Is The Strike Partnership Dead?

With a version of 4-2-3-1 the now default setting for all major teams in Europe, Alex Mott looks at the birth, death, and perhaps subsequent rebirth of the strike partnership in modern-day football.
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With a version of 4-2-3-1 the now default setting for all major teams in Europe, Alex Mott looks at the birth, death, and perhaps subsequent rebirth of the strike partnership in modern-day football.

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Chance can be a funny thing. In one seemingly insignificant moment, your whole world can change forever. Without chance, JK Rowling would never have seen her children’s fantasy novel turn into the most profitable franchise of all time. Without chance, Morrissey may never have met Marr. Without chance, Jodie Foster would never have been cast in Silence of the Lambs.

And it is with that same flap of the butterfly's wings that the greatest strike partnerships in footballing history have been born.

Kenny Dalglish hadn't scored a league goal at Anfield during the first 10 months of 1981. He had hit that footballing wall of 30 in March, and had privately suggested to Bob Paisley that it was about time he moved back into midfield. Paisley though, wasn't having any of it; surely Dalglish had to come good eventually? The truth however, was very different. By the time Everton crossed Stanley Park at the beginning of November, The King was desperately out of sorts.

Just before half-time, Steve McMahon – at that point an Evertonian – crocked Ray Kennedy, who had to be replaced by David Johnson. Moving back into midfield to accommodate the substitute striker, Dalglish started to pull strings, and eventually scored twice in a 3-1 win. Ian Rush, a recent signing from Chester scored the other, and something snapped inside Paisley. From then on, Dalglish would play just behind the young Rush, and British football's greatest strike duo were born.

It was a similar story 17 years later, up the M62. Andy Cole was arguably Sir Alex Ferguson's fourth choice partner for Dwight Yorke when the 1998/99 season began. Patrick Kluivert – who only had intentions of joining Arsenal – had turned down Ferguson's advances. Whilst Teddy Sheringham and Ole Solskjaer were the Tobagans' partners in the first six games of the season. Cole was eventually rotated into the side for a mundane league fixture against Southampton in October, and something just worked. United won the game 3-0, with both Cole and Yorke bagging a goal each. Ferguson's side went on to score 14 goals in the next three games, a smile was etched on to Cole's face for the first time in years, and he and Yorke would spend the rest of the season running amok in England and in Europe, most memorably in the Camp Nou, the Delle Alpi and in the bedroom.

Of the 36 games they started that season, United lost just the once, and scored a remarkable 81 goals in the process; Cole and Yorke with 53 of those. That move against Barcelona stands out, but others against Brondby, West Ham and Juventus showed an almost eerie telepathy that propelled them to the treble. That partnership though, between two men: one from Nottingham, the other Trinidad and Tobago; two men who had never previously met, proved to be the last in a long line, because chance, it seems, can be a funny thing.

In one seemingly insignificant moment, your whole world, and indeed everyone else's, can change forever. Without chance Rafael Benitez may never have invented the now all-conquering 4-2-3-1, and in turn the death of the strike partnership.

The fact is, Benitez had five world-class midfielders he felt he couldn't drop. Vicente and Rufete out wide. Albelda and Baraja in front of the back four, and Pablo Aimar in the trequarista role. In honest truth, there was no magic formula from the Spaniard, it just made sense to put those players in those positions. Two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup later, and the myth behind the 4-2-3-1 was born.

Players like Didier Drogba, Euro 2008 Fernando Torres and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have taken the virtues of a 'big man, little man' combo, and just done away with that extra pair of legs.

Of course, Benitez can't be solely blamed for the death of the deadly duo in the modern game. Squad rotation has become such a major part of any top team's itinerary, that just by sheer mathematics, the chances of two players striking up a symbiotic relationship on the pitch is unlikely.

The premium put on versatile attackers can also be attributed to the extinction of the perfect partnership. With teams obsessed with becoming Barcelona-lite, the value put on forwards who can play as a focal-point to the attack, out wide as an inverted-winger, or deep in the trequarista role means that two players, with defined roles, working together, has become virtually obsolete.

The rise and rise of the 'complete forward' has also made two players playing as a point of convergence for the attack completely nonsensical. Players like Didier Drogba, Euro 2008 Fernando Torres and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have essentially filled the roles that would have, in the past, been done by two men. Six-foot-three, lightning fast, strong as an ox: these forwards have taken the virtues of a 'big man, little man' combo, and just done away with that extra pair of legs.

It seems then, that two men up top: the big man, little man; the cloak and dagger; the terrible twins, have simply become unfashionable; consigned to the history books along with the Libero. The Benitez effect. The influence of Guardiola, the squad rotation policy, have meant the old-fashioned strike partners, inseparable buddies who cause the greatest defences sleepless nights, just have no place in the modern game.

Or do they? Because chance, it seems, is a funny thing.

Jim Lawlor was in Mexico on a routine scouting mission back in February 2010. For three weeks he travelled the central American state searching for promising talent. Eventually he found what he was looking for. A young striker of the kind rarely seen in Europe. A poacher. A goalscorer. He was available on the cheap, but because of his age he was seen as a risk. The impending World Cup could prove his ability to other European suitors though, so Jim got on the phone to his boss and urged the club to sign him up as quickly as possible. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez signed for Manchester United four weeks later.

It was pure chance. Like most unheralded signings, it was a case of 'right place, right time'. The signing of Hernandez was met with little if no fanfare in Britain. A collective shrug from fans and media outlets alike.

He was only meant to be a bit-part player in his first season. Someone who could be slowly blooded into the side. Berbatov, Owen, Welbeck, perhaps even Macheda were in front of the young Mexican in United's pecking order. But by May 2011, Javier Hernandez had not only become the first player since Ruud van Nistelrooy to score more than 20 goals in their debut United season, but he had also changed United's style of play and re-introduced the strike partnership to English football.

With Hernandez leading the line, it freed Rooney from his shackles. He was allowed to play in that hole between the lines, without any responsibility. And for the first time in over a decade, a strike partnership was the cornerstone for a title winning side.

Now, all over the Premier League, teams are looking to incorporate some kind of goalscoring duo in their starting XI's. Dzeko and Aguero are lighting up the Etihad. Van der Vaart and Adebayor are working their magic at White Hart Lane. With the absence of Gerrard, Kenny Dalglish is slowly putting his trust in Suarez and Carroll to fire the Scousers into Europe. Best and Ba have brought Newcastle their best start in half a century. Even Chelsea, the great purveyors of the 4-3-3, are trying it. First with Torres and Drogba, and now mixing the Spaniard with the on-form Daniel Sturridge.

In Europe and on the international stage too, the strike partnership looks to be slowly currying favour. CSKA Moscow are challenging for the Russian Premier League with Seydou Doumbia and Wager Love leading the line: a terrible twosome as close to Cole and Yorke as you will find. In Italy, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Ederson Cavani are making Napoli one of the most exciting teams to watch at the moment. Luis Adriano and Eduardo continue to add to Shakhtar's unbelievable European rise. In Germany, the 'big man, little man' is still very much alive, with Raul and Huntelaar propelling Schalke to second in the Bundesliga and a semi-final in last year's Champions League. And in the international arena, Uruguay continue to astonish with Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan becoming the lynchpins to their World Cup and Copa America performances.

The strike partnership then: it was born, produced some of the great footballing moments, died at the turn of the century, and now, possibly, is back with a vengeance. Chance, it seems, is a funny thing.