Never the most prolific striker during his time at Leeds, Alan Smith was more known for his combative nature and work ethic. The most goals he scored in any Premier League season at Elland Road was 11 in 2000/01, which is one of only two campaigns in which he recorded double figures for goals in all competitions. Yet Smith is an England international and was a regular striker for a Champions League semi-finalist with ambitions of winning the league title.
Then Sir Alex Ferguson happened. The 23-year-old scored ten goals in his first season after joining Manchester United for £7million, but was firmly entrenched behind Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy in the striker pecking order. His second campaign at Old Trafford would take on a different complexion.
“Roy [Keane] sees characteristics in Alan that he saw in himself as a young player, which could help Alan develop into a very good player in that position,” said Ferguson of Smith in summer 2005. Those ‘characteristics’ boil down to one essential art: being a bit of a b*stard. Smith’s tenacity and hard work made him a good fit for the role, and he made over 50 appearances in central midfield for United, winning a Premier League title before moving to Newcastle. He has played as both a midfielder and a striker in the lower leagues since, although the Notts County man has scored eight goals in his last 270 games. He’s probably still better than Olivier Giroud.
‘Birmingham City are edging ever closer to signing Moussa Dembele,’ reads the first paragraph to a story on the Birmingham Mail website, dated August 2010. The report goes on to refer to Dembele as a ‘Belgium international striker’. Six years and two transfers later, he is one of the finest central midfielders in the Premier League.
Even when Tottenham signed Dembele from Fulham for £15million in 2012, there remained uncertainty over the Belgian’s position. Was he a striker? A second striker? A No 10? A playmaker? He boasted the physique, class and skill of a premium striker, but his output faced severe scrutiny. At the time of joining Tottenham, Dembele had scored 56 goals in 197 games.
Not until this season under Mauricio Pochettino has the 28-year-old realised his immense potential in a more reserved role. Dembele’s poise, power and technical proficiency make him one of the most well-rounded central midfielders in the top flight. Only three players have made more tackles, and only four players have completed more dribbles. But Wilfried Zaha (117), Riyad Mahrez (91), Ross Barkley (62) and Alexis Sanchez (59) have all embarked on far more unsuccessful dribbles than Dembele; the Belgian has just seven to his name. We all dream of a team of Mousa Dembeles – they might just need a different striker.
“I have played and watched Paul Scholes play that role for years and I always knew that one day that is where I would play, so I have tried to learn and watch what he did.”
Wayne Rooney makes no secret of his wish to emulate Paul Scholes in a deeper holding midfield role at Manchester United in the later stages of his career. Considering Scholes himself made the transition in his formative years, there are few better mentors to learn from for the 30-year-old.
Given his reputation as a midfielder who made up for his complete inability to successfully make a tackle without rendering his opponent a crumpled mess with a passing range all others could only dream of, it is difficult to imagine Scholes the striker. Yet the United legend enjoyed some fine seasons in a more advanced role at Old Trafford, playing alongside Ruud van Nistelrooy as he scored 20 goals in 2002/03, as well as with Andy Cole in the 1995/96 season. He even scored a hat-trick for England once as a forward. Scholes made the move to central midfield while still in his early 20s, but he sets a perfect example for the more experienced Rooney to follow.
Perhaps Rooney could look towards Dwight Yorke for guidance. While Scholes was younger when he made the transition to central midfield, the ‘Smiling Assassin’ enjoyed a career as a renowned goalscorer before dropping back in his 30s. Yorke scored 183 goals in 521 games at Aston Villa, Manchester United, Blackburn and Birmingham – including 65 in 147 games at Old Trafford – before departing England to join Sydney in 2005. It was in Australia where the then-33-year-old was utilised in central defensive midfield. He captained Trinidad and Tobago and flourished in the role at the 2006 World Cup, then returned to these shores under Roy Keane at Sunderland the same year. The gloriously besuited perennial Aston Villa managerial vacancy candidate reprised his position at the Stadium of Light, helping the club return to the Premier League in his first season.
“You two scousers are always yapping. I’m gonna show you some serious rapping. I come from Jamaica, my name is John Barnes. When I do my thing the crowd go bananas” – An extract from William Shakespeare’s Othello.
The crowd did indeed “go bananas” when John Barnes “did his thing” at Anfield, but “his thing” generally involved being an excellent winger with an eye for goal. The England international scored 103 goals in ten years at Liverpool, but just 22 in his final four years as he swapped his wing wizard role for one in Graeme Souness’ ballooning central midfield alongside Jan Molby. A blend of such heavyweights the Premier League had not seen before, nor has it ever witnessed since.
That debilitating injury, suffered on England duty in 1992, changed Barnes, as the following extract from Gregg Bakowski’s article for The Guardian in August 2013 shows:
‘Shorn of pace, Barnes suffered impatience and abuse from the stands. The appalling boos that greeted his every touch for England against San Marino at Wembley in February 1993 could have ruined less thick-skinned footballers. But he had survived racist abuse on and off the pitch through the 1980s with incredible dignity and instead he took stock of his remaining attributes and reinvented himself as a deep-lying central midfielder.’
Barnes did not reach the same heights that propelled him to stardom in central midfield but, in a struggling Liverpool team, his class was still evident.