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If I can be forgiven for being relatively sweeping about an entire decade, the icon of English football in the 1990s was the goalscoring poacher. Ushered into the decade by the greatest exponents of the 1980s, Gary Lineker and Ian Rush, poachers exploded onto the scene to coincide with the start of the Premier League.
Alan Shearer, Andy Cole and Robbie Fowler were the prime examples, with Raul and Pippo Inzaghi their European counterparts, although there were numerous, less glamourous examples. Without express pace (although few could be considered slow), these were strikers that matched the cliché of the 'footballing brain', always to be found in the right place at the right time. Whilst the stereotype of simply scoring tap-ins is wholly inaccurate, these players were seen as the perfect players, often rarely involved in the build-up to goals but invariably the finisher, the perfect economy of effort.
It seems strange, therefore, that by the end of the next decade, such a role had become almost extinct. Ruud Van Nistelrooy continued to fly the flag for Manchester United until 2006, but although his goalscoring record was impressive, United actually suffered for his art. In the three years prior to the Dutchman joining the club, they won three titles. In the three years after his departure to Real Madrid, they won three titles. In Van Nistelrooy's five-year spell at Old Trafford, the Premier League was lifted only once by United.
So why has such an institution diminished so greatly, becoming a position so wilfully ignored by current managers?
The first relatively simple reason is that defending has got better at every level. Poachers were particularly adept at taking advantage of mistakes in defence, their accomplished finishing punishing the individual error. At the highest level, these were not necessarily defensive howlers but perhaps merely slack marking from a set-piece or failing to keep a level defensive line.
Poachers therefore tended to gain success towards the end of games when defenders were fatigued, often allowing their concentration to falter. Through the use of sport science to increase fitness levels and technology within tactical training, defensive performance has been improved considerably. Put simply, forwards can no longer rely on being gifted chances, they must be created. Where poachers do remain, with Javier Hernandez as a possible exception to the rule, they are moulded to perform as 'supersubs', often exploiting periods when fatigue is created against an opposition often inferior to a dominant Manchester United.
In addition, English teams have adapted their styles of play, and the alterations have reduced the opportunity for poachers to flourish. Last season, Stoke were the only Premier League team to take more than 10% of their shots from inside the six-yard box (and even that figure is skewed by Stoke scoring over half of their goals from set-pieces, lending itself to close-range finishes). Just five years ago, seven Premier League teams did so. Furthermore, last season, 17 of the 20 Premier League teams took more than 40% of their shots from outside the box. Five years ago, only 12 did the same.
Without blinding through statistics, it is evident that Premier League teams, largely through the introduction of foreign players and coaches, have adopted alternate mentalities. It seems that goalscorers have perhaps become less important to success, and having the best creative players instead becomes key, as the most successful teams look to share goals around. It is interesting that of the 20 Premier League Golden Boot winners, on only five occasions has the top scorer played for the champions. The Premier League, one could argue, is more about the team than the individual, and there is no doubting the individual aspect of the poacher.
The final nail in the coffin has been the demand for multi-dimensional footballers, as I discussed in the context of John Obi Mikel this weekend. It is a very English trait for a child aged eight years old to declare that he is a central defender, winger or striker, and breeds a degree of singularity in the skillset of the individual. At Ajax's famed academy, youngsters are forced to play in every position until the age of 13, a practice designed to develop players that are competent in a number of different environments. This English mentality alarmed Jose Mourinho upon his arrival at Chelsea:
"I can't believe that in England they don't teach young players to be multi-functional. To them a striker is a striker and that's it. For me, a striker is not just a striker. He's somebody who has to move, has to cross, and who has to do this in different formations."
And herein lies the crux of the issue. Without intending to be derogatory, a poacher is a one-dimensional player, but with the introduction of more technical coaching systems, managers require more from their forwards.
Forwards can now largely be categorised in two ways. The first is the 'false nine', who has the freedom to roam, either dropping deep to collect the ball (Wayne Rooney or Francesco Totti) or out wide to attack defenders with pace (Lionel Messi or Thierry Henry). The second is the proverbial 'big man', who is expected to hold up the ball and bring midfielders into play (Didier Drogba or Hulk). Strikers such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Dimitar Berbatov are rare examples of those that are effective at doing both.
A player such as Jermain Defoe that initially gained notoriety as a poaching finisher has been forced to add assets to his game or find himself benched in favour of other options. Defoe has worked on his (much-improved) long-range shooting, and the Premier League has credited the striker with four assists. When Defoe has failed to demonstrate his additional worth, his starting place has been threatened, and started just eleven league games last season. He was benched 21 times.
It becomes clear that within the demand for multi-faceted strikers, little room is left for poachers, a situation summed up perfectly at Aston Villa. Darren Bent is perhaps the best example of the 'old school' in the Premier League, but this season has been shunned at Villa Park. Whilst scoring 101 goals in eight seasons in mightily impressive, Bent's return of 18 assists in the same period will be deemed unacceptable by many managers, and he is not a player that helps out in defence too readily. Instead, Paul Lambert has preferred Christian Benteke, whom he considers to be a more 'complete' player. Benteke may have just three league goals this season, but has played more key passes and has more assists than any other Villa player. Such assets are cherished.
It seems inherently harsh (almost backward, even), to criticise a player for scoring goals, but the enhancements in tactical forethought and the use of technology in examining player performance has demanded more utility from our strikers, and 'one-dimensional' is now intended as a critical description. With such a state of mind, goalscoring poachers will continue to become a dying breed. The palpable successes of the modern brand of forward may well lead to extinction.
Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter