Football teams consistently seem to want goalscorers, someone to push them over the top, take them to the next level. But having had a rummage around in the game’s history, I’ve begun to wonder if this desire is not misplaced.
It started when I was reading about Arsenal’s 1990-91 side. This team is not looked back upon with any great fondness, partly because it did its thing just before the Premier League era, partly because George Graham’s sides have been slightly tarnished with age. The latter is key, I think: Arsenal did get very dull under Graham, but in 90-91 were a phenomenon. With Anders Limpar frequently ‘on fire’, with Paul Merson, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas and Paul Davis feeding the underrated Alan Smith, they were a good attacking side. The trick here, of course, is that this attack was built on the mother of all defences, with newly signed David Seaman backing up the famed Dixon-Adams-Bould-Winterburn quartet.
That season Arsenal won 24, drew 13 and lost only once. They scored 74 and conceded 18. That’s fantastic. A decent (if obvious) argument can be made that the very best football teams are those that score lots more than they concede, and few teams in the league’s history have a better ratio than that Arsenal side.
All set to dominate for years to come, Arsenal changed tack slightly after that. Paul Davis was marginalised, Michael Thomas was sold, and in came the extremely famous Ian Wright. Wright went on to break club goalscoring records, but the team simply didn’t win games while he was there. This may well have not been Wright’s fault, but there’s no doubt they changed the way they played, and probably not for the better.
Some more examples: Leeds United’s 1968-69 team is quite similar to that of Arsenal above. Juggernaut of a side: W27, D13, L2, F66, A26. They played with Mike O’Grady and Mick Jones up front. Next season they signed the prolific and excellent Allan Clarke, and while he, like Wright, was a fine player and a great success, Leeds didn’t replicate their 68-69 excellence.
Spurs in 1960-61, W31, D4, L7, F115, A55 (champions). They then sign Jimmy Greaves. Spurs in 1961-62: W21, D10, L11, F88, A69 (third place). Everton won the league the year before Gary Lineker joined and the year after he left. And if I want to stretch the point, Liverpool’s greatest ever side, 1978-79, had David Johnson up front. Ian Rush was very successful, and his medal haul slightly invalidates my argument, but equally, they never did reach the highs of 78-79, when they won 30, drew 8 and lost 4, all while scoring 85 and conceding 16.
More recent times are harder to untangle. The great Chelsea side of 2004-05 (W29, D8, L1, F72, A15) contained Didier Drogba, but was arguably built on its defence and the ability of players like Arjen Robben, Damien Duff and Frank Lampard to inflict damage from midfield. I’m not sure what to make of the various United sides: the Cole/Yorke lineup was very good and perhaps doesn’t fit into the discussion, and Javier Hernandez’s must be acknowledged, then you have those amazing Rooney/Ronaldo seasons. So United are perhaps exceptions.
It’s not a golden rule, is it? But in some cases very good teams have regressed when adding a ‘missing link’ goalscorer, perhaps because most good teams do regress (phenomenal performance is by its nature unusual, an outlier), perhaps because the focus of the team changes too much towards accommodating that player.