The off-season has raised an intriguing question for the Premier League’s giants: Where have all the elite strikers gone?
This weekend, United and Arsenal, two teams with title aspirations, begin their challenges with questions persisting about their attacks. Having sold Robin van Persie and opted against making Radamel Falcao’s loan move permanent, United look short up front although hopes are high for Memphis Depay.
Arsenal, meanwhile, begin their campaign with lingering doubts as to whether Olivier Giroud is quite good enough to frontline a title-winning team. Both clubs have been linked with strikers, United with Harry Kane and Pedro, Arsenal with Karim Benzema, but the fact neither Louis van Gaal nor Arsene Wenger have yet added a proven marksman to his team adds weight to the contention that world class strikers are thin on the ground at present.
This shortage perhaps explains why Liverpool managed to wangle £49m (€70m) out of Man City for Raheem Sterling and why, in turn, Brendan Rodgers ended up having to meet the £32.5m (€46.5m) release clause Aston Villa had on Christian Benteke’s head.
The Sterling deal is particularly intriguing. Young English talents have long been over-priced — remember Andy Carroll, Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers etc — but, even still, Sterling’s fee stands out.
The 20-year-old has bags of talent and displayed star quality the season before last when working in tandem with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge as Liverpool came agonisingly close to a first league title since 1990.
He was clearly unsettled last season, visibly — and understandably— struggling to carry Liverpool’s attack in the wake of Suarez’s departure and Sturridge’s injury woes.
Dovetailing with proven world-class performers like Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Yaya Toure can only aid Sterling’s development, but the greatest weakness in his game is his finishing. And that’s a particularly relevant weakness for a striker. Granted, he played as a winger for much of his time at Liverpool, but 18 goals in 95 appearance — a ratio of one in five — for a side as attacking as Rodgers’ men is far from prolific. And prolific is what £49m (€70m) should get you.
Given his age, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect Sterling’s finishing to improve with time but a quick look at the bookies’ odds on who will be this season’s top scorer only adds to the sense City overpaid.
At 66/1, Sterling is the same price as Watford’s Troy Deeney, West Brom’s Richie Lambert, and Swansea’s Bafetimbi Gomis to name but a few less than stellar names.
It says plenty that Charlie Austin, currently not even his plying his trade in the Premier League, is half the price.
Liverpool look to have got the better of the Sterling deal but they too may have paid over the odds for their headline signing. Benteke ticks certain boxes. He’s strong, has Premier League experience and a decent goal return just shy of one in every two games while starved for service in a poor side.
However, he has a tendency to score in gluts, a habit that wouldn’t in itself be a problem but for the fact such scoring sprees can proceed or follow lengthy droughts. That lack of consistency represents a concern and unless Benteke eradicates it from his game his fee may have an outlandish look to it.
In Rodgers’ defence he might justifiably ask: ‘What choice did I have?’ After all, clubs in a healthier state than Liverpool have been forced to take similar gambles with it comes to strikers. Chelsea will rely on Falcao - a sorry sight last season when scoring a paltry four times for United - to fill the void when Diego Costa is unavailable.
It’s a risky move from Jose Mourinho but an understandable one given the type of crazy valuations on elite strikers this summer.
In June, Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis admitted he would “consider” letting Gonzalo Higuain leave if “a madman” offered to meet a buyout clause of a mere €100m.
Just how mad such a madman would need to be was highlighted by Higuain’s abject performance as a substitute in the Copa America final, the lowlight of which was his wild penalty in the shoot-out that put Chile on course for victory.
Speaking of buy-out clauses, the summer began with Pedro’s at €150m. Unsurprisingly, there were no takers. But, as the clause has now been cut to €30m, he now fits the bill of a top drawer, available frontman. And that makes him a rarity.
Elsewhere, the Benzema link to Arsenal refuses to go away. But even taking account of just how dysfunctional an institution Real Madrid is, it’s hard to see them letting the Frenchman leave.
The reason is simple. How would they replace him? The pool of buyable players that guarantee a 25 to 30 goal per season return has never been shallower, a truth illustrated most tellingly this summer by the Sterling deal.
Time will tell if this is merely a temporary problem but this global dearth of great strikers represents a significant challenge to every club.