Artist In Residence is a series of articles showcasing the work of a specific artist over the course of a week and the stories behind the featured people and moments as well as a Q&A to kickstart the series. This series’ illustrations are from the brilliant Harry G Ward.
When we think of great striking partnerships in the Premier League, the names Shearer and Sutton, Shearer and Ferdinand, Henry and Bergkamp, and Yorke and Cole all come to mind. Goalscoring duos of the 1990’s where football was dominated by 4-4-2, by combative central midfielders, by crosses being swung into the box, flicked-on by a tall centre forward to assist an onrushing number nine. Now however, we have seen the emergence of a new striking partnership, one that is set to topple one of the longest standing Premier League records.
Following a 2-0 win for Tottenham Hotspur over Leeds United on January 2 2021, Harry Kane and Son Heung Min equalled the record for the most number of assists between two players in one season. The record, set by Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton (SAS) during Blackburn’s 1994-5 Premier League triumph, saw the two combine 13 times across the league campaign. Tottenham’s duo has managed to equal that with half the season to play.
As we wonder by how many Son and Kane will better that number, it begs the question how a record that was made in the first three years of the league has managed to stand for most of its history.
As mentioned, the first decade of the Premier League was dominated by 4-4-2, two men up top, with quick wingers delivering the ball to them. Manchester United won their first Premier League with this formation, as did the great entertainers Newcastle United in 1995-6, to a greater extent.
The same season that SAS set the goal combinations record, Les Ferdinand and Kevin Gallen combined 11 times for QPR. The next season Mike Newell’s resurgence at Elland Road meant he and Shearer combined for 10 top flight goals that year, whilst Stan Collymore and Robbie Fowler found each other the same number of times for Liverpool. Anelka and Bergkamp also assisted each other 10 times, in the 1998-9 season.
As such, five of the top eight striking partnerships (in terms of combinations) came in the first six years of the league, the other three will be discussed later. Clearly then, this highlights the importance of the two ‘up top’ in the early years of the league, and conversely how this has dissipated in the following two decades.
The first shift away from the ‘traditional’ striking partnership perhaps came at the end of the 1990’s as the two ‘up top’ was gradually phased out. Bergkamp, Eric Cantona, Gianfranco Zola and Juninho all coming across to England to popularise the ‘number 10’ role. The position combined goal scoring threat, but also guile between the lines. This being said, there remained a heavy reliance on crossing the ball, and this shape would still be called a 4-4-1-1. Moreover, given the success of Anelka and Bergkamp in 1998-9, there is still much to be said that the number 10 still formed a centre forward partnership with the man in front of him.
Then came the introduction of 4-2-3-1 under Sir Alex Ferguson. Having walked to the league titles either side of the millennium the Scotsman’s side began to start playing a progressive 4-2-3-1 formation in the early 2000’s, often in Europe but then gradually in the Premier League. Yorke, Cole, Sheringham and Solskjær, who had rotated in the two forward positions, suddenly found even greater competition as they vied for one position rather than two.
Arsene Wenger then began to employ a 4-2-3-1, especially in the ‘Invincibles’ season. That being said, Bergkamp often filled the centre of the three, with Henry further forward, and as such there is much to be said that this was closer to a 4-4-1-1, with a striking partnership still in place. Albeit a d 4-4-1-1 that saw far more midfield possession than out wide.
The biggest influences, however, on the Premier League’s move away from two strikers came when Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez were appointed managers at Chelsea and Liverpool respectively.
Mourinho’s 4-3-3 formation was based far more on defensive cover through midfield and playing quickly from central to wide areas, hitting teams on the counter attack. With Arjen Robben and Damien Duff out wide, and Didier Drogba through the centre there was no resemblance of what you might call a striking partnership. This is perhaps reflected by the fact that Frank Lampard and Drogba have the most goal combinations (36) of any two Premier League players. Certainly this reflects the length of time the two played together, but also the reliance of assists coming from central midfield to a striker as the league developed. Similarly, Sergio Aguero and David Silva at Manchester City are third on this list with 29.
