UEFA World Cup play-offs highlight the dearth of top-class centre-forwards in Europe
There was a familiar theme to UEFA's World Cup play-off matches this week -- four of the eight matches finished goalless, two more finished 1-0.
It would be natural to assume these were cagey, defensive-minded matches with everyone desperate not to make a mistake. But that's only half-true, and the greater reason for the lack of goals was something much simpler: the quality from the various centre-forwards on show was remarkably dismal. From the eight games, just three goals were scored by strikers: Croatia's duo of Nikola Kalinic and Andrej Kramaric and a meaningless late penalty from Denmark's Nicklas Bendtner. Elsewhere, the profligacy was staggering.
It was particularly problematic for Switzerland. They squeezed past Northern Ireland 1-0 on aggregate, thanks to a hugely questionable first-leg penalty, but they should probably have thrashed Northern Ireland 5-1 over the course of the two matches, on the balance of play. This wasn't a case of Northern Ireland's brilliant defensive work keeping the Swiss at bay -- they conceded plenty of chances, some of them clear-cut.
Haris Seferovic, however, kept missing. He fired shots over, shots wide, and shots into the legs of defenders. He ran the channels effectively, and provided a useful forward passing option when sometimes Switzerland played too many passes in front of the opposition. But with such a meagre goal threat, at a certain point it becomes futile to provide him with regular chances.
There's no point singling out Seferovic for criticism, as such -- he didn't play beneath himself, or bottle it on the big occasion, he's just not a top-class centre-forward. He managed just three apiece in his final two seasons with Eintracht Frankfurt, admittedly after hitting 10 goals in his first Bundesliga campaign, and has taken the step down to the Portuguese league where he's faring slightly better. But the pattern of his career -- largely disappointing in Serie A, the Bundesliga and La Liga, and more threatening in second-tier leagues -- underlines the point. This isn't the type of player you expect to be leading the line for a decent size country at the World Cup.
There's a similar case upfront for Sweden, who played a typically disciplined, organised but joyless 4-4-2 in their first-leg victory over Italy, with their goal a deflected long-range effort from midfielder Jakob Johansson. One forward, Ola Toivonen has demonstrated the classic sliding scale of performance: good in the Netherlands, decent in France and very poor in England. His partner, Marcus Berg, smashed in goals in the Netherlands and Greece, but managed just 5 in 54 appearances in the Bundesliga. He's now playing in the UAE.
The lone striker for another Nordic qualifier from the playoffs, Denmark's Nicolai Jorgensen, has enjoyed a good spell with Feyenoord but is neat rather than clinical, and offered little over two legs against Ireland. Of the four sides to progress, only Croatia offer anything like a top-class centre-forward -- Mario Mandzukic, rather than the two players, Kalinic and Kramaric, who actually got on the scoresheet.
The defeated teams, too, had little up top -- largely using players who currently wouldn't get close to a starting XI of any of the 20 Premier League sides. Ireland's Daryl Murphy plays in the English second tier -- 4 in 72 is his Premier League record. North of the border, Northern Ireland's Conor Washington has managed just six in 47 in that same second tier, having worked his way up from even lower leagues. Greece's Kostas Mitroglou had success in his native country and Portugal, but is something of a joke figure in England for his ill-fated period with Fulham.
Even the once mighty Italy, whose manager surprisingly left Lorenzo Insigne on the bench, played up front with two players, Ciro Immobile and Manolo Gabbiadini, who wouldn't have come close to the squad a decade ago.
It wasn't always like this. This time four years ago, we witnessed a quite extraordinary shootout between Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic as Portugal defeated Sweden 4-2, with this duo providing all six goals.
So where are all the good centre-forwards? Some of them, of course, simply qualified automatically, but this doesn't entirely explain the lack of depth. It's notable that the goalscoring charts in Europe's major leagues feature several non-European players, too. Nine of the 25 players who finished amongst the top five scorers in England, Spain, France, Germany and Italy last season do not compete in the UEFA confederation.
But it feels like there's something deeper at play here. Top club sides are increasingly playing technical combination football in the final third, which requires nippy, speedy players who can link play. Underdogs are increasingly playing counter-attacking football, deploying centre-forwards who depend upon breaking into space in behind.
The tactical feel of these international matches are very different. The lack of time on the training ground means attacking combinations are more difficult to develop. The play is considerably slower, allowing opposition defences time to retreat into their defensive shape. The combination of these two factors, therefore, means several teams could do with a simple, good old-fashioned No. 9, someone you can launch the ball towards from wide or deep, someone who can spin and pounce when given half a yard of space. Or, at the very least, someone who can finish confidently in the box when an actual clear-cut chance comes their way.
It's an issue Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has mentioned before. "The strikers are South American today. Europe doesn't produce strikers anymore," he said back in 2013. "What we produce now are good technical players because there are nice pitches out there -- before you played in the park where you had to kick the ball up front and you had to fight...maybe we have to rethink completely the education and specialise earlier."
Any re-thinking of the education, though, won't come soon enough to impact upon next year's World Cup, and the value of a top-class centre-forward shouldn't be underestimated. The likes of Spain, Germany and France are certainly Europe's most technically impressive sides, but it's the likes of England, Poland and Belgium, with proven centre-forwards like Harry Kane, Robert Lewandowski and Romelu Lukaku, who might be best suited to scoring against deep defences.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.