SAO PAULO — The TV caption read ‘1 gol em 5 jogos’ as Gonzalo Higuain wheeled away to celebrate the early strike against Belgium that would send Argentina to the World Cup semifinals.
The fact that it was his first goal of the tournament barely needed mentioning — the look on his face said it all. He looked as relieved as he was overjoyed at netting in the quarterfinal.
But Higuain is not the only striker who has struggled to find his stride in front of goal in this tournament, with only really Karim Benzema and Robin van Persie boasting a healthy return in a World Cup in which the classic No. 9s have largely been outperformed by the men who are supposed to provide rather than profit.PHOTOS: U.S. fan reactions | Beautiful people in Brazil
Fred finished the Confederations Cup as top scorer last summer, yet 12 months on he has just a single goal to his name, with the injured Neymar finishing his tournament on four. Rather than becoming the axis off which the Corinthians striker was able to thrive, the No. 10 became Brazil’s go-to man for goals as well as creativity before being met by Juan Camilo Zuniga’s knee in Fortaleza on Friday.
James | Rodriguez leads the way with six goals, but Teo Gutierrez netted just once
The Brazilian fans at Saturday’s remaining two quarterfinals would probably have been singing Neymar’s name anyway given the circumstances, but one got the feeling much of the hero worship has been intensified by the lack of goals coming from the rest of the forward line to this point.
James Rodriguez leads the Golden Boot charts with six goals, while Colombia’s main center forward Teofilo Gutierrez has arrived back home with only one to his name. Thomas Muller has helped himself to four goals in a tournament at which Germany coach Joachim Low has largely looked beyond his only true No. 9, Miroslav Klose. While Higuain took five games to get his account off the mark, Lionel Messi has been in fine form in front of goal so far.
Even Van Persie, who has three goals to his name, has scored just once since the opening game and has been matched stride-for-stride by the altogether more influential Arjen Robben. Having needlessly racked up a suspension during the Netherlands’ Group B campaign, Van Persie has had nothing like the same impact since returning in time for the knockout stages.
But should we really be surprised that the scoring patterns have evolved in such a way during the World Cup? After all, an increasing number of coaches have taken to playing with a lone striker in recent years, both at club and international level.
Instead of expecting a large proportion of goals to come from classic center forwards, it has become the norm to encourage attacking midfielders to get alongside, and even beyond, the offensive figurehead. The result has been that few of the record-breaking goal-scoring feats of recent seasons have been registered by true No. 9s.
Even Luis Suarez, whose exploits with Liverpool and Uruguay look set to win him a move to Barcelona, does not really fit in with the stereotype of a No. 9. Far from being the reference point leader of the line, playing regularly with his back to goal, Suarez’s style is more that of a secondary forward looking to spark attacks between the lines.
Throw in the likes of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, whose goal returns have set all kinds of new standards, and center forwards have become more than used to being outdone by their deep-lying teammates.
The 2014 World Cup has simply followed the blueprint of soccer over the last half-decade. While goals are being scored at more regular intervals, strikers are drying up at an alarming rate.