Manchester United pair stand near each other and score goals for the same team, but each carries a distinct, individual threat
It often used to be said that football was "a game of partnerships": a selection of quietly beavering double acts – full-backs, midfielders, centre-halves – between them bearing aloft the ideal of the team like worker ants heroically carting off a prized sandwich crust. It is the kind of statement you may find yourself wanting to be truer than it actually is.
This idea of football seems to speak to the sense of fraternal collectivism that has long been one of the sport's finer qualities, a vision of brave mud‑clogged men roped together on a mountainside, nobly persevering. You can see this spirit reflected even in the rectangular symmetries of English football's carefully tended version of 4-4-2, which is basically "a game of partnerships" made into a formation by a six-year-old with a crayon, but which still has something gently touching and buddyish about it.
The outrage felt by English football in the 1980s at the spectacle of overseas players turning up at Wembley and playing "in the hole" or showing off as a sweeper perhaps has something to do with the junking of this sacred partnership model, inspiring the same sense of witchy, transgressive longing normally reserved for the lone, husky‑voiced divorcee at a middle-class dinner party.
Rather than being about partnerships football is now something more diffuse: a rotational business of subcommittees and steering groups, sped by the rise of the hands-in-the-cake-mix manager, with his tweaks and shunts and exasperated touchline interventions. Within this top-down system the forging of a two-man partnership almost looks like an act of insubordination, the sort of thing you might get thrown out of the army for.
With this in mind it seems surprising there has this week again been some suggestion that Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, on the back of a fine run of form for both men, have now formed a notable striking partnership. There is an important distinction to be made here. Rooney and Van Persie are not a partnership. They are instead two men who stand quite near one another while scoring goals for the same team.
There is some occasional interplay between the two, some complementary spins and turns, and a sense of a twin but distinct threat, which is of course a weapon in itself. Watching them, at times it feels as though Manchester United have two chances to score in every game, that they are effectively playing two lone strikers, simultaneous substitutes in a ghostly 4-4-(1)-(1). Either way it is undoubtedly working. Rooney has 17 goals this season and Van Persie 24. It's like football reduced to fantasy football. Buy yourself a 30-goal striker and get – 30 goals from your striker. And so Rooney and Van Persie simply get on with it courteously, discreetly, like two men quietly battering away at their laptops in the first-class carriage of a high-speed train.
At this point it is necessary to bring the tactics board creaking out from behind its oriental screen. The fact is the mere notion of twin strikers will have alt-football purists everywhere expelling a spume of Indonesian forest-floor espresso across the screen of their bespoke mini-tablet in a gargle of hipster-bearded fury. This is stone-age talk really. Modern football is a game of lone attackers, false attackers, even at a push the rotating attacker, as utilised this week by Brazil who confronted England's defence in the first half at Wembley with the revolving threat of a slow, fat, lank‑haired man alternating with a spindly, jumpy, carrot-haired man.
So it is with Rooney and Van Persie, modern footballers raised in more complex attacking times. Van Persie was more a second striker or left-sided attacker when he arrived at Arsenal. And if Rooney's teenage crush was Duncan Ferguson, his first and only real footballing love to date is Cristiano Ronaldo, whom Rooney seemed to adore and with whom he shared a gambolling, Brideshead-ish kind of strike-pash. It is this sense of intangible sporting warmth that is still key to the emotional appeal of the strike partnership.
Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, the most obviously amorous out-and-out two-man strike team of recent times, were just brilliant fun to watch, going about their business like a pair of kittens chasing a ping-pong ball. Who could forget the sight of Iván Zamorano and Marcelo Salas at the 1998 World Cup, a furiously warrior-like strike duo, setting themselves on the Brazilians like a pair of Ewoks throttling to death an entire platoon of elite storm-troopers. Alan Shearer, so grouchy and sore in his late "Ozymandias" period – the vast and trunkless legs of stone – seemed likeable and quietly manly as part of a duo, the partnership with Les Ferdinand offering a sense of busy physicality, a bouncer-ish presence as though together they'd be brilliantly effective at helping you move a wardrobe upstairs or dispersing a menacing group of youths from a bus shelter. This quality of shared warmth transcends even footballing loyalties. Jürgen Klinsmann and Rudi Völler were, for some, the unacceptable face of 1990s German triumphalism, but they were transformed, unavoidably, into wonderful, prancing, moustachioed men by their obvious joy in playing together. Similarly Daniel Sturridge will, I am confident, quietly rehabilitate Luis Suárez in the wider consciousness by bringing to the fore his qualities of selfless, fraternal man-ferreting. Carlos Tevez finds his muse in fellow scurrier Sergio Agüero. Carlos, it's all forgotten.
Looking beyond the few that remain there is a kind of sadness to the lot of the modern striker, deprived of his natural mate and condemned to stalk his shrinking pasture alone. Week after week Fernando Torres looks like the loneliest jostled, jeered and entirely surrounded man on earth. But at least he once had Steven Gerrard. Jermain Defoe has basically spent the past decade running around on his own. Similarly Andy Carroll, a natural big-man, seems condemned to remain for ever incomplete, roaming unaccompanied like the last woolly mammoth on earth, baffled by the humid winds, the vanished pack ice.
Of course football has moved on, but the game of partnerships remains a seductive ideal. It is still hard not to feel a quiet attachment, a shared Morecambe‑and-Wise-in-the-kitchen sense of fondness for these nobly beavering duos. Sport is in so many ways about relationships: friends, families, the spectacle of shared fellowship even within the humid enclosure of the team. As Rooney and Van Persie would no doubt point out the idea of a simple old-school partnership offers a kind of constraint.
But it remains a simple and perhaps even rather guilty pleasure.