Variety replacing the specialist striker
It is not necessarily the paradox it sounds. Despite a shortage of specialist strikers, Euro 2008 has been widely acclaimed and enjoyed for its attacking football. This has been a tournament of deep-lying forwards and forward-thinking defenders.
Tactically, Euro 2008 may not prove revolutionary. It has provided evidence of evolution, however. No formation has been created; there has been no tactical development that will change the face of football. Rather it has pointed to the increasing importance of a five-man midfield, the continuing struggle of the strike partnership and the growing popularity of the 4-2-3-1 system.
Used at times by Germany, Holland, Portugal, France, Turkey, Romania and Poland, it bore similarities to Croatia's system, perhaps best described as 4-1-3-1-1, and Russia's, which could defy categorisation, though Guus Hiddink's men could be bracketed with Slaven Bilic's. The Russians provided proof, though, that formations are of greater relevance when the opposition are in possession and when a defensive structure is needed. When Russia had the ball, nominal roles were discarded as an interchangeable attacking unit emerged, especially following Andrei Arshavin's return from suspension.
In one respect, theirs was the most extreme blueprint. When Sergei Semak, supposedly the midfield anchorman, or Aleksandr Aniukov, the right-back, could surface as the most advanced player, it was evident that virtually all of Hiddink's side were capable of interchanging positions.
That required rounded footballers, at ease in different positions across the pitch, lending the team tactical flexibility and a surfeit of options in midfield. That was something each of the finest teams possessed, along with a willingness to accommodate at least one creator among the five men in the centre of the pitch.
His position varied from Arshavin's more forward station, as the traditional No. 10, supporting the striker, to the role Andrea Pirlo has trademarked in the centre of the pitch (indeed, the three-man defence, used by Russia in qualification, appears an endangered species). Luka Modric, Deco and Xavi dictated play from a position between Pirlo's and Arshavin's.
With a quartet of other midfielders, they could not be regarded a luxury player. Most, too, benefited from an unselfish accomplice sitting in front of the defence. There is now a widespread recognition that the four-man midfield, especially when deployed in something approximating to a straight line, can be cut out with a single pass. A two- or even three-tier midfield is harder to break down.
That said, dual anchormen rendered France needlessly negative at times, though against the talented Portuguese, Germany benefited from the presence of a pair of holding midfielders. With a barricade erected in central areas, the proliferation of attacking full-backs was a sign that more space was to be found on the flanks.
If, at times, it reflected poorly on the wingers who could not keep the supposed defenders occupied in their own half, it was also a reflection of their past; many, including Yuri Zhirkov, Fabio Grosso and Jose Bosingwa, are converted wingers while Turkey's Hamit Altintop, Croatia's Danijel Pranjic and Holland's Giovanni van Bronckhorst regularly play in midfield for their respective clubs.
The merits of the unexpected attacker were also apparent when the Portuguese central defenders surged upfield. In contrast, the out-and-out forward often lacked support and, in most cases, the presence of a partner to aid him.
In an interview before the tournament, Joachim Low suggested that most sides would operate with a lone forward. His prediction proved accurate, and Germany showed the merits of a solitary striker, especially in their quarter-final against Portugal. That 4-2-3-1 system, however, owed much to the input of captain of Michael Ballack and forward Mario Gomez's remarkable array of misses in the group games which convinced Low to use Miroslav Klose alone.
So Fernando Torres and David Villa's status as the finest strike duo around is partly a recognition of their threat, but partly a consequence of few alternatives. Only Sweden and Switzerland started every game with two specialist strikers. France and Italy usually did, but neither had an alliance in attack nor, in the case of Roberto Donadoni's men, a forward on the scoresheet. Indeed, Luca Toni was a formidable presence but a failing finisher. Klose apart, it has not been a tournament for target men. Few showed the inclination to search for successors to the retiring Czech powerhouse Jan Koller.
Pace, rather than height, appeared the prime requirement for a forward, especially those who found themselves redeployed. The auxiliary left winger Lukas Podolski provided an example of a striker who benefited from a new role ostensibly further from goal.
Others played their part from the bench, where the importance of varying tactics was apparent. In attacking terms, anyway, the like-for-like replacement was less effective than the radically different alternative; a dissimilar tactic, pursued by a player with very different attributes to his predecessor on the pitch could disrupt defences and distort carefully formulated gameplans. It was perhaps best illustrated when Holland, already leading against France, replaced Orlando Engelaar and Dirk Kuyt with Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie. Greater pace and width produced further goals for each replacement.
Turkey, too, benefited from the chance to change their approach. The forceful Semih Senturk has few similarities with the more refined Nihat Kahveci, but he provided an impact in each of his four substitute appearances. But then, in Euro 2008, the attacking has come from the substitutes, the midfielders and even the defenders. Striking has not just been a job for the strikers.