Andrew Tuft’s Monday Column – Comparing the Premier League’s terrific trio

The history of English football is littered with great goal scorers. From Dixie Dean in the pre-war era to Alan Shearer, the goal king of the Premier League and countless illustrious names in between, football on these shores has been highlighted by all manner of strikers scoring all types of goals.

The rampaging centre-forward play of Nat Lofthouse, the intelligent game of Kenny Dalglish,and the dynamic half-winger half-striker style of Cristiano Ronaldo has brought English football to its spectacular best. Today is no different, as three of the world’s best forwards call the Premier League home. Didier Drogba’s incredible one-man wrecking ball display yesterday was arguably the finest individual centre-forward’s performance this season, but it comes on the back of a month of excellent showings from Wayne Rooney, who has threatened to become a legitimate member of the world game’s elite group of footballers with his recent form. And when discussing the Premier League’s most devastating strikers, Liverpool’s currently-injured No 9, Fernando Torres, cannot be forgotten either. All three men would be welcomed with open arms by every team in the world. But which of the three – the colossal Ivory Coast captain, the explosive English genius or the jet-heeled Spaniard – is truly the best?

Comparing individual players is always difficult, as it is impossible to take into account how the quality of their teammates truly affects their play – an average forward surrounded by supremely talented colleagues will be made to look better by virtue of those around him. But with those limitations understood, we can still look at what qualities each striker possesses, how great an impact they have on their respective teams and what the statistics suggest. At 24, Rooney is the youngest of the trio but is having the most impressive 2009/10 season so far. The Manchester United star has 21 goals in 24 league games, as well as four assists, meaning this term is already the ex-Everton forward’s most prolific with some months to go. A stark contrast to the summer, then, as the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo and the cross-city departure of Carlos Tevez led to questions over who would score the goals to keep United in the title race, especially since last season Rooney barely broke double figures in the league, netting 12 in 30 appearances. Few expected United’s No10 to explode up the goal scoring charts as he has done, combining the joyous technique, ever-increasing physical strength and deceptive pace he could always call on with the on-field maturity and selfishness all first-class strikers have. With Dimitar Berbatov only showing flashes of his ability and Michael Owen spending more time warming the bench than fighting for an England place, the responsibility to provide the goals for Sir Alex Ferguson has fallen squarely on Rooney’s broad shoulders and he has not shirked it.

During Rooney’s time at Goodison Park, there was a feeling he was a scorer of great goals rather than a great goal scorer, but lately Rooney has added the meat-and-drink goals to his repertoire, as witnessed by the decisive header in the League Cup semi-final and the opening goal against Portsmouth on Saturday. While Rooney has become an imposing all-round centre-forward, Drogba was already there. The Ivorian lacks the dangerous pace of Torres or Rooney, but he is no slouch, and is comfortably the strongest of the three. Drogba’s technique is excellent, too, allowing him to strike delicious free-kicks such as the one that left Manuel Almunia standing and his crossbar rattling yesterday. The finishes past Almunia were Drogba’s 16th and 17th goals of the season, coming in 20 games, which includes a month away in Angola for the Africa Nations Cup. Drogba also displayed classic centre-forward traits during the stroll past Arsenal, with single-minded selfishness bringing about his second goal – a less successful striker lays that ball off for a teammate on the edge of the box, and, fittingly, Drogba has failed to provide an assist this season. With Nicolas Anelka re-invented as a support striker for Drogba and Florent Malouda giving Chelsea width down the left flank, the former Marseille striker is the key attacking threat for Carlo Ancelotti’s side, with only Frank Lampard rivalling him for that honour.

Interestingly, in the four games Drogba missed while plying his trade for his country, Lampard netted five times, all from open play, whereas the four games before Drogba left, Lampard’s only goals game from the penalty spot, against West Ham United and Portsmouth. While the Lampard/Drogba combination has been ultra-successful for Chelsea in the past, those two spot kicks were Lampard’s first goals since the end of October – also a penalty, against Bolton. Chelsea’s formation appears to be restricting Lampard to get the best out of Drogba. The pairing of Lampard and Drogba is almost a prototype for Steven Gerrard’s association with Torres. Indeed, it has become difficult to consider one without the other. Such is the frequency their names are mentioned in the same breath, usually as Liverpool’s only adequate players. While that is harsh on the likes of Pepe Reina and Javier Mascherano, there is more than a grain of truth in Torres being Rafa Benitez’s only genuine top-quality striker. Dirk Kuyt may be finding his shooting boots lately with four goals in his last four games, but the Dutchman rarely threatens the top of the scoring chart like his Spanish teammate, and Torres’ injury problems this season and last are a big reason why Liverpool have flattered to deceive too often.

After an excellent debut season in England that reaped 24 goals in 33 league games, last year Torres’ fitness worries saw a return of 14 in 24, still a decent ratio but disappointing for such a fine player. This term was shaping up more like the former than the latter until a groin injury stopped Torres in his tracks on 12 goals in 15 appearances, with one assist. Kuyt has picked up the baton to an extent but the Reds are more reliant on their star striker than Chelsea or Manchester United are on theirs, especially with Steven Gerrard so far managing just five goals from his 19 Premier League outings. Torres’ game relies more on pace than that of Drogba or Rooney, with his excellent movement also key, and the former Atletico Madrid captain has worked hard to add strength to his game, but he still trails both Rooney and Drogba in that area.

All three of the forwards considered here would rank highly on any list of the top strikers in the world. Despite what Arsenal’s defence endured yesterday, this writer has to give the nod to Wayne Rooney. He has scored more goals than Torres or Drogba, netting in 87% of his games compared to 80% for Torres and 85% for Drogba, has more assists to his name and has a more complete, all-round game. The England striker is on his way to truly being one of the best in the world – in fact, it is hard to argue he is not already there.

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