It was the most unexpected of laments. “Where,” asked Arsène Wenger, “are the Tommy Lawtons, Nat Lofthouses and Frank Stapletons of long ago?”
The Arsenal manager did not use those words exactly, but they were his thoughts as he indicated Olivier Giroud’s value to Arsenal lay not just in his goals but in the lack of alternative centre-forwards should he need replacing.
Giroud has already scored 10 goals this season after Saturday’s two strikes against Southampton that stretched Arsenal’s Premier League lead to four points, but continues to be belittled by speculation that in January Wenger will try to buy another striker.
If he does, hinted Wenger, it would be to complement rather than supplant Giroud, because such replacements either do not exist, or cost in excess of £50m.
“All the big strikers now come from South America, not Europe. Even Germany, which is producing fantastic players, has no strikers coming through. Maybe it is a consequence of the way we coach them, or of modern life. I don’t know.”
Wenger elaborated: “If you look back to the 1960s and 70s and look at the strikers who were good in the air and English, there was one in every single club. And tell me now today have you the same number? I’m not even talking about quality, have you even the same number who go in for crosses, go in the air?”
There are a few, but nothing like the number there was when Lawton and Lofthouse terrorised goalkeepers either side of the Second World War, or even when Stapleton was heading them in at 1970s Highbury. The pick of the bunch are perhaps Ricky Lambert, anonymous against Arsenal on Saturday, and aged 31, Peter Crouch, who is a year older, and the perpetually injured Andy Carroll.
Wenger mentioned South Americans Radamel Falcao, Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez and Gonzalo Higuain, the last two of whom he tried to buy in the summer. Suarez seems the odd one out in that list but Wenger highlighted the way he uses his body like the barnstorming centre-forwards of yore.
“In the 1950s [because of the pitches] you had to lift the ball and bump it forward and you needed somebody who fights for the ball. Today we educate players to play more on the ground. Maybe we pay a bit of a price for this: less people who are ready to go for that kind of ball. There is still a place for the No 9, for people who go behind the defenders in the air or on the ground. Are people ready to body-challenge? Players like Suarez, who use their bodies like to go for the impossible ball, you’ll not find many strikers who do that.
“In Africa there used to be this type of player. I discovered George Weah, we had Emmanuel Adebayor, there was Didier Drogba. Maybe because they are educated on bad pitches, but there are less there now.”
Giroud’s physical strength counted when he brushed aside Artur Boruc as the goalkeeper spun himself like a top, all twists, turns and shimmies, instead of simply clearing a back pass. Having poked the ball away from the gormless goalie and into the net, Giroud later added a second from the spot.
“I like Giroud’s play,” added Wenger. “Maybe he is different to the rest of the team but he gives us so much with his physical presence and his link play. He is dangerous in every single game.”
If there was an irony in Southampton, the league’s arch exponents of a high press, being beaten because their goalkeeper was closed down, Mauricio Pochettino was not dwelling on it. He paid credit to his players for the character they showed after the setback – with seven players beaten 6-1 at the Emirates last season they might easily have crumbled – and emphasised his support for Boruc.
“It was completely unexpected that this would happen and we have to take it on the chin,” said the Southampton manager. “We’re angry about what happened, but at the same time I am happy and pleased with the way we reacted. Boruc didn’t hide, he just kept on wanting the ball and played well actually.”
Such was Boruc’s sang-froid he later posted photos on Instagram comparing his Cruyff turn to the real thing.