Benitez also favoured a compact midfield and development through the centre of the pitch at the cost of a second striker. This shift is perhaps best shown by the 4-4-2 Liverpool employed in the first half of the 2005 Champions League final where Kaka ran the game and allowed Milan to score three times in the first half. The introduction of Didi Hamman at half time and the reshuffle to 4-2-3-1 clearly paid dividends in the second half. Fast forward two years later to the two sides facing up in Athens for the 2007 Champions League final, and Liverpool left their top European goalscorer of the season in Peter Crouch on the bench, with no obvious striker on the pitch.
It is notable that Ferguson adopted a blend of these formations as United reached three Champions League titles and four league titles between 2006-11. In fact, the only title-winning side to play what we might call an orthodox 4-4-2 since the early 2000’s was Leicester in 2015-16, with Jamie Vardy and Okazaki playing on the front line. Although to call these two a strike partnership would be pushing it.
So since the early 2000’s very few sides have played two up top, certainly almost none of the title contenders. If we look at the most prolific pairings in terms of assists, clearly Kane and Son are first with 13. Next are Ryan Fraser and Callum Wilson who combined 12 times for Bournemouth in the 2018/19 season, then Raul Jiminez and Adama Traore who combined 10 times last season. Neither of these two examples could really be called partnerships, more wide players finding the one striker who consistently netted for that team each season.
What of other prolific front lines of the past 15 years? Manchester City under Pep Guardiola have been devastating in front of goal, but this has come from midfield runners, and intricate forward play, not through one partnership. Liverpool under Klopp have two prolific scores, but two who do not assist each other with any degree of regularity.
In Kane and Son we clearly have the closest to a centre forward partnership the league has seen for two decades. The fact that they have equalled a 25 year-old record in half a season (a season with four fewer games in total) speaks for itself.
However, they only exhibit some aspects of what we would call a ‘traditional’ two-man forward line.
Most obviously Spurs under Mourinho do not play 4-4-2, favouring five at the back. Similarly, they regularly line up with three on the front line with Steven Bergwijn playing out wide, and Kane and Son filling the other two positions. So from that point of view the set up is a far cry from David Beckham crossing the ball to Dwight Yorke to nod down for Andy Cole to score.
Harry Kane has increasingly found himself incredibly deep this season, a bi-product of Mourinho’s defensive, counter-attacking system. This is perhaps the key difference between Son and Kane, and Shearer and Sutton.
True, Shearer did drop deep for Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn side. He was, however, dropping deep in an offensive unit, entering the midfield to cut passing lines, and cause confusion. Whereas Kane has seemingly spent more of his season closer to his own box than the oppositions’.
Kane coming from deep to assist Son was perhaps best shown in Spurs’ 5-2 victory over Southampton. Kane assisted the Korean for all four of his goals, all of which came from outside the box, and all of which came from a quick turnover of possession, and Kane playing Son in behind the Saints’ back line from around the halfway line or just inside.
Contrast that with an assist by Sutton to Shearer against Arsenal in March 1995, which was a five yard pass to Shearer’s feet inside the penalty box, allowing him to then turn Nigel Winterburn and score.
In short therefore, Kane and Son are probably the closest we will come to a centre-forward partnership in the modern era, but are certainly not what you would class as ‘traditional.’ The omission of the second striker in favour of midfield dominance has pushed the two ‘up top’ philosophy to the lower leagues.
Harry Kane is essentially playing a makeshift midfield role this season, coming so deep and playing the ball through the lines, or in behind for Son, essentially makes their partnership far more comparable to Lampard and Drogba, than to Shearer and Sutton.
Kane’s new role this season, as much as showing his quality, is more about showing his adaptability. Rather than leading the line and winning a flick-on for a smaller partner, he is playing somewhere between a number eight or a number 10. It seems likely that the only reason this is being discussed as a ‘striking partnership’ is because of Kane’s prolific goal-scoring record. Had this been Lucas Moura producing the same for Son, it seems unlikely the debate would be the same.