London – According to just about every manager interviewed on the subject, not to mention the accumulated wisdom of more than 100 years of professional football, the hardest task in the game is putting the ball into the back of the net. It often looks deceptively easy, a tap over the line here, a well-timed header there, but at the highest level you are up against organized defenses and highly-trained goalkeepers. Opportunities do not normally come along that often in a game, and frequently most of the team will have been involved in some way in creating the space to set up the attack, so that when you finally arrive – as Pep Guardiola is fond of putting it, meaning arrive in front of goal – the pressure on the guy on the end of the move is considerable.
Some find it easy to handle and finish almost instinctively; think Jamie Vardy in Leicester’s title-winning season. Then when it becomes expected it becomes harder to do; think Vardy last term or even Diego Costa drying up for Chelsea. Some players seem to emerge from their teenage years as born goalscorers – think Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen or Wayne Rooney – only to find the necessary fearlessness and decisiveness more difficult to reproduce once they are marked men in their mid-20s. Occasionally strikers manage to improve with age and experience, by looking after themselves and bringing all their knowledge and maturity to bear, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Jermain Defoe demonstrated last season. A reliable goalscorer at any age is an invaluable asset, which is why Manchester United have happily handed over £75m to Everton to secure Romelu Lukaku’s best years.
Though many thought the Belgian overpriced, especially as the deal will rise to £90m with add-ons, a club such as Everton could not be expected to part with their leading scorer cheaply. United may have the wherewithal to be constantly in the market for established goalscorers but Everton will not find it easy to replace Lukaku. He was their record signing when he arrived, their record transfer fee received when he left, and in-between the extent to which the club came to rely on his goals was almost embarrassing. While Lukaku scored 25 league goals last season, Everton’s second-highest scorer was Ross Barkley with only five, and after that came Kevin Mirallas and own goals with four apiece. Not good enough, Ronald Koeman has said, indicating he would prefer four or five players contributing or approaching double figure totals to one man doing all the finishing by himself. That theory not only makes sense, it is about to be put to the test this season, for Koeman has little choice in the matter. Lukaku has gone and like-for-like replacements are thin on the ground.
There has been a lot of talk about strikers this summer, though so far not much movement. Lukaku is one of the few reliable scorers to have changed clubs. Alexis Sánchez has not yet done so; despite having only a year left on his contract. Arsenal seem happier to keep hold of him than to trade him. Sergio Agüero is still at Manchester City, even though when he lost his first-team place last season it was thought a quick summer transfer would be the likely result. City could still make a swoop for a stellar name before the end of the window, though when you already have Agüero there are not many realistic targets who would count as an improvement and even Sánchez may not score as many goals.
James Rodríguez has been snapped up by Bayern Munich, and he is not as prolific as Agüero in any case. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, perhaps a more likely target for Chelsea than City, has been told he cannot leave Borussia Dortmund this summer and, although the German club’s resolve would probably be tested by a bid of £100m or so, that is a great deal of money to pay for a 28-year-old. The same could be said of Robert Lewandowski, who has been linked with a move to the Premier League ever since a volcanic ash cloud scuppered his chances of joining Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn when still a Lech Poznan player, though by now he has spent most of his peak years in Germany.
Most of the goalscorers out there, in short, are the ones we have already heard of, the ones who have been around for a few years. Apart from Kylian Mbappé, one of the very few strikers around who may actually be worth £100m, exciting and emerging young goal-scoring talent is not exactly flooding the market at the moment. Arsenal have broken their transfer record for Alexandre Lacazette, though at 26 the French striker is hardly a new discovery. It seems unlikely that Arsène Wenger will follow that capture by shelling out more than twice as much to beat Real Madrid to the signature of Mbappé but even if he does it will be a remarkable turnaround from the way the Arsenal manager used to do business, using his contacts to unearth young French talent before any significant reputation or transfer value had been established.
Perhaps the truth is there is simply a dearth of young goal-scoring talent, French or otherwise. Manchester City seem to be putting a lot of store in the prospects of Gabriel Jesus, or at least they did last season, though they are keeping Agüero close at hand just in case. Manchester United already have Marcus Rashford but still deemed it necessary to bring in Lukaku to replace Ibrahimovic. José Mourinho praised Rashford’s work rate on many occasions last season but was not so complimentary about his strike rate.
In Premier League terms, with Defoe getting a move to Bournemouth, Rooney returning to Everton and only injury forcing Ibrahimovic out, goal-scoring seems a task for thirty-somethings rather than teenage young guns. Yet, as they used to say in all the best gunslinging westerns, there is always a kid. You may not know his name yet but rarely does a season go by without someone new making a name for himself. This year the field is wide open.
The Guardian Sport