Is the A-League a killing field for young strikers?

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By Evan Morgan Grahame, Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert


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    Eight of the top ten goalscorers in the A-League this season are foreign imports. Most are either bonafide, outside-the-cap marquees or – in the case of Adrian Mierzejewski – marquee-calibre players.

    The only two Australians in the group are the two Jets, Andrew Nabbout and Dimi Petratos, neither of whom are strikers.

    The highest placed Australian out-and-out striker – if we consider Dario Vidosic to be a combo-attacker – is George Blackwood. He has scored five goals in 18 games so far this term.

    It’s been clear for some time that A-League teams are looking to foreign imports to provide – if not the vast majority – a considerable portion of their goals.

    Roy O’Donovan, Oriel Riera, Bobo, Massimo Maccarone, and Ross McCormack have all been brought in as starting strikers over the last three years. Besart Berisha has been a leading goal-snipe since 2011. Marc Janko starred in a single season for Sydney. Most of us can still see, receding over the horizon behind us, the days of Emile Heskey.

    The list of imported strikers who’ve flopped – Federico Piovaccari anyone? – stretches on like a Big W receipt, and like said receipt has been stuffed hastily into some crevasse inside the door of the car and forgotten about.

    Naturally, the paucity of Australian strikers is a conversation that has been rumbling on for some time at national team level, with the prolonged reliance on Tim Cahill, and the lack of a clear successor the tent-pole of the debate.

    Tim Cahill tall

    Tim Cahill (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

    A year ago, I poked around for some alternative striking options that were hiding a little out of sight.

    Last season, Jamie Maclaren finished equal-first in the Golden Boot race, and Adam Taggart and Brendan Santalab weren’t too far behind. Cahill was playing regularly for Melbourne City, and there were some promising young strikers dotted around the league – Trent Buhagiar at Central Coast, or Lachie Scott at the Wanderers, for instance. Perhaps, some thought, Bruce Kamau might be converted into a potent goalscorer in the seasons to come, or Jaushua Sotirio.

    It was a situation that, although clearly not ideal, was healthy enough to stoke hope that things could improve.

    Since then, Maclaren and Cahill have left the A-League, Santalab has fallen out of the Wanderers’ attacking rotation, and Taggart has largely spent the season injured.

    As for the youngsters, Sotirio has played 333 minutes for the Wanderers this season, Scott has played fewer than that, and Buhagiar has, according to Fox Sports, registered just one single shot on target for the Mariners.

    Meanwhile, Maclaren has been bounced around from Germany to Scotland on loan, and Cahill is presently justifying his inactivity in Millwall by saying the club’s “professional environment” is more important than actual playing time, which is perfect because he’s played 16 minutes of league football for super Millwall since moving there. 

    There are contextual reasons why young, local strikers don’t get much of a run in the A-League. It is still a veteran’s league; Sydney have been utterly dominant with one of the oldest squads. It is still a physical league, with young, flimsy limbs crunched by gnarled veteran elbows; the kind of physical nous and sinewy resilience needed to survive the beside Michael Jakobsen or James Donachie can only come with experience.

    The aspects that make Bobo the league’s best striker – poise, body control, timing, cunning, and, above all, finishing – are all qualities that cannot just be emulated by a green-horned prospect, save for some generational wunderkind. A lot of teams need these qualities now, ready-made, and don’t have time to nurture them.


    Bobo (AAP Image/David Moir)

    Goals are the hard currency of football, so it makes sense for clubs to spend their precious cap room or marquee slots on players that will score them. You are still probably more likely to strike gold with a foreign import than you are by persevering with a young product.

    This isn’t to say scoring is the only way strikers can contribute to their team’s success – we saw in the Sydney Derby how valuable, if slightly unbecoming, Matt Simon’s unique brand of psycho-strike-o play was to the Sky Blues’ victory, even though he rarely threatened to actually score himself.

    Still, at best, these contributions are only supplementary. 

    Both our hard, fast pitches, and the relative lack of considered, capable passers in the league no doubt makes raw strikers look worse than they might be with better service. How many potential young strikers are we losing to the wings, where the ball circulates with more space and time, where Daniel Arzani-style dribblers create tweet-able GIFS with every step-over, every bamboozled opponent?

