striking partnership. United have been playing with Robin van Persie up top with Wayne Rooney supporting from a more deeper role. City usually play with Aguero through the middle with Tevez and Silva acting as his main support. When Chelsea signed Demba Ba a few weeks ago, all the talk was, who would play up front, Ba or Torres. Not once was it even suggested that the two may be able to play together. The same applies to Liverpool and the signing of Daniel Sturridge. Brendan Rodgers has come out in the media and stated that Luis Suarez will adopt a more deep lying supporting role, even though he has been by far and way Liverpool's most potent attacker. It's not as if Liverpool's system has brought them plenty of success over recent years. An old fashioned front duo of Suarez and Sturridge could prove to be very fruitful but the way in which the game has evolved, it is unlikely that we will ever see this.

So what does this all mean for today's game? Teams that don't have the players or resources have struggled to implement this new strategy and formation. Football has seemingly become a much more fluid game with an attacking trio. But there is an argument that the old fashioned striking partnership could still have a major say in today's game. You need only look at the likes of Cole and Yorke to see how equally devastating a striking duo can be.


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