Champions League analysis: Home-grown strikers become a rare breed in the competition

'In Europe we're not producing many real strikers,' Arsene Wenger was quoted in Uefa technical report

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The Independent Football

Manchester United may be missing out on the Champions League for the first time in 19 years but in dumping Danny Welbeck for Radamel Falcao, it appears that Louis van Gaal has recognised one of the tournament’s dominant trends.

As the 2014-15 group stage gets under way on Tuesday night, Uefa’s technical report into last season’s competition has highlighted the shortage of top-level European strikers as a key talking point along with current tactical practices.

Just as the Premier League has not produced an English top scorer since Kevin Phillips with Sunderland in 2000, so Real Madrid’s Raul in 2001 was the last player to win the Champions League’s golden boot playing for a club from their own country. The report said: “In the attacking departments of the top clubs, native players generally had marginal roles and minimal presence.”

Of the combined 191 goals scored by the eight Champions League quarter-finalists last season, only 12 of them came from forward players representing a home-country club – Germany’s Thomas Müller got five for Bayern Munich, with United’s Wayne Rooney (two) and Welbeck (one) scoring three between them for United.

The Uefa report also quoted the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, who said: “If you look at the top strikers, most of them are South American. In Europe we’re not producing many real strikers.”

The England Under-21 coach, Gareth Southgate, was among the technical observers who helped compile the report and can appreciate the attraction of South American imports. “They are all gifted in those one v one duels but also physically strong,” he told The Independent, pointing to the impact of Brazil-born Diego Costa at Chelsea who, like Colombia’s Falcao, seems “to be able do everything”.

That said, Southgate takes heart from the fact Wenger, while signing Chile’s Alexis Sanchez this summer, has also bucked the trend by giving Welbeck the chance to lead Arsenal’s attack – potentially with Theo Walcott alongside him. When you add the fact Daniel Sturridge – when fit – and Raheem Sterling will be spearheading Liverpool’s Champions League challenge, there are encouraging possibilities for English forwards, even if Chelsea and City have no front-line English attacker between them.

 

“With [World Cup winners] Germany, everybody is focusing on the system, but you can’t ignore the impact of the big-match experience with Bayern or with Borussia Dortmund that their players had,” said Southgate. “It is crucial for our [England] players to play Champions League football.”

The Uefa technical report assessed the prevailing tactical trends and Southgate himself is quoted, noting how, in this post-tiki taka era, “teams that dominate possession are being beaten by well-organised defensive blocks and quick counter-attacks”.

Atletico Madrid averaged just 45 per cent possession over a season in which they reached the Champions League final. Winners Real Madrid struck 13 goals from counter-attacks, while Dortmund, Arsenal’s opponents in Germany tonight, got seven of their 18 goals this way.

“With teams on the highest level now, the transition is particularly an area they work on,” said Southgate. “They don’t get obsessed with having more possession.”

He believes Liverpool have the attacking players to thrive in this environment. “They did that against Arsenal and Everton at home [winning 5-1 and 4-0 last season] and you would imagine away from home they would be set up to do that even more so.”

Also in vogue is the deep-lying creative midfielder and Liverpool, Southgate noted, have a “classic example” in Steven Gerrard. Where the old “Makélélé role” was a destructive one, the sitting midfielder is now charged with starting the attacks, according to Uefa’s report.

“The trend is for playmakers to operate from deep positions and to open play to the flanks,” it said. Wide men have more importance than ever, owing to the presence of two opposition holding midfielders blocking the central path; this was underlined by the fact the number of goals from the traditional through ball fell to 33 of the overall 362 scored last season. Food for thought as the feast begins.

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