The tactical revolution of the 2000s laid waste to the notion that every team must have two centre-forwards working in tandem. Playmakers came into vogue and in time so did inverted wingers and though prolific strikers will always find their way into any starting eleven their traditional partners in crime became surplus to requirements.
Usually – though not always – that partner took the form of a ‘targetman’; a physically imposing forward whose job it was to ‘put himself about a bit’ and hold up the ball, allowing team-mates to catch up with play. They would get 13 or 14 goals per season and be content enough with that while the less selfless, more clinical poacher alongside them relentlessly chased the magical 20 mark.
A targetman was a totem: a side’s focal point. In more direct times they were Plan A and Plan B rolled into one. Think Mark Hateley or Dion Dublin. Think Niall Quinn or Emile Heskey. Going further back, think John Toshack or further still, John Charles.
It would not be true to suggest that such players no longer exist: that would be plainly daft because there will always be forwards who enjoyed a growth spurt in their early teens. The role, however, is sadly all but extinct: as redundant in today’s game as a take-no-prisoners centre-half whose only remit is to destroy.
Which leaves forwards these days ploughing a singular furrow. Sure, they have close support from skilful wide-men and attacking full-backs dove-tailing and over-lapping around them in carefully choreographed patterns, and on occasion too they benefit from a ‘false 9’, but what we are denied in the modern age, what we are deprived of, is the wonderful sight of two out-and-out strikers hunting as a pair. A deadly duo seemingly detached from the rest of their team and taking on a back-line together. A Batman and Robin.
Honestly, it hurts a little when harking back to the great strike partnerships of the seventies, eighties and nineties and perhaps that shouldn’t surprise. Nostalgia, after all, literally translates as painful.
Remember Quinn and Kevin Phillips terrorising defences up at Sunderland, the classic little and large pairing? Remember Shearer and Sheringham on that sun-splashed Wembley pitch in ’96, the Dutch hopelessly under siege from the SAS? Such wistful memories are accompanied with a pang.
And it is arguably for this very reason – along with their avalanche of goals and individual talent that prompts such widespread admiration – why the relationship between Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Son Heung-min connects so strongly with fans, regardless of their club allegiance.
Granted they are far removed from the stereotypical strike partnerships of yesteryear, with the lethal Kane often dropping deep and starting moves – indeed a separate article is warranted highlighting how the 27-year-old is a perfect combination of the little-and-large acts from the past – while the South Korean’s heatmaps have him primarily pegged as a winger.
Yet even if positionally the pair are multifarious and modern their interaction and reliance on the other evokes so strongly the partnerships of decades gone by that it’s genuinely enthralling to see. They are Dalglish and Rush; McAvennie and Cottee; Harford and Stein; only wearing better fitting kits and inhabiting broader tracts of the pitch.
It can be said with some understatement that their understanding of the other’s movement and manner in which they complement each other has been a huge boon for Spurs ever since Son joined from Bayer Leverkusen in 2015. As for the stats that illustrate this, frankly right now they are off the scale.
Between them the ruthless pair have scored 78% of their team’s league goals this term and while Kane is once again hunting down a Golden Boot award his significant other has fired home ten goals from 13 shots on target, a phenomenal return.
As pertinent as their strike-rate is the staggering number of assists one makes for the other. On 12 occasions to date this season Kane has set up Son or visa versa while overall the 32 goal combinations between the two players means only Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard (36) have been more impactful as an attacking duo in the Premier League era.
Finally – and most conclusively – there is this startling fact that deserves to be shared far and wide: in their entire summation of game-time together in lilywhite shirts Kane and Son share between them 1.32 goals every 90 minutes. No other partnership comes close to that. Rooney and Ronaldo for example, in an all-too-brief but formidable coupling for United managed a brilliant but distance 1.01.
What’s more, this bounteous harmony shows little sign of abating. Last week, against their North London rivals Arsenal, Kane teed up Son before the favour was later repaid. Another team downed. Another goal and assist for each of them. You have to wonder where this might end?
One possibility is that Kane and Son will become a partnership burnished in legend and let’s hope that is so. Because while the Targetman and the Poacher has become a fable handed down from men of a certain age to the young men of today our love affair with striking duos persists; as timeless as Romulus and Remus, Holmes and Watson, or Dalglish and Rush.