It’s one of football’s age old debates: do you favour function or flair?
The hallowed list of great Premier League strikers has its fair share of both. Out-and-out number nines like Alan Shearer, Michael Owen and Ruud van Nistelrooy were at their best inside the penalty box (and, in the case of Ruud, the six-yard box). Whilst their build-up play may have been lacking, the ability to hit 20 or 30 goals a season is a skill that the top teams can’t do without.
#EPL fewest apps to 50 goals
68 van Nistelrooy
— Dan Kennett (@DanKennett) April 29, 2016
Then there are the strikers whose contributions are a little more difficult to measure; those who score goals sparingly but (allegedly) offer their teams so much in terms of holding the ball up, bringing supporting midfielders into play, and chasing down opposing defenders when out of possession.
Arsenal legend Dennis Bergkamp was at Highbury for more than a decade, and the iconic Dutch striker is remembered less as a great goalscorer than he is a scorer of great goals. Bergkamp hit the 20-goal landmark (in all competitions) just once in the eleven seasons he spent with the Gunners – yet he is seen as one of the Premier League’s best ever forwards.
Similarly, Gianfranco Zola – who enjoys cult status at Stamford Bridge (and is currently stinking it up in Birmingham, but the less said about that the better) – only found the net 59 times in the 229 Premier League games he played in the Blue of Chelsea. Granted: the Italian was 30 years old when he first moved to England, but his record in Serie A, during his supposed heyday, was not too much better.
Both Bergkamp and Zola were eye-catching performers, the like of which English football – which has historically favoured strong and pacey forwards – had rarely seen up until the influx of foreign players in the 1990s. Equally, deft touches and fancy flicks rarely win you any titles on their own, whereas 30 goals in a season often does.
Speaking to Sky Sports, Thierry Henry described his Dutch striker partner of seven years as the best footballer he’d ever played with, citing his ability to lay on assists for his teammates, but there have been plenty of strikers who have combined playmaking responsibilities with prolific goalscoring. Henry himself is one such example, but how about Rooney (up until three or four years ago), or Ibrahimovic, or Suarez?
I admired how Dennis was always trying to respect the game. He could score but he could also pass and wait for the right moment.
For all his obvious ability, there was a reason Zola ended up at Chelsea – at the time, an emerging team who hadn’t tasted domestic title success in nearly half a century – instead of one of the football heavyweights of the 1990s. It’s unfair to dismiss him as a luxury player, but he also lacked the consistent difference-making ability of contemporaries like Ronaldo, Del Piero, Batistuta and Klinsmann.
Players like Emile Heskey, who was less a maverick showman than he was an enduring workhorse, were rightly criticised for failing to hit the sort of numbers expected from a top level striker, and those same criticisms should apply to Bergkamp and Zola. They have earned their status as legends, but there are plenty of Premier League strikers better than them.