In Italy they call they have a phrase for it. Il Bomber. No matter what else you do, you need a Bomber to achieve your objective. Powerful, destructive, decisive, he’s the striker that delivers the end product, the goals to confirm your strategy. It’s the thing Wrexham lacked last season.
Which brings me to the man Sam Ricketts brought in to be our Bomber. When Mike Fondop arrived early last Summer, I thought he was an interesting back-up punt: a player who clearly had some promising attributes, but had yet to convert them into concrete results. Could Ricketts’ much-vaunted coaching credentials knock the rough edges off him?
As the Summer progressed and it became increasingly obvious that Fondop was drafted in as the striker we’d be relying on to lead the line, I became rather less optimistic.
I started hoping I was wrong as Fondop followed up a prolific pre-season by starting the season like a house on fire. Scoring in five of his first six games, it looked like Ricketts had played a blinder. However, the signs of his regression to the mean were already evident.
Fondop has a degree; he is clearly an educated man. But he remained untutored in a football sense. His relationship with Jordan Maguire-Drew illustrated the problem perfectly. Maguire-Drew, schooled in a Premier League academy, had a picture in his head of what movement he could expect from his team mates in certain situations. He’d drop off, take a touch and look up to see how quickly his striker had run into the space he’d vacated to receive the pass. Except Fondop hadn’t received the continuous coaching which ingrains in you the instinctive runs to make, generally hadn’t read the situation, and tended to be standing in the middle of the pitch, waiting for someone to lob something in that he could attack. Maguire-Drew’s body language towards Fondop became increasingly exasperated as both players’ bright starts fell apart.
Fondop, put simply, had benefitted from a pre-season in which we exclusively played lower quality opposition. Untested, he filled his boots, built his confidence and hit the ground running on the first day of the season. There’s something to be said for building momentum in pre-season, but it created a false impression of Fondop’s capabilities, and once he started missing chances, that confidence evaporated.
Another clue to his loss of efficacy in the box came in the nature of his goals. He scored some remarkable, curious affairs, didn’t he? That strange, recumbent overhead kick at Dover, the remarkable half-pitch sprint at Eastleigh, the scooped finish against Bromley.
The problem with such unorthodox goals, is you’re unlikely to replicate them. Juan Ugarte scored his goals by running in behind the centre back or lurking on the edge of the six yard box. You’re more likely to score in bulk by getting into those positions consistently than by getting the ball in your own half, ignoring better-placed team mates, and heading for goal, or somehow clipping the ball over your shoulder as you fall and catching the keeper out because he didn’t expect a shot to come at him so early.
The natural comparison is Sandro, whose move to Everton was doomed to failure as this excellent article from Different Game explained before the event. Sandro enjoyed a remarkable 2016-17 season with Malaga, banging in 16 goals in 31 games, many of which were remarkable.
That was what caught the eye of Everton’s recruitment team, but also what made him unlikely to repeat those feats. As the article explains, his xG was remarkably low for the goals he scored, suggesting he really oughtn’t to have been scoring from those positions at all. Either he’d invented a new way of being a striker, or he was enjoying one of those golden but finite periods where everything you hit goes in. Unfortunately for Everton, whose recruitment policy was forensically pulled apart by Tifo Football, Sandro wasn’t the prolific goalscorer that season suggested, but a bloke who shot from bad areas. Like Fondop, it was unrealistic to expect him to keep scoring unorthodox goals.
The thing is, it’s great to have a player who can do the unusual, but quantity is massively more important than quality when it comes to goals. If a game ends 5-1, but the losing side’s goal is world class, which side would you prefer to support?
Coincidentally, when I think of centre forwards, I often think of the phrase,. “The bomber will always get through”. It was the Tory Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin who said it between the wars: he was referring to the futility of an arms race which merely makes destruction more likely; no matter what you spend on air defences, the bomber always gets through.
The likes of Fondop have always brought that phrase into my mind; does a big striker with certain attributes eventually get through? He lacks polish, experience, finesse, but he does have certain advantages. Big, strong and quick enough to get in behind centre backs, he’s certainly capable of getting on the end of a chance, if he sees the possibility as it develops. Could picking a striker like this work if you view it as playing the percentages? He’ll miss lots of chances, and miss lots of opportunities to make the runs which lead to chances, but his natural attributes mean he will get on the end of things sometimes, and despite lacking composure, sometimes he’ll score. The bomber always gets through, or at least often enough to pay off during the course of a season.
I didn’t disagree for a moment with the decision to drop him, or to loan him out, but with hindsight would we have scored more goals if we’d persisted with him? After all, his last league goal was scored in August, but he still ended up as our equal top scorer for the season.
I’m not trying to advocate that he’s the future, I’m not trying to suggest I’d have made an different decisions about Fondop than the managers who choose to try other options. I also don’t agree with the notion some people seem to have that you need to smash your way out of the National League, and picking blunt instruments rather than good footballers is the way to do it: our 98-point team showed that the way to build a side capable of promotion is to have better players than the other sides. When we visited Halifax last month, a team Fondop played 12 games for last season, the local reporter’s judgement on Fondop’s move from them to Wrexham was telling: “I didn’t think he was the sort of player a team like Wrexham would buy.”
But I do wonder whether it might have been worth putting Fondop on the bench for the Eastleigh play-off, simply to offer something different if needed in an emergency. After all, much of our attacking planning in the latter stages of the season was based on finding an emergency solution to a crushing lack of bite up front.
Whether he’s an answer for next season is a different question. I’m inclined to assume we’ll try to move him on; his loan move to Maidenhead hardly suggested he’s a player to build a promotion bid around, as he got as many red cards as goals. That’s easier said than done though, even if we want to look for a more orthodox solution to our lack of goals and free up some space in our budget by letting him go (although his history suggests he won’t be on a huge wage). But you ever know. Maybe we need a bomber, even if he’s not the complete package.