How the Legacy of a Strike Partnership made a comeback in the Champions League

An exception partnership goes a long way in not just building a team but to add steel to the squad. Clubs spend years searching for the perfect pair either in defence, midfield or up front. The monumental task of deploying a strike pair up front has been a major success for clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United in the past but the system is rarely used in modern times. The system of a strike partnership made a remarkable resurgence in the Champions League quarter finals when both Italian sides, Roma & Juventus, used the system.

The Champions League quarter finals saw Barcelona knocked out by a spirited display from a resilient Roma side and also saw Real Madrid survive a scare from Juventus. There were a lot of common features in the efforts of both the Italian sides, despite the contrasting results. A very critical change that both the teams adopted to mount a fightback was the use of two strikers upfront. Juventus had to resort to play Mandzukic along with Higuain as Dybala was suspended. Roma had a more tactical reason to play the young Patrick Schick alongside Dzeko. The outcome was a nostalgic roller coaster ride into the glory days of strike partnerships. A classical style of direct football, now perceived archaic, made a brief return and duly delivered.

Liverpool fans have been given little reason to celebrate since the turn of the millennium. Owing to this, one cannot blame a Liverpool supporter who plunges down into the highlight reels of 1980s to cherish the havoc caused by the nimble feet of a Welshman and his swashbuckling Scott partner. Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish are as legendary as any strike pair ever to storm the pitch. Between them, they had every attribute that an attack demanded. They were key to every title that filled the Merseyside trophy cabinet and are deservedly engraved in the clubs folklore.

The glory days of Arsenal in the invincible mode saw Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp dissect defences with their telepathic interplay.  Filipo Inzaghi and Alessandro Del Piero had famed defences in Italy running for cover during the late 90s. And before them the torchbearers were operating in the Theatre of Dreams – Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. All feats were achieved, trophies were won and dreams were realised by the great teams of the past while being spear headed by legendary duos. Yet, this art has lost its appeal in the present day and has diminished in importance.

The majority of top modern day football teams employ a lone striker supported by wingers and an attacking midfield unit. Strike pairings are mostly used by smaller sides against better opposition, hoping to make the most of any chances that come their way. As a result the modern day centre backs are used to dealing with a lone striker in most situations and each centre half knows that they are backed up by their partner. Most balls lobbed forward would see a 2-on-1 situation with 2 centre backs up against a lone striker.

It is a totally different challenge when two strikers engage both the defenders in fighting for the balls. And just like anyone else, Umtiti and Pique were not prepared to deal with the Roma duo. The mentality with which Roma approached the match, their intensity and efficiency were all vital in the major upset, but the tactical tweak that dismantled Barcelona was undoubtedly the strike pairing. Dzeko’s aerial advantage was also put to good use in the partnership.

The climax of the other Italian – Spanish clash in the Champions League was sealed when Ronaldo stepped up to score an injury time penalty and oust Juventus from the tournament. However, the story had parallels to the Roma-Barcelona game. Juventus had a three goal deficit to level and they did just that by partnering Mandzukic alongside Gonzalo Higuain. Two crosses from the right, two Mandzukic headers at the far post and Juventus were just one goal behind. They equalised with a third from a ball that was also supplied from the right flank.

The tactics adopted to score the first two goals were a reflection of the familiar 90s and early 2000s era. Two aerially able strikers peeling off the defenders inside the box was a common sight with the midfielder surging into the space created by the strikers’ movement. Amidst the chaos, the goals followed suite. A template that is supposedly obsolete yet distinctly effective when applied correctly.

Football like nature has its seasons. It goes through waves and cycles and has the repetitive rhythms of a harmonic symphony. The legacy of strike partnerships of the past will ensure its survival in the football tacticians hand book and when spring comes it will bloom again. Dormancy is different from death.

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