As Gregg Berhalter said, “We lack the ability to finish on the offensive end.” With the U.S. stumbling at the World Cup, it may be a more diplomatic and obvious way for the U.S. to show that his team needs a forward.
They weren’t alone, but Berhalter tried three of four games, attempted a false nine and got a solitary goal from a center: Haji Wright’s fluke finish against the Netherlands. “We don’t have Memphis Depay,” the U.S. team manager concluded.
And he’s right, they’re not alone. If the statement that everyone else at the World Cup wants Kylian Mbappe or Lionel Messi is the obvious statement, then many would choose Depay, a striker with 43 national team goals and the ability to play in the knockout stages
Qatar’s team – or in most cases no longer so – can be divided into those who have the money and those who don’t: those who have the right striker and those who don’t. It’s not as simple as saying that the top-eight centers are the best uncompromising wingers, but there is a trend.
Consider a great late-bloomer. “The soccer was just awful,” Caspar Jurmand said after Denmark’s early exit with a single point. Had their 34 shots been more than just a solitary goal, the coach’s verdict might have been different, even if that was courtesy of the center back. His forwards were badly deformed.
For Tunisia, the lack of a center forward, at least until Wahbi Khazri was put up front, led to a lack of goals despite otherwise excellent performances. Mexico scored only two goals, one of which came from striker Henry Martin, but they lacked the necessary end product. Senegal may wonder if the first half chances they gave up against England would have produced a different result had Sadio Mane been fit.
Senegal regrets Sadio Mane’s absence as they splash out against England (Getty)
Senegal regretted Sadio Mane’s absence because they squandered against England (Getty)
for having a couple of non-playing goalscoring wingers who probably thought they would. For all the other failures, Belgium was eventually eliminated as the semi-healthy Romelu Lukaku missed chances he would normally have taken. Canada also underperformed: things might have been different if not for Jonathan David’s profligacy against Roberto Martinez’s team.
Uruguay’s enduring World Cup image was provided by a striker, whether Luis Suarez scored two goals against Ghana or burst into tears when he realized it wasn’t enough. However, while Suarez and Edinson Cavani they scored close to 1,000 goals for both club and national teams, neither of his goals added up. Darwin Nunez has also been ineffective, with Uruguay’s only scorer being a midfielder, Giorgian de Arrascaeta.
This team may have the most feared striker of his generation, but too little use is made of him. Robert Lewandowski took two penalties and scored one goal, but otherwise under-served. He scored on one of his two shots on target in open play. At times, however, Poland seemed completely dependent on Lewandowski’s presence to create chances.
Then there is the sub-category of teams that have a winger without really realizing it.Niclas Fullkrug is a superb substitute and avid hero of the tournament. He is also a great returner, an old-fashioned German number 9. He played only 66 minutes at the World Cup. Germany scored four goals in that time, Fullkrug scored two. If he had started a game, maybe Hans Flick’s team would still be in Qatar. The numbers for Germany’s outing make the case for the professional striker. Their xG of 10.1 was the highest in the group stage, but Thomas Müller was unfortunately not convincingly impressed by the number 9, and their six goals proved to be insufficient.
His presence in the attack reflects a shift in soccer thinking. A hallmark of Guardiola soccer is that the No. 9 has become like a dinosaur, soon to be extinct in the search for attacking midfielders, wingers and pseudo-Nines. Teams may be creating a different kind of opportunity. The four players with the most shots on goal so far – Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi, Jamal Musiala and Serge Gnabry – have not played as regular strikers. If the once glamorous position is now more like the weakest link, part of the reason may be because a change in priorities means too little attention is being paid to developing the next generation of wingers.
Indeed, one of Qatar’s most effective forwards came from the previous generation, in Olivier Giroud. Richarlison, who also scored three goals, has been the leader of the Brazilian team. Harry Kane has only one, but his skills as a provider have benefited England. The Netherlands have Depay and Cody Gakpo, each a senior striker if not an old-fashioned center forward. Nevertheless, Louis van Gaal still has three of them thanks to his decision to stock his squad with Vincent Janssen, Walter Weghorst and Luke de Jong as the number 9. Currently, they are competing to be his Plan B.
Alvaro Morata has played that role in Spain, scoring off the bench in the first two games, if not more importantly against Morocco; their outings with 1,000 passes and one shot on target should raise questions if their policy of overloading midfielders has started to backfire.
For Portugal, the substitute striker now looks like a starter, with hat-trick hero Goncalo Ramos showing both his own potential and that he has a replacement for No. 9 option Cristiano Ronaldo. At least, they have some sense of what the future holds. But much of the rest of the soccer world has evolved to a state where everyone needs their own Fullkrug.