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Where did all the English strikers go?

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Once they were scoring for fun, in recent years English strikers have been slowly disappearing. Are they poised for a comeback? And what does this means for the national team?

"Is that one there in the stands?", Wayne wonders
"Is that one there in the stands?", Wayne wonders
Michael Regan

Alan Shearer, Andy Cole, Robbie Fowler, Les Ferdinand, Teddy Sheringham, and Michael Owen. These are some of the few names that dominated the Premier League goal scoring charts between the 90s and early 2000s. Recent years however have seen the relative disappearance of English strikers. Don't believe me? Well, the last time an English striker topped the league top scorers was way back in.. 2000. Yep, that's right, the year 2000, the year PlayStation 2 was released, "Mission: Impossible II" was the top grossing movie, and 14 years before "Flappy Bird" started tormenting people.

Over the past 10 years, England's best striker is probably Wayne Rooney, and with 165 league goals to his name, that honor is well deserved. In fact Rooney is in a one-horse race for that title. Jermain Defoe has 124 league goals but suffers from bouts of inconsistency (and he's heading to the MLS as well). Darren Bent also has more than a century of goals in the league but seems to lose his shooting boots after scoring 24 goals in 2009/10. Crouch's season best is only 12 goals, while Andy Carroll has been trying to regain top form following a failed spell with Liverpool. Others such as Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, and Jay Rodriguez have only begun to play regularly and establish themselves in the league.

At the moment, Sturridge is the leading English goalscorer having scored 15 goals in the league. Rodriguez is also on double figures with 10 goals to his name. Based on those numbers, it's likely that both Sturridge and Rodriguez will surpass the tally of 15 goals scored by Frank Lampard and Rickie Lambert, the top English goal scorers in the league last season. Within the past 10 seasons, last season was the third worst when it comes to English goal scorers. In 2006/07 Rooney only managed 14 goals, the next season (2007/08) not a single English players was among the top 10 in the goal scoring table.

Furthermore, between 2000 to 2013 only on 6 occasions have English strikers broken the 20-goals barrier, Wayne Rooney did it twice, with 27 goals scored both in the 2009/10 season (World Cup season) and 2011/12 (Euro season, do I sense a pattern here?). Other current players to have broken that 20-goals barrier are Darren Bent (2009/10) and Andy Johnson (2004/05)

So the obvious question is, where did all the English strikers go?

There are several factors that can help explain why English strikers are disappearing from the league. I'll go over them briefly.

Change of tactics

Data from football-lineups shows that 4-4-2 was the formation of choice when it comes to Premier League teams (in 2001/02 it was used on 694 occasions out of 760 occasions), however Spain's success of using the 4-2-3-1 in Euro 2008 began the steady decline of 4-4-2. Finally in 2010/2011, after witnessing Spain's successive triumph wasn't a fluke but a tactical masterpiece, the 4-2-3-1 was used 223 times and becomes the formation of choice in the league. What this means is that teams are no longer using two strikers, relying instead on a single striker supported by attacking midfielders or wingers. Furthermore, simple math also shows that if there used to be 40 attacking spots available each weekend, these days that number has been reduced substantially.

Due to this changing circumstances, English strikers have to adapt (or forced to by their manager) to their surroundings, evolving from an out-and-out strikers, into several different forms. In West Ham's win over Swansea City earlier this month, Kevin Nolan scored twice after a long ball and a corner was headed on by Andy Carroll. On the other hand, Sturridge, Welbeck, and Rodriguez have also been asked to play as a winger instead in the centre forward role. What it means is that these strikers task is to link-up play between midfield and attack, instead of finishing the chances provided by other teammates, they are the ones providing the opportunities.

Foreign players & spending power

According to transfermarkt.co.uk this season the percentage of foreign player in the Premier League is a staggering 68.4% compared to 55.4% in Serie A, 46.3% in Bundesliga, and 38.8% in La Liga. This has limit the chance of English strikers to showcase their talents. In the Premier League, only 7 teams and 9 strikers has been capped by England, and we probably won't see Crouch, Bent, Carroll, or Fraizer Campbell appearing for England anytime soon.

With the financial might of the Premier League particularly from television revenue, even bottom-half club can afford to spend money for established foreign talent. Added with the need to survive in the league (sometimes at all cost as this is crucial for club's balance sheet) managers would rather stick with known quality (well-established veterans) instead of experimenting with youth. And speaking of youth..

Youth player development

Looking at the squad list of Premier League teams (PDF file here) you can see a lot of young English players, but with their path to the first-team blocked by more established player, they have to go on loan to gain playing time and first-team experience. However, only a handful would return to their parent club and make the first-team squad, others would go on another loan spell, or move elsewhere permanently. Welbeck and Sturridge have been through this, being loaned out to Sunderland and Bolton respectively, and upon their return were able to make the first-team squad, although this is an exception rather than the norm. The question is having been able to develop them from the age of schoolboys to the age of 18 or 19, are clubs not able to develop them further to make the leap to the first-team squad, or rather that English players weren't good enough in the first place?

What this means for the National team

Obviously for Roy Hodgson and his coaching staff, the lack of English strikers in the Premier League means that there is only a small pool of players to select from. On the other hand tactics-wise, if Roy Hodgson decides to play with a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1/4-5-1, he'll be able to utilize players such as Sturridge, Welbeck, or Rodriguez out wide, as they have some familiarity with the role. Using the 4-3-3 for example the centre forward would be able to draw the attention of the defense, allowing the pseudo-striker/winger out-wide to cut inside.

The lack of English strikers for England regulars like Rooney, Sturridge, or Welbeck (20 appearances combined in the World Cup qualifiers) might create a sense of complacency as there is a lack of competition. However with the World Cup looming in the horizon, it could also motivate other players to showcase their talent to Roy Hodgson. In the last World Cup season (2009/10), three English strikers was on the top 10 of the goalscoring table (Rooney, Bent, and Defoe) scoring a combined 69 goals between them. Could this season be the start of revival for English strikers? Don't rule them out.

Agree? Disagree? Think Peter Crouch should go to the World Cup? Have your say in the comments below!