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Sep 15, 2011

Forward thinking needs goals

If it was not a unique occurrence, it was certainly an unusual one. Saturday may have reiterated the dominance of the two Manchester clubs in the Premier League, but students of football finance might have had more pressing matters on their minds. Because starting among the substitutes for Chelsea was the most expensive recruit in the history of English football, Fernando Torres, beginning on the Liverpool bench was their biggest buy, Andy Carroll and utterly unused among the Manchester United replacements was Sir Alex Ferguson's most extravagant addition, Dimitar Berbatov.

At least it spared them a chant of "what a waste of money", but with a combined cost of £115.75 million, it is significant when the record signings of Chelsea, Liverpool and United cannot command a place in the team. Though Torres returned to the side for Tuesday's Champions League win over Bayer Leverkusen, this was too early for managerial decisions to be dismissed as squad rotation. Indeed, Berbatov is omitted with such regularity that his exclusion is expected. The story would be his inclusion.

The dugout hardly provides a hiding place, but that is the striker's lot. Unlike their counterparts in other positions, they can be judged twice on the numbers. Such are the value of goals that the transfer fees paid for them often exceed those for other footballers - Aston Villa, Manchester City, Newcastle and Sunderland are among the other clubs whose record recruit is a centre-forward - while the nature of the job description means it is easier to assess the input they provide, through their output.

While the context of a contribution is always important, sports such as cricket and baseball can offer extensive statistical analysis of every player. Because of open play, such definitive findings about footballers are harder to make. There are times when John Obi Mikel has made the most passes in the Premier League, but few extrapolate from that data that the Nigerian is the best midfielder in the division, or even the outstanding distributor. The Golden Glove goes to the goalkeeper with the most clean sheets, but all that can mean is that he is protected by the most dependable defence.

Attackers may attempt similar arguments, suggesting it is a team game. Selfless strikers such as Kevin Davies or Emile Heskey are entitled to argue their contribution goes far beyond a comparatively meagre goal total, while Torres' two assists against Bayer Leverkusen was an alternative indication of his worth. Yet the fact remains that the biggest fees are invariably paid for those who, whatever else they bring, are supposed to specialise in putting the ball in the back of the net. When they don't, underachievers are easier to identify. And while the top-of-the-range buys - Wayne Rooney, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko and Luis Suarez - are increasingly multi-dimensional players, the reality is that they can all prove prolific.

Immediate assessments of their less productive brethren are easy to make. Torres has one goal in 23 games for Chelsea, Carroll three in 14 for Liverpool. Only five of Berbatov's 48 United goals came against marquee opponents, and two of those were sufficiently late that they had little bearing on the outcome.

Such are the realities of the Faustian pact they sign when they opt for this existence. They get the goals and the glory when it goes well, the brickbats and the blame when it does not. In an era when many managers generally only play one out-and-out forward, their position becomes more precarious. Ten-minute cameos add to their number of appearances, but give a lesser chance to increase the goals tally. And with strikers stockpiled, as Torres is discovering at Stamford Bridge, there is more competition to lead the line than for any other position in many squads.

The all-or-nothing nature of the job means that failures can be identified more readily. Until and unless Torres rediscovers his Liverpool form, he is burdened with comparisons to Andriy Shevchenko, Roman Abramovich's most notorious vanity buy. Chris Sutton was Stamford Bridge's previous example of a multi-million pound addition to the attack with an utter inability to score.

For years, such unfortunates were emulating Garry Birtles, who famously took 30 league games and almost a year to get off the mark at Manchester United. A later Old Trafford example, Diego Forlan, went on to joint top-score and be voted the best player in a World Cup; this was the zero-hero paradigm at its most extreme.

On the other side of the equation, few things are more dramatic than a comparatively cheap buy who proves an unexpectedly potent source of goals, as Javier Hernandez illustrated last season. Those whose arrival and, crucially, pricetag prompt comparatively little fanfare but whose impact is apparent in fantastic facts represent the opposite of the unhappy trinity manning the substitutes' benches at some of the country's biggest clubs.

They find themselves trapped in a vicious spiral. The greater the fee and the lower the return, the more the criticism and the lower their chance of playing. Forward thinking can be worrying indeed when the numbers don't stack up.

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