‘It is the hardest position on the pitch. That’s why they cost so much, that’s why they get paid so much and that’s why finding one at this time of the year is so hard.’
Former Liverpool and Newcastle United manager Graeme Souness is succinct in his assessment of why strikers are so important. And with a week of the January transfer window left to play out, the clamour to buy one has never been greater.
Frank Lampard lost his job craving a goalscorer; West Ham grabbed the one he wanted in Danny Ings. Bournemouth gazumped Southampton to steal Nicolas Jackson and Manchester United are still on the look-out, despite the surprise signing of Wout Weghorst.
Signing a quality striker remains one of the hardest things to get right in the transfer market
Frank Lampard was dismissed as Everton boss after being unable to sign the striker he craved
As for Chelsea, they are simply collecting them. ‘Keep it simple, stupid,’ said one Premier League manager to his chief scout when challenged this week. ‘Scoring goals either keeps us up or wins a trophy.’
It’s blunt but as Souness underlines: ‘If you find an out and out goalscorer, you don’t even have to play well as they will nick you games. The Liverpool team I played in of 1984 wasn’t necessarily the best but we had Ian Rush. We won the League, European Cup and the League Cup.
‘They are the really tough guys, not the defenders who take the cheap shot when you’re on the half-turn. They take the physical assaults and they carry the fight. There’s not too many top ones around and that’s why they cost a premium.’
Many managers blame the football fad of changing formation to 4-3-3, which has served Liverpool to good effect, for the dearth of an old-fashioned center forward, hence the reason Tottenham and Napoli can confidently demand £100million plus for Harry Kane and Victor Osimhen this summer.
Victor Oshimen and Harry Kane are two top quality strikers valued at more than £100m
The vogue is to find an inside forward or inverted winger instead. But whatever the style, find a forward that scores. ‘It’s very simple,’ said one director of football. ‘Everyone wants a striker because there are two positions that get you out of the sh*t: goalkeeper and striker. It doesn’t matter if you are at the bottom or the top. And the January window is not a window you necessarily prepare for, it’s one that gets you out of trouble, hence everyone scrambles for strikers.
‘Look at Manchester United, would they have signed Odion Ighalo or Wout Weghorst if they had planned properly in the summer? Would Everton be asking about Marko Arnautovic, who’s 34 in April, if they had sorted the Richarlison problem in the summer?
‘Clubs are willing to pay premium fees and salaries for strikers over 30-years-old, that’s because they may be less of a gamble than £25m plus a big contract for a 20-year-old with little to no track record. The stakes are high.’
Former Burnley flop Wout Weghorst was signed by Man United in their search for a striker
West Ham spent £12m on Danny Ings in the hope he can get them away from relegation trouble
The pressure of getting that choice wrong is felt at all levels. For Aston Villa, there was calculated risk in selling Ings to West Ham as they bought the potential of Colombian Jhon Duran from Chicago Fire. QPR could hand promotion advantage to Millwall if they sell Lyndon Dykes to their rivals while Burton Albion may drop another division should they lose Victor Adeboyejo to Bolton or Wigan.
One Premier League scout was this week asked to give a report on a highly-rated Championship striker who has hit double figures this season. ‘I told them he wasn’t good enough for us,’ the scout tells Sportsmail.
‘In the end my name is on the report and I can’t risk my name being on something that could cost us fortunes.
‘He wasn’t great in one on ones. I look out for his speed, mobility. What dialogue he has with his midfield, his hold up play. How he fares in aerial duels, movement, technical ability, first touch and finishing. If they have all that then it’s Ronaldo at his best!’
Continued interest in a 34-year-old Marko Arnautovic highlights the struggles that clubs face in finding a striker that can score them the goals to take them on to greater heights
Agents are often blamed for inflating prices and the tension. Sascha Empacher, director of Spocs agency in Germany, took Sasa Kalajdzic to Wolves on deadline day last summer. It cost £15m but the striker tore a cruciate ligament on his debut.
‘Everybody is looking for strikers as they help you reach your targets,’ he says. ‘The Premier League is the best and most competitive league in the world. The budget that Premier League teams have, they can go shopping in Europe almost without resistance. German, Spanish, French or Belgian teams will all sell if the price is right.
‘The transfer talks are held over weeks but the reality is most deals are done close to deadline as only then do you know the real price. It can prove more expensive to act like that in January though as clubs demand higher fees to compensate for the pain of losing their best players and putting their own sporting project in danger.’
Leeds took the risk in spending £35.5m on the relatively unknown forward Georginio Rutter
After suffering deadline day disappointment in September, Leeds went big, investing £35.5m in the relatively unknown Georginio Rutter from Hoffenheim. Chief executive Angus Kinnear said they had put trust in their scouting network.
So fans voiced frustration when Rutter was left on the bench during Sunday’s 0-0 stalemate with Brentford. Yet a protective Jesse Marsch was reluctant to pander to such demands.
‘I just want to integrate him the right way,’ said Marsch. ‘In the end I decided to wait maybe one more week before we unleash him. When you have new players you always want to set them up to succeed.’
That’s the weight of expectation on a striker and why the shirt is so hard to fill.
Wolves signed Sasa Kalajdzic for £15m in the summer, but he tore a cruciate ligament on debut