Watching Besart Berisha put on a striker’s clinic against the Western Sydney Wanderers at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday night, it was hard not to reflect on what the national team could do with a striker of his ilk. 

Whether it was his predator instincts in following in a Maxi Beister strike to pick up the scraps left by Andrew Redmayne, his ability to meet a cross and power a header home in barely a few metres of space between Jonathan Aspropotamitis and Aritz Borda, or the power he showed to shake them both off and burst away for his hat-trick, it was a throw-back performance to an era when strikers were everything.

Even in Australia, in the 80s and 90s, it was a golden age for strikers, and successive managers like Frank Arok, Eddie Thomson and Terry Venables were often spoilt for choice up-front.

It was an era that featured some of the pioneers of Australia’s sojourn for greater opportunities overseas, and particularly Europe. Strikers like Eddie Krncevic, David Mitchell, Jim Patikas, Frank Farina and Graham Arnold led the way.

Frank Farina was leading goalscorer and won best foreign player twice in Belgium (with Club Brugge). 

Later came the likes of Aurelio Vidmar, Mark Viduka, John Aloisi, Harry Kewell, Paul Agostino, Mile Sterjovski, Clayton Zane and Josh Kennedy.

While players of the calibre of Viduka, Kewell and Aloisi were making a splash overseas, what was so impressive about the era was the quality spread of Australian front-men who ostensibly established themselves or played their best years at home. I refer to the likes of Gary Cole, John Kosmina (who trialled overseas but returned after one week), Rod Brown, Marshall Soper, Ante Milicic, David Seal, David Zdrilic, Carl Veart, Kimon Taliadoros, Damian Mori, Pablo Cardozo, Sasho Petrovski and Paul Trimboli – even if the latter was more of second striker than an out-and-out no. 9.

Damian Mori scored 229 goals in 415 games in the NSL. He also played in the A-League

Some, like Seal and Zdrilic, eventually went overseas, but there were other strikers coming through who spent the bulk of their playing days in the national league, and made a great fist of it, like Kris Trajanovski, Warren Spink, Joe Spiteri, John Markovski, Andy Harper, Ivan Kelic and Adrian Cervinski. 

The amazing thing, as you look back, is that the majority of strikers in the second half of the NSL, from the late 80’s onwards, were local lads.

Only a few foreign strikers, like Zeljko Adzic, Zlatko Nastevski, Tim Bredbury and later Shane Smeltz and Fernando Rech stand out - although the NSL also produced a couple of imports who scored plenty, became naturalised and played for the Socceroos. I refer to the likes of Francis Awaritefe and Bobby Despotovski.

Awaritefe scored 123 goals in 313 games in the NSL

Now, as you cast an eye across the A-League, the trend has increasingly been towards imports in the top third, not only the no. 9 role. Apart from Berisha, the foreign starting strikers include Bruno Fornaroli, Andy Keogh, Bobo, Roy O’Donovan, Serg Guardiola, and either Aleksandr Kokko or Morten Nordstrand at Newcastle, although both are currently injured. That’s seven of the ten starting 9’s.

Only Brisbane Roar, in Jamie Maclaren, and the Wanderers, via either Brendan Santalab, Kerem Bulut or Lachlan Scott, can claim to start an Australian no. 9.

Indeed, if you were looking to draft a list of star Australian strikers in the A-League era, you would be hard pressed to extend far beyond Archie Thompson, Alex Brosque, Mark Bridge and Bruce Djite, and even then only Djite has been an out-and-out no. 9 throughout.

Impact of national curriculum

Of course, the trend over the past decade or more has been the move away from the more traditional two-strikers to varying systems of the national curriculum of 4-3-3. This leaves one genuine starting striker and a bevy of mobile attackers who can essentially play anywhere and ‘drift’ into the front third, a tactical trend that is known as the “false 9”. 

We saw that used in the A-League a few years ago by  Melbourne Victory, who ostensibly played two no. 10s and had the penetration come from the flanks. But even that only worked for a short period and eventually Kevin Muscat reverted to the more traditional use of a striker by bringing in Berisha.

There’s no doubt the role of the striker has changed significantly since the shift to one central attacker, supported by wide-men who often play inside.

The modus operandi has been that goals and assists need to come from midfield and the wide areas, with fullbacks getting forward, wingers tucking and ducking in, meaning strikers have increasingly been used by managers to bounce things off for teammates.

