x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

One is the loneliest number at striker

I sympathised with Arsenal’s forward Olivier Giroud as he worked the graveyard shift at Old Trafford last week against Manchester United. That is what strikers call it when you’re asked to play up front alone.

Olivier Giroud did not have many of his Arsenal teammates around but Patrice Evra and Manchester United made sure he was not alone during their English Premier League soccer match at Old Trafford Stadium, on  November 10. Jon Super / AP Photo
Olivier Giroud did not have many of his Arsenal teammates around but Patrice Evra and Manchester United made sure he was not alone during their English Premier League soccer match at Old Trafford Stadium, on November 10. Jon Super / AP Photo

I sympathised with Arsenal’s forward Olivier Giroud as he worked the graveyard shift at Old Trafford last week against Manchester United. That is what strikers call it when you’re asked to play up front alone.

It is tough. Every ball is a fight, one you have to win and then control the ball before you can see where you’re at. You battle with a centre half who can dedicate all his time to you, as you’re the solitary threat.

Psychologically, I think defenders prefer to focus on marking one man. Attackers do not like to go it alone.

Without support, your options are limited. You need help from your midfield runners, but if they’re otherwise occupied, you struggle. It is a thankless task, as Giroud found out.

The Frenchman has done well this season; his runners usually have come forward and supported him. Arsenal have scored lots of goals – usually against weaker teams – but he was isolated at Old Trafford.

Arsenal are over-reliant on him, too. Against the best teams, they need a different option, and I think they will go for another forward in January.

Giroud needs help or he will need a rest. If you play up front alone every week, it kills you. Most big clubs have four strikers; Arsenal brought on Nicklas Bendtner at Old Trafford.

I was raised to play up front with a partner, or with a player just behind me, a foil. That was the English way, and I played my best football like that, combining with another striker, making one-twos to beat opponents and knowing you had someone to support you when things were not going well, someone to lift you.

It worked at the highest level.

Dwight Yorke and I bounced the ball and ideas off each other. We often had a little word about a new plan when the ball was at the other end of the field.

Sir Alex Ferguson said of us in his autobiography: “They hadn’t known one another when Yorkie came to the club, but they just gelled. In training, they would work on runs together, little dummies, one-twos. They synchronised beautifully.”

Then I was asked to change, when Ferguson switched his system from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 in 2001. I struggled. Ruud van Nistelrooy was brought in and he was comfortable with that system. He had played that way for PSV and the Netherlands, and it suited his style. He would hold the ball and get a shot in.

He was more selfish, and I do not mean that in a derogatory way. More single-minded. Get the ball, turn and shoot.

He did it for himself because he had no choice. The idea was that because United would have more possession, they would create more chances for the lone striker.

Barcelona do not play with obvious strikers, but they have three hugely talented, creative and ultra-fit players covering ground the minute they lose possession, which they do not often do.

They also have Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta helping out to support Lionel Messi and the two wide boys coming in off the line, Neymar and Alexis Sanchez, this season.

It works for them, as they have so much forward-thinking talent, but most English teams go for two strikers and if they do not play side by side then they will play off each other.

Liverpool, Manchester City and United all play with two. Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal play with one.

Giroud has had success, but Roberto Soldado has struggled at Tottenham. He is a good striker and he is used to playing alone because he did that at Valencia and for Spain, but he is having to adjust in a new league and in a Tottenham team that lacks creativity.

If you lack that in this system, you will struggle. You are feeding off scraps, hoping to get a half chance or a penalty.

Robin van Persie can play on his own, but he prefers having someone supporting him. He and Wayne Rooney have done well this season interchanging. They did not always hit it off last season, but Rooney has been United’s top player so far and that will make Van Persie better, too. That is, if both get the service they need from midfield.

Rooney also likes to play in tandem with someone as it gives him more options. He can drop back into the hole or go out wide. Having a partner gives them more freedom.

I like the way City play with Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo. Aguero can go it alone. He has the skills to hold play up, but he enjoyed playing alongside Carlos Tevez and he enjoys playing with Negredo or whichever striker is up there with him.

That is why City are, by a distance, the league’s top scorers.

Liverpool are doing very well with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. They are the third-top scorers in the league and looking better all the time, thanks again to two strikers who feed off each other.

I am sure Giroud wishes he would had that option last Sunday.

Andrew Cole’s column is written with the assistance of the European football correspondent Andy Mitten.

sports@thenational.ae

Follow us on twitter at @SprtNationalUAE