Premier League Net Finders: Then & Now

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In its 25-year history, the Premier League has been blessed with some of the best strikers in English and world football. From Alan Shearer to Harry Kane, the competition has showcased a wide range of goal-scoring talent.

Many of these players have been crucial to the fortunes of their clubs. The current front-runner in the race for the Premier League Golden Boot, Mohamed Salah, has played a vital role in Liverpool’s push for a top-two finish. When a player of his calibre is on the team sheet, everyone from opposing defenders to fans weighing up the odds have to take notice.

The first dominant striker in the Premier League era was Alan Shearer. In many ways, Shearer was a traditional English center-forward: strong, good in the air, able to hold the ball up, and possessing a powerful shot.

Shearer came to prominence at a time when the default formation in English football was 4-4-2 and strikers usually hunted in pairs. For every Shearer, there was a Chris Sutton, and for every Andy Cole, there was a Teddy Sheringham.

Cole was a different kind of English striker: a goal poacher in the Gary Lineker tradition, whose strengths were pace, lethal finishing, and the ability to be in the right place at the right time.

Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler were in the same mould, and between the four of them, they fill four of the top eight spots in the all-time goal-scoring charts. In the modern era, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy are the latest iterations of these archetypal English forwards.

However, the defining quality of the Premier League was the influx of high-caliber foreign players, and under the influence of managers such as Arsène Wenger, José Mourinho, and Rafa Benítez, a number of these stars helped to change the role of the striker.

Ruud van Nistelrooy and Didier Drogba were to the fore, but there were others. As managers shifted away from 4-4-2, strikers were expected to be able to play a lone role, linking up play and retaining possession, as much as winning headers and poaching goals.

Van Nistelrooy, who won the Golden Boot in 2003, and Drogba, who was the spearhead of Mourinho’s Chelsea team, were complete strikers, able to play a lone role yet still score prolifically.

As teams increasingly fielded only one striker, the onus was on midfielders to step up and make goal-scoring contributions. Steven Gerrard regularly found the net for Liverpool, often with spectacular long-range efforts, but the king of the goal-scoring midfielders was Frank Lampard, the only midfielder to feature in the top-ten all-time scorers list.

Fast forward to the modern era, and the development of the striker has reached a new level. The typical Premier League striker at a top club now boasts the dribbling and ball-control skills of a top winger, and the passing ability of a star midfielder, in addition to the traditional virtues of a Shearer or an Owen.

The elegant Thierry Henry was the first, but men such as Luis Suárez, Sergio Agüero, and Salah have taken their forward play to new heights and provided countless dazzling displays, helping to make the Premier League one of the most exciting football competitions in the world.