"Football," a French international once told a friend of mine, "is an individual's game." In an age when FC Barcelona are one of the most aesthetically pleasing teams in the history of the beautiful game, this sounds wrong.
However, the player in question has a point, especially if you are a striker. When a forward is in form and scoring goals, it is easy to assume he has always had the world at his feet. Yet at critical points in his career, the next step in his development can often seem as straightforward as trying to push a camel through the eye of a needle.
When exceptional strikers are 16 or 17, they are often vying for a place in national youth sides with a handful of other, equally gifted players. With 4-3-3, 4-5-1 and 4-2-3-1 now the norm, even a hugely promising front man may be overlooked or played out of position on the flanks.
With the imperfect mechanisms the sport has for assessing talent at this age, their destiny could be decided by whether a coach likes what he sees or not. If he does, a top-flight club might beckon; if not, the player may have to fight his way up through the divisions.
When he reaches the first team, he will inevitably have limited time to make his mark. One of the essential survival skills for any modern forward is to ensure he gets his fair share of chances. Sometimes, this means being downright selfish. Strikers rationalise this by telling themselves they are behaving like this for the good of the team – and that is probably true, up to a point.
Most sides now have a default setting in attack – even Barcelona are designed to make sure that most of the opportunities they create fall to Lionel Messi. Thierry Henry discovered this the hard way early on at the Camp Nou, when he played a ball to Andrés Iniesta and ran on for a return that never came. At Arsenal FC, the ball would automatically have come back to him; at Barcelona, it did not. Neither Henry nor Iniesta was in the wrong, it was just that the patterns of play they were accustomed to did not mesh.
The French international's remark also rings true because there comes a time in every forward's life when all he needs is a goal. This can happen even to Messi, who went 12 matches without scoring between October 2006 and March 2007 before breaking his barren streak with a hat-trick against Real Madrid CF. For those strikers who rely on their predatory instincts – and they do still have a place in the game – finding that goal can be hard. It is much easier if, like Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, the attacker can conjure up that crucial strike out of nowhere, often through sheer individual genius.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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