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Aguero, Sturridge and the death of the out-and-out striker

“Is it enough to ‘just score goals’ in the modern game?” asks Tommy Martin.

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WE KEEP HEARING that the age of technologically-induced mass unemployment is almost upon us, with our jobs soon to be rendered obsolete by driverless trucks, robotic heart surgeons and – yikes – computer-generated match reports.

But it seems there is an unlikely addition to the vocational scrapheap: the out-and-out striker.

Or so the recent struggles of Daniel Sturridge and Sergio Aguero might suggest. Granted the pair have found themselves replaced in their respective teams by fellow humans, not animatronic goalscoring droids complete with programmable gegenpressing mode.

For now.

But the job of the traditional, penalty box centre-forward is under threat nonetheless. Strikers, like the rest of us, must now work harder than ever before to justify their existence. While we humble wage slaves graft longer hours to hold on to whatever jobs our future robo-conquerors have not yet taken, so too must the old-fashioned goal-getter toil in modern football’s high intensity sweatshop.

‘All he does is score goals’ used to be one of football’s canon of wry epithets, reinforcing the beautiful simplicity of the game. It was said about players like Jimmy Greaves and Gary Lineker to underline their special gift. All he does is score goals: the only thing that matters.

But now, when people say ‘all he does is score goals’, they actually mean ‘all he does is score goals’.

Sturridge and Aguero are learning all about this harsh twist of semantics. Sturridge hasn’t actually even been scoring many goals lately, two against Tottenham in the EFL Cup this week ending a run of six games without any for Liverpool. Aguero scored plenty – 11 in six games – before Manchester City fell into their current six-game winless malaise, of which he has started only three, and failed to score in any.

But it’s not the lack of goals that has caused these erstwhile star-men bother; more the lack of that commodity, work-rate, that modern football seems to prize above all others. And both men have coaches who prize it more than most.

Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool - Premier League - White Hart Lane Source: EMPICS Sport

Hauled ashore after an hour against Manchester United last week, Sturridge has yet to make a tackle in 348 minutes of Premier League football this season, and averages an interception once every 87 minutes. Roberto Firmino, for comparison, makes a tackle or an interception once every 37 minutes. Given that Klopp’s dogma insists his team win back possession as soon as possible, goals are the least of Sturridge’s worries.

But while Sturridge was always likely to displease Klopp, Aguero falling foul of the slacker police was more surprising.

“I’m so happy for him, but he knows that I want more,” Pep Guardiola said after City’s win over Swansea in September, in which Aguero scored twice. “In the box there is nothing I can do to help him. But maybe I can help him develop, like keeping the ball and helping the rest of the team.”

For what Guardiola was really trying to say, see his quote to Marti Perarnau, author of Pep Confidential and the upcoming Pep Evolution. “I’ll tell you one thing, anyone who’s not prepared to work his arse off will be out,” he told Perarnau upon taking over City, “and I’ll put one of the youngsters in.” Guardiola’s thinking at the Camp Nou last week becomes clearer.

Manchester United v Mancheser City - EFL Cup - Round of 16 - Old Trafford Source: EMPICS Sport

There’s nothing new in the likes of Guardiola and Klopp having no truck with glorified goal-hangers. Lineker was jettisoned at Barcelona by Pep’s spiritual sensei, Johan Cruyff, while Greaves’ recovery from injury in time for the 1966 World Cup final couldn’t persuade Alf Ramsey to drop the harder-working Geoff Hurst.

But Aguero, in form and fit, is regarded as one of the world’s best in his position; the fact that even he cannot be indulged bodes ill for the pure poacher’s trade at the highest level.

As in football, there are few places to hide in the post-recession world of work. The global economic meltdown gave capital a decisive advantage over labour. We work longer hours, for less money and may never be able to retire. The day of the cushy job, if you’re lucky enough to have a full-time job, are gone. And there’s certainly no place for loafers with the robots on the way.

Statistics, data and GPS tracking have done something similar for football’s idle classes. What chance does the fox in the box have in a modern game so obsessed with distance covered and high-intensity sprints completed? That Sturridge is damned for his tackle count as much as his goal drought says a lot.

It is, of course, a good thing that hard work has become one of football’s most sought after values, given the modern game’s often dubious moral code. Better to be celebrated for the sweat on your brow than the Bugatti in your driveway.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mourn the passing into obsolescence of the luxury player, the artful dodger with a nose for goal, absolved from the drudgery of tracking back. Soon there will be no more star strikers, just more of the earnest battalions of hard-grafting, hard-pressing worker drones beloved of so many modern coaches; players who will do exactly what they are told, and who will run all day without twanging a hamstring.

Maybe the robots have already taken over.

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Tommy Martin

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