Something extraordinary happened on Saturday. Something that many of us thought we’d never see. Andre Vilas Boas – one of football’s great modernisers – elected to field a Spurs team that would line up against Arsenal in a 4-4-2 formation. It’s only a few steps from there to becoming a fully native anglicised manager: egg & chips on the pre-match menu, booze and fags in the dressing room, and a sheepskin jacket: done.
A victory for 4-4-2 would have shaken modern football to its core. Thankfully, Spurs lost, heavily, and the natural order of things was restored. But, the really sad thing is that until Adebayor tried to remove Cazorla’s leg (“Not that kind of player”, according to Vincent Kompany, who seems to have forgotten the time Adebayor stamped on Robin Van Persie while playing for city, but anyway) we had an opportunity to watch a proper front two supported by proper wingers – nostalgia ahoy! – and, they looked to be making a pretty decent fist of it before the red card.
Modern formations can be very pretty to watch, but they have, sadly, brought about the decline of the front two. Tactics dictate that there is often only room for one forward to play through the middle. As a result, many clubs rely on one prolific goal threat, like Arsenal did with Robin van Persie, like Liverpool do with Luis Suarez.
Even where clubs have more options, the demands of a prolonged European campaign have made it a necessity for managers to try and keep their players in peak condition for longer. Team selection depends not just on the immediate opposition, but also on the team you’ll be facing in two or three games time. As for old adage ‘the best strikers hunt in pairs’, even Hansen would consider that a bit hackneyed.
Clubs are of course still known by their star players, but the rapport between the front two has been replaced in importance by the ability of supporting forwards and attacking midfielders to create and score chances. In many cases the centre forward isn’t even expected to score many goals.
It’s a shame, because although it wasn’t the only thing you looked for in a team, an impressive front two was one of the first things you noticed. Perhaps it was the simplicity that made their focus so obvious. Other things might be happening on the pitch that influenced the game, but when it came to goals, all eyes were on the front two, and those partnerships could come in many guises.
There was the classic English ‘Big Man – Little Man’ model – probably the most generic of all striking formations. It’s debatable who came up with this first; Kevin Keegan and John Toshack were by all accounts pretty decent at it, and more recently, Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn had it licked (44 league goals for Sunderland in the 1999/00 season!).
The smaller player of the pair was generally thought to be the more creative one, but fielding a diminutive forward didn’t mean the other had to be built like a shire horse. Observe the ridiculously prolific season enjoyed by Andy Cole (34 goals) and Peter Beardsley (21 goals) for Newcastle in 1993/94.
And, it’s not true that one player had to be small, either. A more aggressive style was used to devastating effect by Blackburn Rovers when Chris Sutton and Alan Shearer were united in a media friendly abbreviation.
I could go on. There are plenty of other variations on the theme; I won’t list them all because I’m going to do that over the next few weeks. Ok, a few more that stick out: the phenomenal egos of Romario and Edmundo destroying defences for Vasco da Gama; the obvious chemistry between Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole; and, the pristine facial hair of Paul Wilkinson and Gary Penrice (that last one’s a bit niche).
But hang on, isn’t this all just pointless nostalgia for something meaningless? Well, yes. I blame Match Magazine. As an impressionable young fan I can remember reading interviews with famous goalscorers who would reveal that their strike partner was also their roommate when they travelled to away games, and that they’d often socialise together, which usually involved playing snooker or golf. This was the early 90’s – weekends in Vegas weren’t the norm, yet.
This meant that the front two appeared to have a genuine bond, one that made their performances on the pitch all the more endearing. When I think of the great forward pairings I grew up with, I tend to think of them as Nigel Tuffnel and David St Hubbins, the creative pairing that fronted Spinal Tap – utterly dependent on each for emotional as well as professional fulfilment. This might be bollocks, of course, as my analysis is based entirely on anecdotal evidence and a hazy recollection of memories. But, I can definitely remember people saying of Mark Hughes that he liked playing with Brian McClair. Was that because their styles complemented each other, or was it because they had bonded one night, in a hotel room, listening to Brothers in Arms and being blown away by Mark Knopfler’s guitar work? I know what I think.