Over the last couple of weeks, Robert Lewandowski’s brilliance at Bayern Munich has not only reduced Pep Guardiola to a giggling schoolgirl on the sidelines, but has also served to remind us of the value of having a genuine goal getter. A striker. The deadly center forward has hit twelve goals in his last four games, including the absurdity of five in nine minutes against Wolfsburg and a Champion’s League hat-trick. Lewandowski is one of Europe’s in-form players, and probably the in-form striker.
His club, Bayern Munich, have provided the nucleus of recent German national squads, and how Joachim Löw would, well, love to have Lewandowski lead the line of his talented team, a further cutting edge to his well-oiled machine – especially since Miroslav Klose, also born in Poland, has called time on his international career. What Löw and Germany do have, is Thomas Müller.
Much like his Polish teammate at the Allianz Arena, Müller is a man in form. Ten goals in eleven games for Bayern this season and three in two for Germany has demonstrated already why the Bayern bosses were inviting Louis van Gaal to ‘talk to the hand’ all summer. Under Pep Guardiola and Joachim Löw, Müller is currently irreplaceable and irresistible – a standout performer in both teams, and the man who has, in his unassuming manner, begun effortlessly filling the shoes of Miroslav Klose, Germany’s all-time record goal scorer. Müller, though, is not a striker – a fact that seems to bother neither him nor Löw.
After all, football has long since broken free of the constraints of defense, midfield and attack and is loathed to be so compartmentalized. The very mention of 4-4-2 is associated with a bygone age of strike partnerships and clean-shaven managers. The term striker is rarely used, as the role it implies is too simple, two dimensional – a professional goal hanger. Forwards, as they should be labeled, need to deep-lying, false, inverted, withdrawn, or otherwise. They have to be able to perform a number differing roles, some of which only the tactically astute may be privy to. They are certainly not strikers.
That said, somebody has to wear the number 9 shirt. And although shirt numbers that run from one to eleven are also a thing of the past, number 9 is still often carried on the back of one of the team’s main goal scorers. At Bayern, it is Lewandowski.
Germany have fielded some great strikers in the past. The most recent, Miroslav Klose (who preferred number 11), ended the 2014 Brazil World Cup as the competitions top scorer outright, with 16 goals. As well as this record, Klose – who retired from international football after the tournament, aged 36 – notched 71 international goals. That is three more than Gerd Müller, and streets ahead of the country’s other legendary goal getters such as Jürgen Klinsmann, Uwe Seeler, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Rudi Völler.
Quite a list. But where are the contemporary strikers, and does Germany really need them?
Back to Müller, the Bayern forward is an extraordinary player who is capable, and seemingly addicted to scoring weird and wonderful goals – scrappy goals, with his shoulder, face and knee. Müller is a hard player to label with a position; he just plays. He generally attacks from the right, an inside forward, a deep-lying poacher maybe, and one with an eye for goal. Since becoming the world’s worst-kept secret after South Africa 2010, Müller has gone from strength to strength, hoovering up titles with Bayern Munich and emerging as a key player for the national team. Having recently turned 26, he already has 30 international goals from 65 caps (a better record than Lewandowski), and with 10 World Cup goals to his name could be on course to overtake Klose in the scorer stakes. Like Klose, he also does not wear the number 9 shirt, instead opting for 13 – the same as his namesake, Gerd Müller.
His teammate for club and country, Mario Götze, another immensely talented player, is another of Löw’s go-to-guys for the sharp end of the pitch. The scorer of the decisive goal in Rio last summer is an effortlessly elegant dribbler, passer and astute finisher – but one who is arguably more effective playing behind, or dovetailing with a striker such as Robert Lewandowski – as he did to great effect under Klopp at Dortmund, and now more rarely under Guardiola at Bayern.
But who is Müller to buzz around, and Götze to play off? Outside of these two, Löw has slim pickings. Other forwards named in recent squads include Kevin Volland of Hoffenheim, who is perhaps more direct than Götze but not as clinical as Müller, and Max Kruse, arguably the more limited of the quartet and so far not really amongst the goals at VfL Wolfsburg. The fact is, Germany do not seem to have – or want to employ – a traditional striker.
