Death of a strike force: Where has Chelsea's forward line gone?

WIGAN ENGLAND - AUGUST 21: Nicolas Anelka of Chelsea celebrates with Didier Drogba (11) as he scores their third goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Wigan Athletic and Chelsea at DW Stadium on August 21 2010 in Wigan England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Something absolutely fascinating has happened to this Chelsea squad over the last twelve months, and I'm not entirely sure I like it. Going into the international break, the club have two senior centre forwards on the squad: Fernando Torres and Daniel Sturridge. I suspect that most would consider two players to be woefully inadequate depth, especially when Sturridge has never played as a lone striker in the Premier League, and you wouldn't have been alone if you expected a new forward to come in before the transfer window closed yesterday.

As it turned, Loic Remy was not actually forthcoming. Nor were Radamel Falcao or Edinson Cavani. The window came and went, and aside from the surprise loan of Michael Essien to Real Madrid, Chelsea completely failed to do anything particularly interesting, like sign another striker. We'll be trying to compete on all fronts with just two senior centre forward-capable players until at least January.

This is a new development, incidentally. A survey of our squad on September 1st. 2011 would have turned up no fewer than six strikers. Alongside Torres and Sturridge lurked Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Salomon Kalou and Romelu Lukaku, creating a front line so strong that Fabio Borini's departure to Parma was met with a collective shrug of the shoulders.

Since then, Drogba and Kalou have left on free transfers, Anelka's been sold to Shanghai Shenhua and Romelu Lukaku's been sent out on loan. None have been replaced, despite the fact that having just two centre forwards on your squad severely limits a team tactically and leaves a club horribly exposed in case of injury.

It's not just Chelsea doing this, either. In the tier of teams* below the two Manchester clubs -- and yes, finishing twenty-odd points back of them last season means that we probably shouldn't pretend that the Blues are serious title contenders for a while -- there is a serious dearth of centre forwards.

*I'm excluding Newcastle United here, mostly because they overperformed pretty heavily last season.

Arsenal have Oliver Giroud and not much else. Liverpool have Luis Suarez, who isn't really a centre forward. and Fabio Borini. Tottenham Hotspur field a Manchester City reject in Emmanuel Adebayor as well as whatever Jermain Defoe is supposed to be. All three sides seem to be actively ridding their squad of strikers and not making too much of an effort to replace them.

Note that there are a total of zero wins and five goals in that three-team group. Liverpool average a goal a game, Spurs do as well, and Arsenal have yet to find the net. Chelsea prop things up nicely with eight, but take away Eden Hazard's incredible contributions to the scoresheet and I'd suspect the story would look very different at Stamford Bridge as well.

Meanwhile, Manchester City and Manchester United are merrily building absolutely devastating forward lines. It's hugely telling that perhaps the most dangerous striker of the tier-two grouping is only playing for Tottenham because City had no place for him behind Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko. United have Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck -- they were strong enough up front to sell Dimitar Berbatov, the 2010/11 season's leading scorer, to Fulham on deadline day.

I would like to suggest to you that the fact that the teams who ruled the roost last year are also the sides with the deadliest, deepest forwards lines is not a coincidence. Goals might be overrated as a statistic, but they're also ultimately what matters, and it's your centre forwards who end up scoring the bulk of them.

*Chelsea actually haven't follow this pattern historically, mostly because of Frank Lampard.

The top three attacking sides in the league last season were City, United and Arsenal, and the inclusion of the last name in that list is thanks entirely due to the antics of a centre forward who has since moved to United. Chelsea and Tottenham both finished last season almost thirty goals shy of Manchester City's total. Is this highly suggestive evidence that more and better strikers equals more goals? I don't know if I'd go that far, but I would say that it's at the very least obnoxiously flirtatious.

Which leads us to an interesting question. Why, exactly, are teams embarking on a merry crusade to rid themselves of their excess strikers?

It's actually fairly fashionable these days to refuse to spend money on centre forwards. We have Jonathan Wilson's famous 'goals are overrated' line, which has been turned into a cliche without really considering the underlying point. A rise in tactical experimentation means that some sides do without strikers entirely or play an attacking midfielder as a 'false nine*'. And then there's Soccernomics.

*Kevin de Bruyne did this for Werder Bremen against Borussia Dortmund last week. No, I'm not entirely sure why.

Don't get me wrong, Soccernomics (Why England Loses in the UK) is a very fine and interesting book by a superb author, and everyone could learn a lot from reading it. But it's nowhere near appropriate to treat it as any sort of bible for running football teams, and, well, I could be convinced that teams are doing exactly that. I mean, what would you conclude after reading this section on avoiding mistakes in the transfer market?

Here are a few more of Lyon's secrets. First, try not to buy center forwards. Center forward is the most overpriced position in the transfer market. (Goalkeeper is the most underpriced, even though keepers have longer careers than outfield players; in baseball, the most overpriced position is pitcher.) Admittedly Lyon "announced" itself to soccer by buying the Brazilian center forward Sonny Anderson for $19 million in 1999, but the club has scrimped on the position since. [Gerard] Houllier left OL in 2007 grumbling that even after the club sold Florent Malouda and Eric Abidal for a combined total of $45 million, [Jean-Michel] Aulas still wouldn't buy him a center forward.

-Soccernomics, page 118.

See? Winning in the transfer market is easy. Centre forwards are overpriced. Don't buy them. You can win in the transfer market by selling your overpriced forwards and spending money elsewhere. It's a simple rule.

It's also a simplistic one*. We're not good at determining how valuable players are, because football's a very difficult sport to break down statistically. We're pretty good, on the other hand, at determining how expensive players are. But the two don't necessarily correlate. It could easily be true that centre forwards cost more than goalkeepers because they're actually worth more, for example.

*NB: Saying this is happening because teams other than Lyon are following Lyon's rules is also simplistic. But you knew that already.

Not spending cash on centre forwards is also advice that only works if you don't have to have centre forwards to play football effectively. If someone came up with a study that said my electrical services company overcharges me, I don't really have the option of not paying it, because then I'd be completely without power and therefore pretty screwed. Strikers cost so much because everyone wants strikers, and the free market dictates how much teams have to pay for them. It's very, very difficult to go without.

Which is why the oh-so-clever strategy of exploiting the inefficiency in the centre forward market turns out to be not that smart after all. If teams really are using Lyon's approach as a guideline, it's roughly as silly as Liverpool's 'buy chances created' approach from two summers ago. And if you think that sports teams would never use half-baked statistical approaches to make major decisions, I'd invite you to read the Moneyball chapter on the 2002 Major League and then read up on what actually happened -- Oakland's market inefficiencies turned out to be nothing of the sort.

If football teams place a high premium on strikers, the assumption shouldn't be that football teams are being stupid. Certainly, they might be overvaluing forwards, but simple economic models are unlikely to ever unseat decades of experience and wisdom. As we get closer and closer towards a true statistical revolution in football, it's important to remember that any nuggets of statistical wisdom supplement, rather than replace, the traditional approach.

And in the meantime, how about getting some more strikers, Chelsea? I think that would be grand.


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