We go back to the drawing board to analyze how teams use forwards and the roles they are expected to perform.
The innocuous source for this piece of writing is the derision towards Mario Balotelli directed by fans at Liverpool. Constantly blamed for the consistently bad performances seen at Anfield this season, Balotelli has become a bit of a guinea pig – a persistent reminder of Brendan Rodgers’s failure to land a suitable replacement for Luis Suarez. And this reminder is sure to stick unless Balotelli starts showing glimpses of the genius at Euro 2012 or the shades of brilliance seen in Manchester City’s first Premier League title victory.
But most reasons for Balotelli’s failure are tactical. Brendan Rodgers’s stubbornness to play Balotelli up front as a lone front-man has laid the foundation for this malaise. For Balotelli is everything a target man is not and is not yet all the things a False 9 is supposed to be. The Italian forward plays best in the company of another striker, a style now used occasionally in world football. Perhaps Rodgers is trying to mould him into the striker he wants, but this predicament led us to a quick look at the styles in which forwards are used in the game today and which teams should stick with which styles to their advantage.
1) The Target Man
Strength, power and physical presence are the basic requirements of this forward. The ability to hold the ball up and keep your body between the defender and the ball is this forwards forte. This forward must then keep the ball under control long enough for a team-mate to appear in an attacking position and then this forward must find the pass to start an attacking move. Many teams use this presence up front to bully opposing centre halves. Jamie Carragher explains well why Rickie Lambert is a far better target man than Mario Balotelli at Liverpool.
The target man must also have a ferocious shot on him and good aerial ability. This forward comes in many sizes – from big, friendly giants like former Everton great Duncan Ferguson, to tall, spindly and gangly forwards like Peter Crouch (who is actually a lot less awkward than he looks), to strong, powerful and medium sized presences like Didier Drogba, Wilfried Bony and Diego Costa, to clever and intelligent forwards like Robin van Persie and Mario Mandzukic, who more than strength, use their good ball control and skill to hold the ball up. These forwards like to compete against the big centre backs, they have good first touches and are good at laying off the ball to their team-mates and bringing them into the play.
They are often used by teams who rely on physical power and strength – the likes of Chelsea, Stoke City, West Ham in the Premier League and to some extent Real Madrid in La Liga. These forwards are gifted in the air and are not only good at offensive set-pieces, but more than pull their weight defending corners and free-kicks as well.
2) The Poacher
This forward doesn’t always have to be either a lone striker or one of two up front, but has the gift of knowing how to be at the right place, at the right time. His finishing skills are exquisite, and he can find the net from anywhere around the penalty area, being most dangerous around the six yard area. Ideally, this type of forward remains anonymous in most parts of the game but makes his presence felt at the right time when the ball has to be put into the back of the net.
Prime examples of such forwards are legends Ruud van Nistelrooy, Filippo Inzaghi and Raul. These players rarely did their work outside the box, but were lethal in it, applying the finishing touches on a build-up move. Although they are not expected to work outside the box, they can be handy in those positions too. The poacher is always expected to be sniffing around for a chance to score. As Alex Ferguson famously said about Pippo Inzaghi’s determination to stay in the box “The lad must have been born offside”. Here is a clip of Ruud van Nistelrooy making best use of his poaching abilities for Manchester United.
3) The False 9
A relatively new concept, the false 9 is a position made his own by Barcelona’s genius Lionel Messi. This kind of striker plays alone up front, but in a deeper role, that is meant to allow him more touches of the ball and also confuse the opposing centre backs. The false 9 also brings his team-mates into the game, but is likely to go deeper to collect the ball, dribble and find a killer pass or look for a one-two.
This striker may or may not be an excellent finisher, but must be a good dribbler, with excellent ball control and great agility. Messi’s exploits have made this style of play both feared and envied by teams. The popularity of this system resulted in Cesc Fabregas playing as a False 9 in Barcelona and inspired the Spanish and the Argentine national teams as well.
4) The Trequartista
This is a term made famous through Italian football. Trequartista or Italian for three-quarters is a blend of the forward/attacking midfielder position to be found on the third quarter of the pitch. Variations of this positions have made it the playmaker’s or the second striker’s role, but essentially the trequartista attacker should have exceptional passing ability, vision, ball control and skill. They play the final pass for another attacker to put the ball into the net. An added advantage is a good shot on goal.
Traditionally these players were attacking midfielders, playing in the ‘hole’, the likes of Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane, Riquelme and Cruyff. These players were brilliant at dribbling, touches, ball control and passing. Current examples of such players are David Silva, Isco and Juan Mata. However, the position now also accomodates the number 10 or second striker who is further up the pitch, just behind the main striker. This player is also good at the above mentioned things, but also has a good shot. Wayne Rooney plays this role well for Manchester United. Alessandro del Piero played a similar role for Juventus. The modern trequartista has evolved indeed. Here is a clip of David Silva performing magic in this role.
5) The Wide Forward
Not a traditional forward position, the wing forward has come into picture to assist in the lone forward system. This is the forward the target man looks to play the ball to. The wide forward usually plays the wings in a formation that has three players up front and uses his pace, stamina and dribbling to play the role as a winger and an attacker who cuts inside and has a pop at goal. Teams with counter-attacking styles make use of these wide forwards the most, as they are lightening quick to break and equally good at finishing off the move.
For this reason, the wide forward almost always plays on the opposite side of his stronger foot – a right footed wing forward would more likely play on the left wing, allowing him to cut inside the full back and shoot at goal from his stronger foot. Cristiano Ronaldo is the most famous advertisement for this position, as is his Real Madrid team-mate Gareth Bale. These players are good at both crossing the ball and finishing. They are good dribblers and strong against full backs. Alexis Sanchez at Arsenal is the best example of such a player from the Premier League.