I recall that critical role that Viduka played under Guus Hiddink for the Socceroos, taking the battering and holding up the play to create space for the likes of Kewell, Marco Bresciano, Jason Culina and Tim Cahill. It was a contrast to his early days at the Melbourne Knights, Celtic and Leeds where he was often one of two strikers, and scoring was all that was on his mind.

Hiddink and Viduka 

Strikers could once get away with saving their work for inside the box. Now they must set the team’s pressing tempo but doing non-stop shuttles between defenders. They must be as good off the ball as they are on it; the physicality of their movement often a more important pre-requisite than their strength against central defenders.

When teams sit back, or park the bus, strikers have to have the skill to find space and create openings or strikes on goal. They are expected to be everything: the non-stop hard working midfielder, the pacey winger, the player who can also unlock a defence by linking and creating for others and the predator who can finish.

Too many number 10s?

The problem is that the focus in Australia, as it has been in large parts of the world, has been towards creating crafty no. 10s who can unlock a defence.

Observe any respected development program and you’ll see a stack of tight games where the emphasis is on good, quick-feet, sustaining possession and bouncing the ball about with one and two touch.

“Release it quicker” and “too many touches” are perhaps the most over-used phrases in kids’ development.

Kids are growing up with the ability to play out of defence, switch the ball through midfield and defence, press and transition, but where is the emphasis on developing strikers like Berisha and Fornaroli who have the hunger and fire to find the back of the net?

These days it’s politically correct to rotate players around in their formative development years, not really tying them down to any position till their teens, and there has to be a question as to whether this develops well-rounded players able to do a job in multiple positions, but not really stand-out in one?

Striker is one position that requires that sort of standout specialist.  

And this, to me, has been lost a bit in the clamour to find creative types either through the midfield or out wide.

It is something that even successful European nations in recent times, such as Germany and Spain, have grappled with. One only has to look at their squads at Euro 2016 to see the emphasis on creative attacking midfield types.

I recall Arsene Wenger touching upon this a few years ago, claiming the only place still developing strikers was South America, a result of their famed fighting qualities and technical expression, he said.

One only has to look at the current state of the Socceroos to see this shift in action.

With Tom Rogic, Aaron Mooy, Mass Luongo, Mathew Leckie, Robbie Kruse, and Nathan Burns about, there’s plenty of creativity and pace in the top third. But who are we relying on stick the ball in the back of the net? Half a year out from a very testy Confederations Cup group, the options look very thin, to say the least.

Cahill, a converted midfielder, has been doing the job very reliably since Viduka, but there’s no doubt, these days, he’s more a pinch-hitter rather than the major focal point. Age and body have seen to that.

Celebration time for Rogic, Cahill and Kruse 

So the search continues for a successor, with neither Tomi Juric nor Maclaren convincing that they have the quality to make the spot their own for years to come. Indeed, nobody is quite forcing Ange Postecoglou’s hand. Even the left-field option Apo Giannou hasn’t quite seized his opportunity.

Certainly, when you look at names mentioned earlier in this piece, you would love to have even a small percentage of that choice.  

But the way of the modern game, one built on mobility, transition, press, has almost created a generation that has had the striker instincts coached out of them by an emphasis on creation.

Challenge for FFA and A-League

For our governing body and the A-League’s administrators, the challenges are varied. Balancing success with development means you should only bring in the best from overseas, like Berisha and Fornaroli, rather than having journeymen like O’Donovan, Kokko and Nordstrand taking up spots that might instead be used to develop locals.

Federico Piovaccari and Milos Trifunovic were the examples last season. The same technical mistakes repeat.

Beyond that, there need to be more opportunities for development outside the nine professional A-League clubs, and that obviously leads to the expansion of the top tier, the development of a second division, and eventually a promotion and relegation system which encourages those clubs balancing development and growth well.

Part of the growth of the professional game needs to be an incentive to promote within and reward those clubs that are developing players. This is only just starting with the establishment, for example, of the Wanderers and Sydney FC academies.

Scott is one early beneficiary of this pathway and the hope is he can prove a success and lay a foundation for others like Charles Lokoli Ngoy, Kyle Cimenti and Abraham Majok.

But fundamentally there needs to be a recalibration on the technical path adopted through the national curriculum. Don’t ditch it, just adapt.

Yes, of course, you want to create creative no. 10s and possess the ball, but possession without effective final solution is pointless. Our development framework shouldn’t exclude ensuring we are still creating specialist strikers (and I would add central defenders to that list).

No path should be set in stone, and indeed, a failure to analyse, adapt and adjust is an abdication of the role of the technical team within a governing body. 

Categories: Analysis | A-League

a-league, football development

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