Dying breed: the ‘fox in the box’ striker close to extinction

Article originally published in These Football Times…

As modern football transitions into ever-increasing levels of physicality and tactical fluidity, a ‘fox in the box’ striker is a dying breed close to extinction. Throughout the history of the game this player’s skillset – a pragmatic use of energy, a laser-sharp sense of positioning and ruthless finishing – has been pivotal to some of the finest teams of the past century.

Although in 2018, aspiring young forwards must wonder how they fit into such a constantly evolving system. The modern striker needs to possess a multi-faceted range of skills – goal scoring, but also with a blend of athleticism, pace and defensive capabilities – so top-level teams can no longer merely rely on a one-dimensional ‘poacher’.

This seems particularly relevant today, as managers in the top flight struggle to accommodate those reliant merely on goal scoring instincts. Slaven Bilic and David Moyes have both been left scratching their heads at how to harmonise Javier Hernandez’s keen eye for goal alongside the Hammers’ target man Andy Carroll. Instead, Hernandez has been used, with little success, as a deeper-lying attacking midfielder or left-sided support striker.

Similarly, Charlie Austin – an immaculate finisher – has played a full 90 minutes only twice in 22 league games. He often shares game time with Shane Long, an industrious all-rounder not renowned for prolific goal scoring who seems to embody the modern preference for physicality over shrewdness, grit over grace.

Prolific strikers from the lower leagues have also struggled to make an impact in the Premier League; including Dwight Gayle and Jordon Rhodes. The latter has proven a master at conserving energy, with little input in the build-up of play, to then provide the killer finish in the dying embers of a match. Although, during Rhodes’s brief spell in the Premier League at Middlesbrough in the 2016/17 season, he was required to provide more defensive cover than he was accustomed to. One person’s ‘conserving energy’ is another’s ‘laziness’. After only six league games, and zero goals, Rhodes moved back to the comforting environment of the Championship with Sheffield Wednesday where his skillset is deemed more desirable.

The original foxes

The game has seen a host of goal poachers with exceptional goal tallies – Leônidas, Jimmy Greaves, Denis Law, Gary Lineker and Romario. Lineker spent his career being criticised for ‘goal-hanging’ yet scored a record 10 goals at World Cups for England. His Golden Boot in World Cup 1986 included a hat-trick against Poland where each goal typically came from inside the six-yard box.

Towards the end of Lineker’s career in the early 1990s, Premier League teams persisted with various forms of a 4-4-2 set-up. The two forwards were complementary, harmonising between a ‘little and large’ combination (Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn, Michael Owen and Emile Heskey) or a deep-lying creative player alongside a speedy striker (Eider Gudjohnsen and Jimmy Flloyd Hasselbaink, Peter Beardsley and Andy Cole).

Later in the 1990s, the ‘fox in the box’ moniker given to Francis Jeffers became ironic over time, as though he embodied the death of the phrase through his own peripatetic career. Prolific form as a youngster at Everton convinced Arsene Wenger to sign him as part of the Invincibles squad, although Jeffers’ demise was severe. After leaving Everton he notched only 22 goals over a 13 year period for 14 different clubs. ‘I didn’t fulfil my potential. That is a fact’, he said in March 2017. ‘When I came through, everyone was playing 4-4-2 so I was one of two strikers. That’s all I ever did so the things I was doing in the early stages of my career I continued to do.’

Adapt or die

Tactical systems now revolve around a range of attacking-minded players narrowly supporting a lone-striker, with less focus on so-called ‘wingers’ providing crosses from out wide. Those players previously labelled simply as ‘forwards’, in the mould of Jamie Vardy, now lead the line unselfishly running the flanks as part of a much more varied and diverse role.

In his pomp, Didier Drogba became the benchmark, almost two players in one – an all-encompassing physical presence but with a deft touch and a keen eye for goal. In much the same way as ex-Chelsea teammate Claude Makelele having the role of the holding midfielder informally named after him, the role of the perfect lone striker really ought to be named after Drogba as well.

A large chunk of the lone striker’s role is defensive responsibility. Early into his punditry career, Mark Schwarzer gave a stern defence of Bobby Zamora. Following a 0-0 draw at home to Manchester United, Schwarzer was asked, “How can a team rely on a lone striker with such a mediocre goalscoring record?” The Australian argued “I really don’t see it that way, he performed his role perfectly tonight. We work on this in training every day. In matches like these, Zamora is the first line of defence.”

It was an interesting argument against players being judged solely on goalscoring statistics, although can you imagine being in the shoes of the Newcastle United manager in the late-1990s and asking Alan Shearer to be the ‘first line of defence’? You’d most likely be collecting your P45 soon after.

In the ever-changing landscape of modern English football – multi-faceted duties with a focus on supreme fitness and dynamism – a striker’s function is now manifold. Elite teams can no longer rely on a forward who operates almost exclusively inside the opposition’s penalty area.

The fox in the box, a one-dimensional poacher, is close to extinction. In much the same vein as the theory of evolution, the lesson for any aspiring young footballer is a simple one: adapt or die.

Chris Henderson

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