Football hacks eagerly searching for a strategic leitmotif at Euro 2012 thought they’d found it when Spain took the field for its group opener against Italy without a single forward. “Death of the Striker?” headlines screamed in response to the idea that the reigning world and European champions could try to win a game with four defenders and six midfielders, keeping their passes short and their movements fluid. And yes, in fact, they could (though they had to come from behind to tie the Italians). They did the same against France but won by the comfortable margin of 2-0. (The same hacks, of course, were hoping the strategy would flounder in the way that Barcelona’s tactics had when faced with Chelsea’s 10-men-behind-the-ball defense.)
But coach Vicente del Bosque was happy to throw strikers on when he thought the situation demanded them, as in the game against Ireland and in the last half-hour against France, when the prospect of Pedro and Torres running into space behind them kept the French defense from pushing forward. Tactics are fluid, after all, and today’s strikers are expected to do (literally) miles more defensive running and tracking of opponents than their predecessors. Wayne Rooney, for instance, runs more for Manchester United and England than did the classic box-to-box midfielder of English football folklore.
Against Sweden, of course, England clung to the vision of the traditional English No. 9, a lumbering center forward who does most of his work in the air, his back to the goal, when the team fielded Andy Carroll. If Carroll’s breakthrough goal demonstrated the virtues of that approach, the fact that England so often gave the ball away while hopefully hoisting it toward him was a reminder of its flaws. In the same game, England’s Danny Welbeck reminded us that there’s a new breed of striker emerging in England, whose game is based more on speed, skill, balletic athleticism and intelligent movement. His winner against the Swedes was a peach of a goal: he improvised an exquisite back-heeled flick to convert a cross played behind him. That’s the sort of goal that ensures that the striker’s craft is never dispensed with. So, too, did Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s cracker of a volley against France. Or my goal of the tournament thus far — Mario Balotelli’s volley over his own shoulder against Ireland.