Premier League 2015-16: The One Thing Soccer’s Richest League Can’t Buy – Wall Street Journal
As much as they could, the four major contenders in the English Premier League spent the off-season preparing in secret. They kept player transfers quiet. They dodged tactical questions. They tinkered with lineups.
And yet the top four clubs in England—Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United
—all arrived at the same conclusion this summer: It’s time to give up on traditional strikers.
Over the past 20 years, English soccer has evolved beyond traditional forwards in the No. 9 jersey, the shirt worn by the star scorer. As the season begins Saturday, title hopes no longer hinge on a single spearhead whose performance is measured by the simplest metric of all, goals.
“When the style is more technical and less direct, you don’t need a traditional center forward” Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger said in a telephone interview. “We can compensate by having scorers all over the place.”
In the 1990s and 2000s, Premier League champions routinely had one player contribute 35% to 40% of their scoring—pure finishers such as Ruud van Nistelrooy or Didier Drogba. But now, the responsibility is more shared than ever.
As of Friday, Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United didn’t even have the No. 9 jersey assigned to anyone on the roster.
The average number of goals needed to win the Premier League changes from year to year with no discernible trend. Defending champion Chelsea scored 73 last season, 29 fewer than Manchester City the season before. But the sources of those goals has. Over the past decade, champions have relied on 15 different scorers on average, up from 13.1 in the previous decade.
This season, the goal-scoring puzzle is subtly different for each manager at a top-four club.
Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho has two lethal finishers at his disposal, but both have been dogged by injury problems. There is Diego Costa, who comes with 20 league goals from last season but also a dodgy hamstring. And Chelsea is gambling on Radamel Falcao, who was a shadow of his former self at Manchester United last season.
Similarly, City’s Manuel Pellegrini must double down on the health of top scorer Sergio Aguero after letting Stevan Jovetic and Edin Dzeko leave the club. His main backup will be the underperforming Wilfried Bony.
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal has mostly dumped attacking players since taking the reins last season. Though he has hinted that he plans to sign a striker before the transfer window closes Sept. 2, Plan A at the moment consists of starting 29-year-old Wayne Rooney by himself in the central role. Rooney is no slouch, but for United and the English national team, he has settled into a deeper creative position rather than being a pure goal scorer. To provide more offense, United snapped up Dutch speedster Memphis Depay, a winger.
Wenger, meanwhile, hasn’t signed a marquee striker in a decade. The lumbering Olivier Giroud has stood in for one the past couple of seasons. In 2013 and 2014, Wenger reserved most of Arsenal’s cash for creative midfield types such as Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez.
So it is no surprise that he is looking to those players to boost the scoring tally. Wenger said there is no reason he can’t expect 10 goals from Özil or, say, midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The days of Thierry Henry single-handedly producing 40% of Arsenal’s goals—as he did during title runs in 2002 and 2004—are long gone.
“It doesn’t exist anymore,” Wenger said in the interview, after brushing away speculation that he would add Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema this month.
The lack of depth in the Premier League’s scoring ranks speaks to a larger criticism that is often leveled at English soccer. For all of its money—the Premier League boasts the richest television deal in the game with every club due to earn around $80 million this year—it fails to attract the very best players in the world. The likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Luis Suárez, and Robert Lewandowski all play in Spain or at Bayern Munich, where they earn exorbitant salaries and feel they have a better shot at winning the UEFA Champions League.
It is no coincidence that the only Premier League champion of the past decade to have a 30-goal scorer was 2008 United, a side built around Ronaldo.
“English clubs, they can buy anyone around the world, except [from] the three clubs that are economically more powerful than us,” Mourinho said, referring to Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. “They sell when they want to sell.”
Before last year’s World Cup, Wenger bemoaned the lack of No. 9s rolling off the European soccer conveyor belt. The true strikers—the ones who launch headfirst into “the zones where it hurts,” as he put it—were all coming from South America.
Because of generally improved pitches across youth soccer and a shifting mentality among coaches, Europeans can be drilled in the more delicate, technical aspects of the game for a lifetime, he said. “We develop only midfielders now.”
Chelsea and Manchester City would be inclined to agree with his stance on South America. Aguero of Argentina, Falcao of Colombia and the Brazilian-born Costa have been among the most productive finishers in Europe in recent years. The problem is their injury histories.
Wenger said that this, too, might be a result of evolving defenses, which press higher and harder in the Premier League than ever before. “The work done by defenders eliminates a lot of people, like pure, classical strikers,” he said. “They’re more committed in the physical duels.”
Aguero, nagged by hamstring problems, started barely half of City’s league games in two of the past three seasons. Falcao arrived at United last summer recovering from major knee surgery. As for Costa, who missed a third of the league campaign, even his manager isn’t quite sure what’s wrong.
“I don’t know is the truth,” Mourinho said of Costa, who could miss Chelsea’s opener against Swansea City. “I will try to understand.”
If Mourinho must live without his pure No. 9, he has only to look to his title rivals to figure out how.