Why are top strikers struggling so badly at Euro 2016?
Sharp shooters at this summer’s European Championships have been in short supply, generally
As is the nature of football, the eye is drawn to the men who put the ball in the back of the net, no more so than at major tournaments. Just as fans put their necks on the line by tipping which teams will win the whole thing, there is guesswork aplenty over who will score the most goals before any international competition. Those predictions have been some way wide of the mark at Euro 2016, though.
In fact, sharp shooters at this summer’s European Championships have been in short supply, generally. The tournament has been scrutiny for a perceived lack of excitement, with Saturday’s round of last 16 ties viewed as the competition’s nadir (only four goals were scored over 330 minutes of action).
It is therefore unsurprising that Europe’s best strikers have struggled to find form in France. Almost every frontrunner is toiling for a reliable number nine to lead the line. Before their exit to Italy on Monday, Spain had switched between Alvaro Morata and Aritz Aduriz, with neither truly claiming the starting spot for themselves.
Germany started their first two group games without a striker as such, with Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze alternating as the focal point of the world champions’ frontline. It wasn’t until their third outing that Joachim Low finally decided to use Mario Gomez as an out and-out centre forward.
Portugal have used Nani - ordinarily a winger - as a striker, while Wales have also taking to using Gareth Bale as the focal point of their attack. Never before has the European game struggled so badly for top-tier centre forwards.
Even those who do have options in the centre forward position have struggled. England took no fewer than five strikers to Euro 2016, but only two of them (Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy) actually found the net despite all five of them receiving game time over the course of the tournament.
Didier Deschamps has also shuffled his pack in an effort to find the right attacking formula. Olivier Giroud was dropped after opening night along with Antoine Griezmann, before being restored to his usual position for the final group game against Switzerland. Even the tournament favourites, who have some of the best attacking options in the sport to call upon, have toiled to make things work in attack.
Maybe it’s a consequence of football’s development over the past decade. This generation of the sport has been defined by the emphasis placed on attacking midfielders, reflected in the common adoption of 4-2-3-1 as the formation of the times. The likes of Pep Guardiola have even gone as far as to eradicate the need for centre-forwards, pioneering the ‘False Nine’ position.
Has that zeitgeist manifested itself in the dearth of exceptional centre forwards in the game right now? Some have impressed in France this summer - like Graziano Pelle and Griezmann at times - but the failures of Robert Lewandowski and the rest of Europe’s attacking elite support the case that highlights the decline of football’s number nines.
There’s also the possibility that the expanded format of this year’s tournament has played a part in the conservative nature of what we have watched so far. With every goal so significant over the group stages, with only eight out of 24 teams eliminated before the knockout rounds, games have been tight, tense affairs, making it difficult for strikers to find goalscoring opportunities.
The hope is that as the tournament opens up into the latter rounds the continent’s best strikers will find their form, with circumstances more conducive to their trade. Lewandowski, Giroud, Gomez and the rest all have the spotlight on them, now they must put on a show. Don’t be surprised if they don’t, though.