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Why are top European football teams turning to South American strikers?

PAU BARRENA / AFP | Barcelona's Brazilian forward Neymar gestures after missing a goal opportunity during the Spanish league football match FC Barcelona vs Atletico de Madrid at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on September 21, 2016.

Spanish football club Barcelona have confirmed their Brazilian striker Neymar’s desire to leave, sparking talk of a record-smashing €222 million move to France’s Paris Saint-Germain.


PSG’s protracted efforts to sign Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior demonstrates the team's intent to break into the elite -- and the best way to do that seems to be by signing a South American (and not a European) striker.

There is a dearth of outstanding European striking talent throughout the continent’s top teams. Juventus – currently Italy’s preeminent club – relies on Argentinian stars Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dyabla up front. In the past, England’s Chelsea had long dazzled with European attacking geniuses like Italian Gianfranco Zola. But now their one world-class out-and-out striking force is Diego Costa, who grew up in Brazil.

Likewise with Chelsea's fellow English nouveaux riches Manchester City, who depend on Argentina’s Sergio Aguero up front. And look too at France’s Monaco, who surprised football fans last season by winning France’s Ligue 1 and reaching the Champions League semi-finals. The club has traditionally been an impressive producer of French talent in all positions – but their goal-scoring success owes a lot to Colombian forward Radamel Falcao.

Spain’s Barcelona also exemplifies this phenomenon. The team’s midfield and defence are dominated by European players. But as for strikers that turn that creative play into deadly goalscoring menace, all three – Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and, for now at least, Neymar – are South American.

A re-oriented game

There is a big structural factor behind this: a revolution in European club football over the past decade or so. The focus of the game has been re-oriented from the attack to the midfield.

The change in English club Arsenal’s playing style is the most extreme example of this revolution in the game. Until the late 2000s, Wenger’s midfield would drive the ball forward with pace and power to the feet of powerful strikers like Thierry Henry, who would exhaust opposition defenders in the box with relentless runs and shots from an array of angles.

Since then, Arsenal’s play has slowed into a gradual build-up of midfield passes, assiduously maintaining position until opposition defenders let slip, often leaving strikers to just neatly slot the ball into the net. This approach – in which the role of the striker is diminished – is less effective than one in which strikers made key creative contributions in attack. Although rarely taken to Arsenal’s extreme, this became a trend throughout Europe towards the end of the last decade.

The innovations of visionaries – such as Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona manager who refined a style of rapid passes and moves in the midfield – trickle down football’s echelons until they reach academies. In Europe, academies are always keen to follow trends. This is not the case in South America: there, the style of play promoted in academies has not changed much in decades. The cults of Pelé and Diego Maradona – legendary strikers, Brazilian and Argentinian respectively – remain pervasive. Increasingly, young European strikers learn to play like midfielders. This diminishes their quality in attack.

An attacking midfielder’s creativity is different from that of a striker. Deeper down the pitch, with more time on the ball, one can afford to play a more polite, technical game. A striker's creativity is one that stems from aggression, from an ability to spin the ball around at unthinkable angles, to defy the manoeuvres of the hardest defenders, to convince one's midfield teammates to supply the best passes and crosses. Teams can play the midfield possession game as much as they like. But to be amongst the best, up front they need that quality of menace on the ball.

Even Bayern Munich’s Polish forward Robert Lewandowski – the greatest European striker of the day – in many respects looks like an attacking midfielder playing higher up the pitch. Herein lies his limitation. Lewandowski constantly creates space, positions himself ingeniously, passes and shoots with extraordinary incisiveness. But he lacks the rough cunning of a South American striker like Suarez.

In shifting the game’s focus to the midfield, European clubs are increasingly finding that, in effect, they have merely outsourced the nurturing of world-class strikers to the other big football continent: South America.

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