In football, normally we see two kinds of strikers – small and quick or big and slow. About twenty years ago, when 4-4-2 was the dominant formation, it was common for teams to deploy a strike partnership with one of each. Liverpool, for example, played with Michael Owen (small and quick) and Emile Heskey (bit and slow).
While strike partnerships have gone out of fashion, you still see these two kinds of strikers in modern football. The small and quick striker usually “plays on the shoulder of the last defender”, looking to beat the offside trap and score. The big and slow striker holds up the ball in an advanced position, waiting for teammates to go past, so that the team can then attack in numbers. The big and slow striker is also usually good in the air and can convert crosses.
For a long time, I was wondering why there were no “big and fast” strikers in football. It isn’t as if bulk / size is negatively correlated with speed – there surely must exist big guys who are also quick, and I was wondering why there weren’t so many strikers like this.
That, of course changed last year, with the arrival of Erling Haaland, a striker who is both incredibly quick and incredibly big, and who has dominated the Premier League like nobody’s business. Similarly, there is also Darwin Nuñez, who can both play off the last defender, and head crosses towards goal, and hold up the ball. Then again, I can’t think of too many others in contemporary football.
This morning, I got a hypothesis on why this is so – the big and fast guys are all in rugby! I was watching highlights of the quarter finals (England beating Fiji and South Africa beating France), and what I noticed was that the rugby guys are all both big and fast.
You need to be fast (and agile) to skip past the opponents to do a touchdown. And then you need tremendous upper body strength to be able to take down an opponent, or resist when an opponent tries to take you down. From that perspective, being big and being fast are both non negotiable for you to be a top rugby player.
I know there is a class difference in places like England between those who take up football and those who take up rugby (football is working class, rugby is upper class), but could it be that most people who are big and fast, and want to take up professional sport, choose rugby rather than football? And is this why you find few big and fast players from countries traditionally good at both games – such as England and France (and maybe Argentina)?
Haaland is from Norway, which doesn’t really play rugby (again, his father was a footballer). Nuñez is from Uruguay, which is a massive football nation, but not much in rugby (they made their rugby debut at this world cup, i think). And so despite their physique and speed, they chose football.
Had they been from England or France, it’s likely they would’ve played rugby instead!