    How much of this is due to a lack of inspiration? It feels like we’ve always had great goalkeepers to prompt youngsters into dreaming blissfully of becoming the next Mark Bosnich, Mark Schwarzer or Mat Ryan, but how many youngsters remember Mark Viduka?

    It seems as though the days of Cahill scoring majestic winners for the Socceroos are coming to a rather bitter end, so where is the next striker’s idol who will take his place? Are we just going through an extended bare patch, or has our domestic system been shaped in such a way that dissuades not just players from becoming strikers, but from clubs supporting the few that do?

    Obviously, this piece isn’t meant as some ruddy rally cry against foreign players; Bobo, Berisha and the rest have improved the league immeasurably, have become vital parts of it, and I have treasured the wonderful goals they’ve given us.

    But it shouldn’t stop us from analysing the effects – both positive and negative – that they have had on the recruitment tendencies clubs now follow, tendencies in large part justified by their success.

    Evan Morgan Grahame
    Evan Morgan Grahame

    Evan Morgan Grahame is a Melbourne-based journalist. Gleaning what he could from his brief career as a painter, the canvas of the football pitch is now his subject of contemplation, with the beautiful game sketching new, intriguing compositions every week. He has been one of The Roar's Expert columnists since 2016. Follow him on Twitter @Evan_M_G.

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    The Crowd Says (61)

    • Roar Rookie

      February 28th 2018 @ 6:22am
      Stevo said | February 28th 2018 @ 6:22am | ! Report

      Evan, your article about A-league goals scorers, comparing locals to imports, doesn’t mention the current all time season record scorer Bruno Fornaroli. Yet you seem to be all over Bobo like a rash. Please explain.

    • Roar Rookie

      February 28th 2018 @ 7:08am
      Waz said | February 28th 2018 @ 7:08am | ! Report

      I don’t think it’s just an A League problem to be honest;

      at mini-roo level they’re banging them in like Fall-n-rolli, between 11 and 14 when firm positions have been established good strikers are quite rare, and at U16 level they are rarer than hens teeth which is often the difference between any two sides.

      This season at my junior club we’re running five U16 teams and between all the coaches we only have one recognised and capable “striker”. The net result seems to be a shift to 4-4-1-1 with the striking position being held by a kid that has the physical presence to receive and hold the ball, he might score the odd goal but his job is feed the attacking midfielder and two wide midfielders … we have plenty of those, not dissimilar to the HAL really.

      Funnily enough, this pattern is not repeated on the girls side where they seem to have more strikers than positions.

      • Roar Guru

        February 28th 2018 @ 1:29pm
        Griffo said | February 28th 2018 @ 1:29pm | ! Report

        On the surface it seems to reflect a physical defence, and a lone striker isn’t going to take them all on, while across age groups it is the midfield in numbers that provides multiple scoring avenues.

        I don’t know of it is a reflection of the curriculum with passing triangles all the way to the box with rotating positions but it is common enough here after you get over the younger age groups who pass through the lines for the speedy attacker to run on to and score.

        It could also be an overall global trend in tactics, where it is easier to shut down one position than multiple ones. It just makes that good striker even more valuable when you can find one.

    • February 28th 2018 @ 7:39am
      AGO74 said | February 28th 2018 @ 7:39am | ! Report

      Not exactly unique this situation – the article linked below shows a small monitory of top scorers – only 2 of top 10 and roughly 10 or 11 of the 27 noted – are nationals of the country they are in:

      And we also see year after year in ACL that the top import goes to strikers.

      These statistics don’t show that we should just shrug our shoulders and not look into how we develop good strikers – but it is just a continuation of the global football reality as strikers are always the most prized asset (with creative midfielders not far behind) and will be pursued as such.

