COMMENTARY

'Pure' centre-forward becoming an endangered species

It was, according to Joachim Low, a straightforward tactical decision.

Germany started without a recognised centre-forward against Poland last Thursday because, according to their coach, the opposition defence "is strong in the air, so instead I wanted low passing".

The theory sounds reasonable enough (as the Polish central defenders are tall). So you could see why Low resisted calls to start with Mario Gomez in attack or to use Thomas Muller in a central position rather than the loose right-sided role he favours.

Instead, Low went with the diminutive Mario Gotze as a "false nine", leading the line but not in a way that Gerd Muller, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge or indeed Miroslav Klose would recognise.

It did not work. Germany had 69 per cent of the possession but mustered just three shots on target and drew 0-0.

More and more, one is reminded of Arsene Wenger's diagnosis of a critical shortage of pure strikers - whether of the traditional centre-forward variety or the classic penalty-box predator - produced by European countries due to the decline in what he calls "street football".

A study of Gotze's heat map confirms that, against a compact defence, his willingness to receive the ball in tight areas did not translate into an ability to make things happen.

The much wider issue, though, is a chronic Europe-wide shortage of centre-forwards, which makes you wonder precisely what is happening in youth academies across the continent.

More and more, one is reminded of Arsene Wenger's diagnosis of a critical shortage of pure strikers - whether of the traditional centre-forward variety or the classic penalty-box predator - produced by European countries due to the decline in what he calls "street football".

"South America is the only continent to develop strikers today," the Arsenal manager said last year. "Europe doesn't produce strikers any more. What we produce now are good technical players because there are nice pitches out there.

"When football is more formalised (in Europe), it's less about developing a fighting attitude. We've lost that a bit."

In other words, teams are developing, more and more, along the lines of Wenger's modern-day Arsenal - beautiful in much of what they do in the middle third of the pitch but lacking ruthlessness, decisiveness and aggression in the penalty area.

There is a move away from the old-fashioned No. 9 as the game becomes more technical.

But at Euro 2016, even arch-poachers such as Robert Lewandowski and Alvaro Morata are exceptions.

These are strange times in European football. The "pure" centre-forward, the role that everyone wanted to fill in the school playground, is becoming an endangered species.

Yet, the shortage serves only to increase the value of what has become an even more precious commodity.

For all the idea that the game has evolved, rendering out-and-out centre-forwards obsolete, Low would love to be able to call upon a younger version of Klose, a centre-forward with the quick feet and quick-wittedness that fewer and fewer players demonstrate in the penalty area.

It has not been a bad start to the tournament by any means, but there has been an alarming lack of goals. Some might put that down to cautious approaches but, in a tournament where teams can finish third and potentially still qualify for the knockout stage, few teams can be said to have been gripped by fear or even thwarted by brilliant defending.

More than anything, it has come down to a lack of real quality in the penalty area, whether it comes to the final ball or the finish.

It has not been like watching Barcelona, where the South American triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar tear opposition defences to shreds.

Is this because managers have stopped believing in the value of a centre-forward, particularly when faced with domineering defenders? Or is it simply that there are not enough centre-forwards of the required quality?

It is surely the latter.

It appears to come down to pragmatism rather than design, which is why youth coaches across Europe would be advised to get back to developing specialist skills.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 19, 2016, with the headline ''Pure' centre-forward becoming an endangered species'. Print Edition | Subscribe