How the 2000s changed tactics #6: The death of the ‘poacher’

February 21, 2010

If you could travel back to the mid 90s and ask 100 football fans who the best finisher in the Premiership was, you’d find a majority telling you the answer was Robbie Fowler. He wasn’t tall, he wasn’t fast, he wasn’t strong and he wasn’t mobile, but if you gave him the ball, he would put it into the net with alarming regularity.

Looking across the Premiership today, it’s hard to identify any similar top-level players. There are some great goalscorers, but none as lacking in pace or skill as Fowler. The only strikers you would describe as a ‘great finishers’ are also blessed with speed, such as Fernando Torres, Jermain Defoe or Darren Bent. Other ‘out-and-out strikers’ like Bobby Zamora or Emile Heskey are in the side as much for their hold-up play as their goalscoring ability. It’s simply not enough to be a goalscorer any more, you have to contribute to the team’s overall game.

It’s incredible to think that Fowler is only 34 years of age – the same age as David Beckham. Beckham maintains his place in the England squad, while Fowler finds himself on the bench for North Queensland Fury in the Australian A-League. Fowler’s lack of fitness has played a part in his decline, but the truth is that he is simply a player left behind by the pace, movement and intelligence needed in the modern footballing game. His career as a top-level player was probably over at the age of just 27 when he signed for Kevin Keegan’s Manchester City in 2003. Is Michael Owen, post-injury and with little pace, a similar story? Perhaps, although Owen has at least adapted his game to become more of an all-rounder.

Despite how popular he was, you very rarely hear young players being described as ‘the new Robbie Fowler’ these days. That label was given briefly to Eduardo when he signed for Arsenal as an unknown left-footed striker with a tremendous goalscoring record, but Eduardo is a much more complete player than that, and has often played on the left of a forward three, something Fowler would never have been able to do.

Indeed, if you were to select one current Premiership player who is purely a finisher, it might well be Tim Cahill of Everton, and yet he plays as a midfielder, making late runs into the box.

Even Ruud van Nistelrooy, perhaps the classic goalpoacher and the third most-prolific Premiership striker ever in terms of goals per game, was happily dumped by Manchester United because he didn’t have the all-round game to feature in a top-level modern side. His goalscoring record was astonishing – 150 goals in 219 games, but the important statistics involve the peformance of the team. Manchester United won the league three times in a row in the three seasons before his arrival, and won the league three times in a row in the three seasons after he left. Whilst he was there? United won just one title in five years.

The striker as we knew him is now dead.

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