    • February 28th 2018 @ 7:50am
      Buddy said | February 28th 2018 @ 7:50am | ! Report

      Always a lack of strikers at grassroots in the teenage years and receiving calls from clubs involved at higher levels looking for some strike power. It becomes a little annoying when they come knocking 2/3rds into the season, offer free registration and kit at their club, fill heads up with some mad notion that soon the player will be offered a contract professionally if he scores regularly and then the truth emerges and either the parents shell out a few thousand dollars to play the next season or the player goes back to grassroots, usually at a different club as he can’t face his old team mates…….well that is one familiar story!
      As for homegrown talent in the A League – it appears to me that the stakes are too high to be able to give young players a great deal of time to hone their skills and develop their craft. If they are put in the side, they have to perform. George Blackwood was an excellent example at SFC where he was not able to convert a high enough percentage of chances and subsequently became surplus to requirements. He is enjoying more game time in Adelaide although I suspect that is more due to a lack of alternatives than his sparkling form. He does not give the impression that he is a menace and a danger when he has the ball. “Squanderers” as my son calls them due to their inability in the final third of the field. Well, theyhave struggled even understanding the definition of the term “striker” and are a shining example of how not to recruit forwards. Meanwhile, Sotirio and Scott have grown up and become “the next strike hope” but don’t appear to have been coached and nurtured well and often flung into a game where they are set up to fail. At grassroots level, there has been an obsession with finding players with real pace that just run past the defenders, towards goal and if they wait long enough, but not too long before shooting, they will succeed. A brilliant strategy for developing 100 metre runners that don’t fall over their feet, but little else. Sotirio has all the pace but you are always left womdering what he will do when he reaches the goal lime. Will he tirn left or right? Will he just run the ball out or be guided into a blind alleyway – yes that one crops up regulalry. Lachlan Scott doesn’t appear yet to be able to make the transition from youth football to seniors and he always appears timid and prone to bullying whenever playing in the firstteam.
      Still, the lack of quality strikers is a worldwide phenomenon and why clubs are willing to pay huge sums of money and risk everything for a return of 25-30 goals in a season. The incentives and rewards are there for our children and grandchildren – how do we get them to take up the challenge?

      • February 28th 2018 @ 8:04am
        Kangajets said | February 28th 2018 @ 8:04am | ! Report


        What has happened to good old “English “type centre forward who was big and strong , could finish , could niggle and bully the centre backs , could win headers . Could hit screamers …,, I heard Diego Costa described exactly like this ….as the player Chelsea are missing.

        Even the clinical number 9. Like shearer and rush etc. seem to be fading away .

        Is it just a pattern of world football, that players need to be more flexible with positions

        That’s all a bit rambling, but I hope you get the drift of what I meant .

    • February 28th 2018 @ 7:55am
      Kangajets said | February 28th 2018 @ 7:55am | ! Report

      Having followed football for a long time but only very recently taking a keener interest on formation changes . … the world over has less of a need for a striker , there is more need for creative midfielder or an attacking left or right sided players eg Nabbout, Champness,

      4 4 2 was a common system especially in British football and certainly was when I watched the old Newcastle breakers .

      So you had 2 genuine strikers in each team , and you had overlapping fullbacks who would run down the wing looking to cross to strikers eg Man utd. 2 strikers cole and Yorke , Hughes or Mclair … Liverpool had Rush and Johnston ,
      Shearer and Sutton at Blackburn.

      I’m sure Buddy can give a lot more insight into great English striking partnerships .

      I would like to hear about the old Nsl striker partnerships , you would remember them better then me .

      Different formations sometimes 4-3-3 …
      Sees only one genuine number 9 plays up front , with the attacking midfielder/ or attacking wide players like Andrew Nabbout or Kosta Barbarouses are contributing many of the teams goals .

      • February 28th 2018 @ 8:41am
        Buddy said | February 28th 2018 @ 8:41am | ! Report

