The striker search: roles & attributes

With the sale of Marko Arnautovic and the very public pursuit of Maxi Gomez, naturally there has been a lot discussion about strikers and who West Ham should look to sign to lead the line next season.

I wanted to start this piece not so much to talk about the names of the strikers we have been linked with, but rather to start a discussion about the type of striker we are looking for, the attributes that we consider most important and the changing role of the centre forward in the modern game.

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As increasingly in the modern game I believe the effectiveness of a striker should be judged less by his goal scoring record and more by his all round game and what he brings to the team.

For example: I am always surprised to learn how few touches a striker has in an opposition box when Sky flash up the obligatory graphic. So I have decided to do a little bit of research myself.

Below are touch maps for each of the last three games Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez started, which go some way to reaffirming this.

Arnautovic v Watford (A)

Touches: 33
Touches in box: 6
% Touches in box: 19%

Arnautovic v Southampton (H)

Touches: 38
Touches in box: 7
% Touches in box: 19%

Arnautovic v Tottenham (A)

Touches: 27
Touches in box: 2
% Touches in box: 8%

Hernandez v Man Utd (A)

Touches: 26
Touches in box: 2
% Touches in box: 8%

Hernandez v Cardiff (A)

Touches: 29
Touches in box: 1
% Touches in box: 4%

Hernandez v Newcastle (H)

Touches: 27
Touches in box: 6
% Touches in box: 23%

Across these six games Arnautovic and Hernandez had a total of 180 touches, 25 of which were in the opposition box. Which means only 14% of their touches were in the box; or that nine out of every 10 touches they take are outside of the box.

This often involved controlling a hopeful punt downfield, running the channels, linking up and bringing others in to play. All of that's before we even consider the defensive work the modern day striker is expected to do, leading the first line of defence and initiating the press.

I think few would argue that Hernandez is the better striker in the traditional sense, with a better goal scoring record and superior movement in the opposition box. However, I think the role of the smaller, nimbler, poacher is all but extinct at the top level of the game now the majority of teams play one up top.

As it requires that your lone centre forward has a much broader skill set, as seen by the above charts which show where their majority of their touches are taking place.

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For these reasons I would argue that goal scoring record alone should not be the determining factor when evaluating the relative merits of the strikers available to us. As has been widely reported very few PL teams have a striker who is capable of scoring more than 20+ league goals a season; in fact with the exception of Romelu Lukaku and Jamie Vardy, nobody has achieved this feet outside of the top 6 for the last decade.

If we were to sign a striker who scored 15 league goals next season, I would consider that a success especially with the likely pressure of a high transfer fee. But even then that would mean there were 23 games, and likely more assuming some of those 15 goals were braces, where they don't register on the score sheet.

So when they're not scoring, what is it we are looking for in a striker? What attributes must they possess in order for us to perform better as a team and become more consistent? What attributes should we be looking at to bring the best out of our exciting attacking players like Felipe Anderson, Pablo Fornals, Manuel Lanzini, Michail Antonio and Andriy Yarmolenko?

The attribute I would probably prioritise over all others is their physicality. I think we have been at our best over recent years with a mobile and strong centre forward like Arnautovic or Diafra Sakho who is able to keep central defenders honest by being able to post up against them, hold them off and win their share of duels. But crucially, one who is prepared to work the channels, look in behind and stretch defences.

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I think this combination gives our more creative midfielders space to work in and allows them to play the through balls Anderson and (from highlights) Fornals love to play. Moreover, a striker with these physical attributes also helps to relieve pressure on the defence as it keeps opposition defenders honest.

It prevents them from pushing up, safe in the knowledge that a lone centre forward like Carroll or Hernandez doesn't have either the pace to run in behind, or the height/strength to bring the ball under control.

From these foundations and with the creative options around them I believe the chosen striker would not only reach double figures, but improve the productivity of those attacking midfielders around them as we'd dominate the game and create more chances.

I'm aware the names have been debated at length but in light of the above I'd be looking at strikers in the mould of Andrea Belotti, Duvan Zapata and Divock Origi rather than the likes of Gonzalo Higuain, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Edin Dzeko, who I fear may be a little more static.

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