Can football be played without strikers? Is it possible for a team to be successful without them? Football formations have developed from the 2-3-5 of the early 20th century to the range of 4-5-1 systems we see regularly today. Is the lone striker the final stage of development, or is there still room for tactical innovation? The possibility of a 4-6-0 is being increasingly discussed, but is the system workable? And is it already in use?
The notation 4-6-0 means any formation without strikers: there are many variants on the idea, never featuring a flat six-man midfield, but rather a midfield split into two or sometimes three bands. The concept is based on a fluid midfield, in which all members are accomplished at defending and attacking, and more than one is capable of adopting the de facto centre-forward position. Naturally the system requires high levels of fitness and technical ability, but these are not unrealistic demands at the top level of modern football.
There are early indications that such a system could be prevalent in the future, the most successful example being the Manchester United side of 2007-08, which won the Premier League and Champions League. The formation can be most accurately described as a 4-2-4-0 (the middle two numbers here indicate that the six midfielders are split into two bands). The forward line usually consisted of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo plus two from Luis Nani, Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-Sung and Carlos Tévez, while the two more withdrawn midfielders were Michael Carrick and either Anderson, Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher or Owen Hargreaves. The system allowed Ronaldo, Tévez or Rooney to act as the 'striker' while the other midfielders did the necessary pressing and defensive work. In practise, it was Ronaldo who most successfully took the more advanced role, leading to him scoring a remarkable 42 goals, the tireless running of less spectacular players like Park Ji-Sung providing a platform for his talent. It isn't the perfect example of a fluid strikerless formation, as the driving force behind it was not so much midfield universality as a reliance on Ronaldo's individual capacity to create and score goals, and it isn't one that can be easily repeated by other teams: there is, after all, only one Cristiano Ronaldo. But it does offer a glimpse of how a football team can function successfully without a recognised centre-forward.
United aren't the only example. An improbable injury list forced Everton to play some of the 2008-09 season without a centre-forward. An advanced midfield role was being adopted by Tim Cahill and sometimes also Marouane Fellaini, while Luciano Spalletti began experimenting with something approximating a 4-5-1-0 or an adapted 4-1-4-1 at Roma, with Daniele De Rossi and Simone Perrotta running beyond the playmaker Francesco Totti. Everton's system is unlikely to be repeated due to the return of their strikers from injury, but it is still worth looking at. It centred around high levels of positional organisation and work-rate, relying largely on the ability of Cahill, Fellaini and Joleon Lescott to capitalise on the set-piece delivery of Mikel Arteta. Much of the closing down and off-the-ball running was performed by the wide midfielders Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar. Spalletti's Roma, by contrast, deploy two 'shuttling' central midfielders in De Rossi and Perrotta, as well as David Pizarro in a more withdrawn role. This creates space for the forward running of the wingers, as well as the individual talent of Totti. Both Everton and Roma have benefited from their tactical bravery – in 2008-09, Everton finished an admirable 5th place in the Premier League and reached the FA Cup final, while Roma finished league runners-up in the first three seasons of Spalletti’s management, as well as lifting the Coppa Italia in 2007 and 2008.
If it’s theoretically viable, then, for a 4-6-0 to succeed, why isn’t everyone using it? There are still significant obstacles to the tactic being adopted more universally. A system without strikers requires both extraordinary levels of fitness and extremely high-quality players. It's telling that the three examples detailed above come from successful, relatively wealthy clubs who perennially finish in the top half of their domestic leagues. The system is unlikely to take on among smaller teams, who lack the physical capacity and standard of players to achieve the fluidity and universality required. Neither is a 4-6-0 likely to be adopted by international sides, as its success depends on the players spending a great deal of time together, a luxury only afforded to club teams. Another threat to the proliferation of 4-6-0 is the recent emergence of more ‘universal’ strikers, such as David Villa and Samuel Eto’o, who offer teams the qualities which previously required two players - both goal threat and defensive consciousness, athleticism in tandem with technical proficiency. However, the recent success of Manchester United, and the promising inroads made by Luciano Spalletti, could inspire others to attempt a similar experiment. Tactics are, in some respects, the search for perfect fluidity, and at the highest levels of club football a formation without strikers could be the next step towards that elusive ideal.