        I’m wondering right now whether we are approaching from the wrong angle? K – you mention some very strong striking partnerships and in the old League div 1 I can add in Alan Clarke and Peter Lorimer or Mick Jones and Johnny Giles, Osgood and Hutchinson or Charlie Cooke. Chivers and Gilzean at Spurs, Bryan “pop Robson” and a host of supporting players. keegan Toshack, Charlie George and Ray Kennedy, or how about Roger Osborne and Clive Woods who unlocked the Arsenal defence in the 1978 FA Cup final to take the trophy back to suffolk?
        Back on track – the game has moved on with many strong sides being built from the back, designed not to leak goals. Formations have changed and it is very common to see a team with just one striker. Yes there are some very talented attacking midfield players and having someone like Frank Lampard junior in the team gave rich pickings in and around the penalty area as well as from the spot itself. However, is the diminishing quantity of forwards in the top sphere of football that is influencing the children and players of tomorrow?
        Remember that production line of enormously talented West Indian cricketers? We once thought it was inexhaustable as quick bowler after quick bowler emerged from the caribbean and along came all the classy batsmen too…….but very few spinners. I have been told that something changed in that part of the globe, TV and basketball mainly (cool runnings was a one off and didn’t pay well) and. The attention turned away from cricket towards the likes of Michael Jordan and co and then the production line dried up.
        Sport needs its heroes and villains and characters as these are the people that inspire future generations of sports stars. Berisha may be the A League bad guy to all but Victory fans, but who of us who coach kids wouldn’t kill,for a budding player that niggles defences, lives on the edge and consistently scores goals and annoys every other coach and player in the league whilst doing it?
        If the numbers diminish and the strikers are not seen as the role model and the players to emulate, perhaps, just perhaps our kids look elsewhere. Right now I’m overloaded with players who,want to play central midfield and some on the right side. My challenge is tomfind a route to goal when I only have one player in the squad who considers himself to be a striker and he is the least consistent player in the squad.
        We need more heroes and more role models…more orthodox attacking football and get rid of this “false nine” malarky!

        • Roar Guru

          February 28th 2018 @ 1:37pm
          Griffo said | February 28th 2018 @ 1:37pm | ! Report

          I posted up under Waz (not sure why didn’t go through 8am this morning) whether some general trends and an attacking midfield mindset and passing triangles is part of the cause for the endangered species we know as striker.

          As defences become/became more drilled, the central striker’s role may have diminished as wider avenues were used.

          Perhaps the lack of role models also doesn’t help, unless you’re named (the Portuguese) Ronaldo or Messi.

      • February 28th 2018 @ 10:04am
        j,binnie said | February 28th 2018 @ 10:04am | ! Report

        Kanga – When the NSL began in 1977 the “in” system was 4-3-3 as introduced by Zagallo’s Brazilian team of 1958, (not a Dutch system as we are asked to believe).
        Rasic’s Socceroo teams used this system to reach the World Cup and in Germany, used 2 wingers ,Abonyi (who liked to cut in and get “involved” with Alston, and Buljevic ,who was an out and out left winger in the true sense. Alston,a product of English football, was the arch type centre forward of that time,big,strong and good in the air.
        Rooney and Mackay were two playmakers and Richards completed the midfield in what would today be described as a “screening” role in front of the 2 centre backs
        With the almost hysterical praise poured on to a part time team reaching the WC Finals it came as no surprise for teams in the NSL to follow suit.
        In 1981 my club at the time,Lions, fielded a team against Kosmina’s West Adelaide and lined up in a 4-3-3 formation much like the Socceroos, only the out and out winger played on the right side, and the left winger, ,an ex-pro, played the Abonyi role very well,cutting in and getting one of the goals in a 3-1 victory.. Again the centre forward was a tall ,lanky local kid who had played “under age” for Australia.
        So you see,4-3-3 did last for quite a while around the world, but more and more coaches began to dabble in formations and,sad to say, as most of them were defensive in nature,the striking partnerships began to fade from the scene , The Italians at that time were producing top class players who played up front ,and scored goals ,but unfortunately ,due to the catenaccio tactic, “partnerships” were not allowed to blossom. Van Basten at AC Milan.being, the classic example of the successful “lone striker” as late as 1993,. Cheers jb.,

    • February 28th 2018 @ 8:11am
      Onside said | February 28th 2018 @ 8:11am | ! Report

      Usain Bolt, has joined Brisbane Roar for 6 guest appearances . He will be the first HAL player to take a corner and head it in himself.

      • February 28th 2018 @ 8:28am
        chris said | February 28th 2018 @ 8:28am | ! Report

        lol…very good!