Klose’s main understudy for many years, and prolific Bundesliga goalscorer, was Mario Gomez, a classic centre-forward, a Mittelsturmer. But despite banging in 200 goals in around 330 appearances for VfB Stuttgart and Bayern Munich – including 26 in 44 Champion’s League games – Gomez never really seemed able to carry the weight on his shoulders, and since leaving for Fiorentina in 2013 he has drifted out of the footballing consciousness slightly. But although Gomez’s spell in Serie A was blighted by injury that curtailed his goal tally to 7 in two leagues seasons, he does have 25 international goals to his name from 59 caps, an impressive goals-to-game ratio for any striker. But despite being only 30, it would be a surprise to see him heavily involved in the national team again, especially since as he has been shipped out to Besiktas on loan. As a traditional striker, a poacher, the game – or the game that Joachim Löw and the DFB want to play – seems to have left him behind.
A similar fate looks to have befallen Lukas Podolski. He may not have set the Premier League alight with Arsenal, and will certainly not live too long in the memory of most Inter fans, but the forward with the big smile and rocket left foot has had an outstanding international career to date. Over 11 years, Podolski has pulled on the national jersey 126 times, scoring 48 times in the process. Indeed, he is fourth on Germany’s list of all-time goalscorers, ahead of Klinsmann, Voller and Seeler. Whereas Gomez’s injuries and missed opportunities have ostracized him from the national team, Podolski has suffered on two accounts. Firstly, his star has gradually faded since his Arsenal career began to stutter and he also finds himself, alongside Gomez, searching for goals Turkey’s Süper Lig, with Galatasaray. And although he remains a mainstay in the German squad, he is no longer a key component of Die Mannschaft, Löw instead entrusting more tactically flexible players. Even in the face of injuries to both Klose and Gomez in the past, Löw seemed loath to start with Podolski as his point of reference in attack.
There is no reason for Germany to be too worried, mind. After all, they have Müller and Götze doing the business, and Spain won Euro 2012 without playing a striker for the majority. Changes in tactics are often brought about by necessity – either due to a lack of talent in one area, or an embarrassment of riches in another. And what Germany does have is an abundance of number 10s, inside forwards, and other forward thinking, dare we say, midfielders, such as İlkay Gündoğan, Julian Draxler, Mesut Özil, André Schürrle, Karim Bellarabi, or younger talents in the Bundesliga such as Timo Werner, Max Meyer, Maximilian Arnold and Julian Brandt, to name a few.
Surely no trainer of club or country would say no to a prolific striker in their squad, however problematic having a ‘plan B’ is. I mean, Robert Lewandowski showed us in nine minutes – and Sergio Agüero in a little over twenty – just how important a world class Mittelstürmer can be, and why those who are still around are so highly coveted. But before Löw and his eventual successor scour the country for the next Miro Klose, and before they parachute more bread-and-butter strikers such as Stefan Kießling, Pierre-Michel Lasogga or Alexander Meier into the squad, they will probably stick to getting the best out of their talented options in other areas.
A glance around world football reveals the shortage of traditional strikers, or rather their waning status. Fewer national teams employ a striker, and in fact, most of the best do not. More and more, teams’ most influential players, and match winners are playing slightly further back: Messi, Hazard, Müller, Rodriguez, Neymar, Ronaldo, Sanchez, Bale, Suarez, etc. Of course, Ibrahimovic, Cavani, Falcao, van Persie and co. are still around, but don’t always carry the same weight or influence as they used to, Zlatan aside maybe. The result is that kids in playgrounds and parks around the world have been slowly moving further back, vacating the opposition penalty area, instead choosing to ghost into space and celebrate assists and goals of individual brilliance, rather than hunt for tap ins.
Although Germany looks to have a healthy and sustainable pool of talent, the water in the forward’s end is a little shallow. Barring a dramatic turn of event, Joachim Löw’s squad will be heading to France 2016 hoping to emulate Spain by winning back-to-back international tournaments. If they are to do so, it is likely to be without the help of a striker. Whether this is a problem, however, remains to be seen