Javier Hernandez, Kelechi Iheanacho prove that classic striker role is dying
One stands top of the table, the other seventh. They are surrounded by the striking greats of the Premier League era and, rather incongruously, Adam Le Fondre. They sandwich Sergio Aguero, Harry Kane, Thierry Henry and Ruud van Nistelrooy. They both lead Luis Suarez, Robin van Persie, Alan Shearer and Michael Owen.
They are Kelechi Iheanacho and Javier Hernandez. The Nigeria international has the best goal-per-minute ratio in the division's history, while the Mexico striker is not far behind. Iheanacho averages a top-flight goal every 106 minutes in England; Hernandez, one every 130. They are defined, distinguished, differentiated and (curiously) damned by the numbers.
Because they are bound for the sides that finished 12th and 11th last season, both represent men at the top of the scoring charts heading for bottom-half sides. Hernandez has joined West Ham, while Iheanacho is seemingly headed for Leicester. They are transfers that seem to double up as coups for the division's middle-class, and indictments of the aristocrats who ignored the claims of proven predators.
Should they play every minute of this season, statistics suggests Iheanacho would strike 32 times and Hernandez 26. The alternative argument is that they won't -- men who have filled bit-part roles for much of their time in England are unaccustomed to such a workload. As forwards who have benefited from superior supply lines at the Manchester clubs, they'll be fashioned with fewer chances in lesser outfits. Moreover, as replacements who have prospered against tiring defences, they may find it harder when charged with starting games.
But they also point to a footballing trend. The "specialist predator" is an endangered species. The trend towards one-striker systems heightens the need for a multi-dimensional forward -- someone capable of holding the ball up, providing a focal point, leading the line alone and serving as supplier and scorer in different contexts. That shift in thinking is amplified at the elite level.
Pep Guardiola has long been a trendsetter. He inherited two out-and-out goalscorers last summer. He is set to exile one (Iheanacho) and has reinvented the other (Aguero). Guardiola seemed proudest of the second-highest scorer in City's history after a game in which he failed to find the net. "He made an amazing, amazing performance. Sergio played, wow, like I didn't see for a long time," he said after May's win over West Bromwich Albion.
Aguero's evolution from predator to all-round performer can be traced in the statistics. Last season he scored 20 league goals on 1322 touches of the ball. The previous campaign, he mustered 24 off of 1258. That makes for a goal every 52 touches, compared to one every 66 in 2016-17. In other words, he became busier under Guardiola.
Even so, only Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku required fewer touches on average to score among premier marksmen. Diego Costa scored every 88 touches and Zlatan Ibrahimovic every 83, figures that illustrate a target man's many duties. Alexis Sanchez's work in wider and deeper areas is reflected by the numbers: He scored every 103 touches. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Hernandez and Iheanacho, Roberto Firmino -- the defensively conscious false nine who serves as the antithesis of the penalty-box poachers -- averaged a goal every 205 touches.
Then look at Hernandez's figures, particularly from his prime at Old Trafford. He averaged a Premier League goal every 47 touches in 2010-11, one every 54 the following year and one every 40 in 2012-13. Viewed one way, he is astonishingly efficient. Viewed another, he did little else except get caught offside (41 times in 2011-12 alone).
The increasing evidence is that mid-table and relegation-threatened clubs are happier with gambling on a player who can be both a passenger and a match-winner. Sides that are less likely to have 60 percent of possession -- West Ham and Leicester both averaged a minority share last season -- do not need anyone to be involved in the build-up.
Jermain Defoe, another finisher supreme acquired by a mid-table club, Bournemouth, is a case in point. He only started 57 of the last 139 league games in his second spell at Tottenham. At Sunderland last season, his 15 league goals came every 55 touches; his 15 the previous year came at a rate of one per 51. He was so potent that even a manager like Sam Allardyce selected him, despite his historic preference for physical forwards.
Defoe has more similarities with Hernandez (who plays on the last defender) than Iheanacho, who sometimes wandered around in the No. 10 area behind Aguero when they were paired. The common denominator between the trio, however, is their relatively low level of involvement in the rest of the game. They are scorers, pure and simple -- men who do the most important job in football but not for its most important clubs.
This is not to say they're incapable of doing so; they have proved as much with many a significant strike. Indeed, Iheanacho and Hernandez's capacity to find the net as substitutes rendered them the perfect 12th men. Except that they were used too infrequently on either side of Manchester, with the former playing just 528 minutes of Premier League football last season and latter recording only 840 in his last full campaign at Old Trafford.
Iheanacho and Hernandez were underused and unused in Manchester, and seem to be appreciated more in lowlier surroundings. They are two of very few footballers outside the top seven clubs with the capacity to score 20 Premier League goals. Nevertheless, their relegation to bottom-half sides suggest the penalty-box player is an anachronism at the top of the table.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.