Emile Heskey played in the Premier League for well over a decade with clubs like Leicester City, Liverpool FC, and Aston Villa and earned 62 caps with the England national team. But despite this lengthy career as one of Britain’s elite center forwards, he only logged a little over a hundred goals despite playing almost entirely as a line-leading striker. Nonetheless the 6’2” son of a nightclub bouncer, capable of unflinching hold-up play and explosive dribbles into the final third, was often cited as Michael Owen’s favorite strike partner and persistently called on by a series of England managers well into his 30s, showing even at the highest levels the value of forwards who don’t always find the back of the net.
New York Red Bulls fans will hope Fábio Roberto Gomes Netto’s strike rate will improve above its current hold at zero, but the 6’4” Brazilian’s Heskey-like output is making him one of the stars of the new-look side in the meantime. Fábio now leads the entire league with four assists in as many games so far in MLS. While observers and coaches alike are eager for the lanky striker to break his proverbial duck in North American soccer, his worthwhile production in the meantime is earning plaudits and increasing calls for his loan from the recently-relegated Oeste FC to be made permanent.
You’re always doing something right if you’re leading the league in assists, but it’s especially encouraging that Fábio’s setups have come from a variety of center forward techniques. His first assist involved contesting an aerial ball against Kansas City defender Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, causing a ricochet that fell into the path of Caden Clark to lob in for a 1-0 lead. Two weeks later his dribble along the side of the Chicago penalty area ended with a characteristic Red Bull-styled cutback cross into the path of a trailing run from Cristian Casseres. And against Toronto this past weekend, his billiards-style layoff for Frankie Amaya’s blast in the first half was followed by the shot that generated the rebound with which Caden Clark put the game away.
The inside-out play of Fábio (dovetailing with fellow grafting-but-goalless strikers Brian White and Tom Barlow) is also thrilling as a window into the progress of Gerhard Struber’s molding of the team, especially a New York attack lacking in coherent strategy over recent seasons. The diamond midfield system run by Struber requires players in each line of the field to freelance providing width, particularly strikers chasing down diagonal long balls. This of course will lead to them being outside of the traditional goal-scoring zones, but in the perfect spaces to show off Heskey-like physical and technical abilities. It’s for these reasons that manager Gerhard Struber finds himself satisfied with the output of Fábio but also defensive of his system after last weekend’s win over Toronto amid increasing calls for New York to make the Brazilian’s loan permanent.
“I prefer that every single player (be able to) score,” Struber said after the two-assist Toronto performance when asked if he’s concerned about Fábio’s lack of goals. “I think we find ourselves sometimes in moments where the spaces are very good for our 8s and 10s in the box and they have to use it. I think the responsibility to score is for every player the same way. But of course I like it for my strikers to have success.”
Struber has clearly staked out Fábio as the focal point of his embryonic Red Bulls offense, and could be seen emphasizing Fábio’s ability to take down long balls at the keynote of a recent halftime speech. But despite all this attention to the towering Brazilian’s aerial presence, an amazing statistic lingers. According to FBRef, Fábio has engaged in 18 aerial duels so far this season...and won a grand total of zero of them. While this column will avoid an excruciating diatribe against the validity of statistics in soccer, it will hypothesize (as seen on his first assist to Clark against Kansas City) that players do not necessarily need to “win” headers for balls to end up in advantageous situations or for defensive structures to be affected.
It will also hypothesize, like managers from Martin O’Neill to Sven Goran Eriksson to Fabio Capello did with Emile Heskey, that strikers do not even need to necessarily score to prove their worth in a team with a sound structure all the way down the pitch. The man who finished as runner up in the Brazilian second division’s goalscoring charts in his last full season will find the net eventually, especially with newly-arrived strike partner Patryk Klimala expected to provide Fábio with even more dangerous runs to complement. But until then, fans can appreciate the well-rounded nature of the slender new South Ward favorite.