Ah, the price we pay for progress. Modern football’s tactical preference for playing a single centre-forward has denied a generation of football fans the joy of the front pairing which was a staple of the game for many decades.
In its purest form that front two paired players with very different skill sets to dovetail in harmony and provide a perfect complement for each other – or in shorthand, one big man and one small man.
Tactically it seems a positively Luddite outlook nowadays: hoof high balls in the vague direction of the moustachioed No.9 built like a brick outhouse; he makes contact with his outsized head to nod it down in the box to the diminutive No.11 with the bad mullet to scuff home.
It worked too well and too often to be ignored and there was a certain joy to be found in two radically different attacking players coexisting together in perfect harmony; side by side on a piano purely optional.
Quinn and Phillips at Sunderland; Toshack and Keegan at Liverpool; Shaw and Withe at Aston Villa; Bull and Mutch at Wolves; McCoist and Hateley at Rangers – the list of great big man little man pairings is as long as the list of great comedy pairings.
It’s never been a purely English phenomena either: most European clubs and countries have had a hankering at some time in their histories for this sort of potentially deadly pairing and we’ve seen some lethal combos in this style like Gullit and Van Basten at Milan, Trezeguet and Del Piero at Juventus and Shevchenko and Rebrov at Dynamo Kiev.
A potent Scandinavian match-up of forwards in the 1980s took the notion of the big man little man pairing and added an unusual twist to it. The wonderful Danish Dynamite teams of the 1980s put Denmark on the world map and impressed all who watched it in action with its stirring and dynamic attacking play.
Much of its striking potency was derived from the wonderful front pairing between 1982 and 1988 of Preben Elkjaer with Michael Laudrup. Elkjaer was the bullish centre-forward, as strong as an ox and an all-action player who terrified opposing defences not by running around them, rather by running right over the top of them. Laudrup was the more considered, the more cerebral member of the partnership – a player who liked to find space, play with the ball on the ground and wrong foot opposing defences with his wonderful control and great passing vision.
This partnership reached its deadly zenith during the 1986 World Cup as they ripped opposing defences apart – Laudrup teasing and tormenting them into submission and Elkjaer bullying them into abject surrender. The pair were so in sync that they virtually scored an identical number of goals for their country, Elkjaer with 38 to Laudrup’s 37.
So what was the unusual twist on this classic big man front man pairing? Well the ‘big’ man – Elkjaer – was only 5ft 11” in height despite his formidable aerial ability, while the ‘small’ man – Laudrup – came in at close to 6ft 1” and never willingly headed a ball in his life.