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Feb 10, 2011

An embarrassment of riches

Their combined cost is around £90 million. Between them, they have winners' medals from one World Cup and two European Championships plus five Premier League titles, five FA Cup triumphs, two African Footballer of the Year awards and a successful Champions League campaign. Their goal tally for club and country is nearer 700 than 600.

Put it that way and Chelsea's logic for uniting Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Fernando Torres is compelling. Their initial outing as a trio was altogether less promising with the first sight of the £50 million Spaniard prompting comparisons with other inauspicious debutants and mentions of previous signings that backfired. Even Rodney Marsh and Faustino Asprilla, the mid-season additions widely deemed to have cost Manchester City and Newcastle the title, did not rule their new employers out of contention in a solitary game.

Moreover, Liverpool did not just defeat Chelsea on Sunday; they did so in the week they lost their premier striker to their rivals, and they did so without requiring either of the attackers signed with the proceeds of Torres' sale. Minus Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez, they found a way to win that barely involved an out-and-out forward; Dirk Kuyt doubled up as the first line of defence.

Carlo Ancelotti's short-term solution has been to deploy Anelka behind the other pair. Yet while the great forward partnerships tend to involve obvious divisions of responsibilities - poacher and creator, target man and beneficiary of flick-ons, star player and sidekick - and complementary skills, these are three men who, by inclination, are lone strikers. Anelka has tended to be at his most productive during Drogba's absence (he normally starts the season in goalscoring form in Europe, while the Ivorian has a habit of sitting out the early games because of suspension) so Torres' arrival seems to push him down the pecking order. He may be out of position, while noses could be pushed out of joint.

Egos can abound among strikers; they are men for whom selfishness is often an asset in a ruthless pursuit of goals, which may be a reason why the unassuming Kuyt is often found on the right flank. "Share and share alike" does not tend to be their motto and, while there are examples of each of the Chelsea trio aiding colleagues, their most productive alliances have tended to be with players breaking from deeper positions (Steven Gerrard to join Torres, Frank Lampard and Florent Malouda with Drogba). The Ivorian certainly never gelled with Andriy Shevchenko during the Ukrainian's ill-fated spell at Stamford Bridge while, in his Arsenal days, Anelka complained Dennis Bergkamp didn't pass to him.

The purchase of Torres could be a sign that Chelsea are planning a future without either of their established strikers. More probable, however, is that Roman Abramovich is a believer in the simplistic logic is that more, or better, strikers equal more goals and more goals produce more success. It is often true, but not always.

Because while Premier League clubs paid a combined £159 million for five forwards in January, there are plenty of examples of sides prospering with a comparative shortage of strikers or without an out-and-out goalscorer. Sometimes it is by necessity, sometimes by choice, but less can be more.

Indeed, Torres can testify. David Villa propelled Spain to success in South Africa last summer with five goals, but his usual accomplice was dropped for the semi-final and the final. It was a combination of two attacking midfielders, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta, that delivered the goal to make Spain World Cup winners. Four years earlier Italy may not have won in spite of their forwards, but nor did they prosper because of them: Luca Toni and Francesco Totti, the preferred pair, only scored in one game each while defenders Fabio Grosso and Marco Materazzi made more significant contributions in attack.

The 2004-05 season ranks as one of the most successful on Merseyside in the last two decades yet the supposed specialist goalscorers made minimal contributions. No forward struck more than once in Liverpool's Champions League campaign while Everton finished fourth in the Premier League in a year when Marcus Bent, utilised alone up front, mustered a mere six goals.

The format of knockout competitions may make success without stellar strikers more feasible. But it is not impossible: in last season's Championship, five of the top ten scorers were midfielders while only two of the 11 men with most assists are forwards by trade. The top-scoring attacker at both West Brom and Blackpool ended with 11 league goals apiece, yet both were still promoted.

Both were sides with plenty of players who could chip in with goals. Even when there is a more conventional distribution, the key can lie in getting the appropriate balance between scorers and suppliers. An hour or so before Torres made his Chelsea bow, Birmingham scored a winner at West Ham that was set up by a substitute (midfielder Sebastian Larsson) who had replaced a forward, Cameron Jerome. Ostensibly a defensive move, it brought a breakthrough.

If Chelsea's (un)holy trinity are to prosper, it may require an acknowledgement they can't all lead the line, as well as some inventive management. The outstanding team of the 2009-10 campaign were Inter Milan, but their progress was abetted by an unexpected switch. Samuel Eto'o ranks among the most prolific players of his generation but, with Diego Milito in the form of his life, Jose Mourinho gave the Cameroonian a role on the right. So far did he track back, Eto'o appeared a quasi full back at times but it helped Inter win the Treble. There may be a lesson for Chelsea's front three there.

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