As a versatile player with a six foot two inch frame and ability to run for days, I often played across the back line or as a central midfield player. The game demanded high levels of physicality and intelligence and luckily for me, I fit the bill.
For years, I constructed my game on preventing the other team from scoring. I marked the opposition’s big man, cut off passing lanes, sorting those out who needed sorting, serving each team I was a part of with a sense of responsibility and unglamorous task completion. I found out that there is an intriguing danger with being a jack of all trades and master of none in football.
Injuries and a necessity for some “bite up top” led me to a sit down with the coaching staff who told me to apply what I knew of a target man’s movement and role as a defensive player, and make the transition from being a cog in the machine to a catalyst in attack.
“Find the ball; hold it up, link with your midfield.” The instructions seemed simple enough. For the majority of my competitive playing days, I’d been deployed as a centre back or defensive midfielder for my height, ability to tackle, ability to read the game, collect the ball and distribute it. I was entering my third year of college and learned I would be used as a target forward, a number nine. The whole idea was fresh, exciting, and if I’m honest, daunting. Back then, the football that was popular was still soaked in the sap of direct play or route one football. And it was then when I found out about the plethora of roles and responsibilities expected of a target forward.
Football is a pressurised game. Every position is assessed in 90-minute intervals. For example, a goalkeeper can do the business for an entire match and if one goal against is the difference, the goalkeeper is scrutinised. In stark contrast, a forward has license to miss every shot and can get away with doing so all game and they become instant heroes every time the ball hits the back of the net. Football is thriving in an age where the game is played in a philosophy that would make Brian Clough proud — and the role of the target forward seems to be threading the waters of uncertainty.
The game is rife with absolutes and certainties. The target forward is the goliath (if not in physical stature, surely in personality) up top marauding across the opposition back line, popping in front of the butchers on defence, showing and not receiving service for long stretches of play, and responsible for scoring goals, absorbing pressure, and functioning as a literal target for ten other teammates. Players of this ilk combine intelligence with the requisite tenacity to win battles that always find them outnumbered.
Trendy new formations and tactical deployments cater to a different breed of player than that of the past. Today’s best footballers are technically complete and versatile in ways that temporarily alleviate the need for a target forward. Even if football favours the technician, good possession-based teams still have a version of the classical number nine waiting to put his head where others put their boots. Teams need this goliath up top to win aerial contests, to hold up the ball as the butchers in defence chomp at their ankles and calves, and most importantly, to put the ball in the back of the net.
In an age of silky and slight-of-frame technicians, the target forward is the fulcrum of attack and, when incorporated into the play, becomes one of the most efficient and frightening forces on the pitch. The attributes of the true target forward, however, are unlikely to change. Football has shifted from direct play to possession-based play. Seemingly every team wants to play Total Football or tiki-taka with an element of gegenpressing.
What this really means is that the modern culture of the game necessitates keeping the ball on the deck and keeping it away from the opponent. As such, the role of the target forward is subject to the ebb and flow of football’s evolutionary state. Players like Dixie Dean, the first player to pull on the number nine shirt for Everton to the likes of Didier Drogba, Marco van Basten, Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Hakan Şükür, and Miroslav Klose to name a few, represent a special breed of footballer with a skill-set that is often utilised in possession-based teams.
As the false 9 is employed to devastating effect, the need for a lone striker is sometimes diminished. As playing out of the back has become increasingly popular and effective, the target forward is often wasted in each sequence of play as the ball circulates across the back line and into the pressurised midfield “box” or wide channels. His movement becomes predictable as he drifts further away from the opposition’s goal in frustration to collect the ball.
There are a few dominant reasons why talismanic target men find the scoresheet with consistency. One reason is the ability of adept full-backs who are able to find the target forward’s feet directly, who can then link up with a number 8 or 6 and break through on goal.
A good target forward presents a multitude of issues for the opposition’s backline. The ability to play with his back to goal, link up with the attacking midfielders, or hold the ball and circulate it to a wide channel is not only difficult to defend, but it pulls a defensive unit out of position, creating space for the number nine, eight, and six to get on the end of service delivered by a number eleven or seven. Part of what makes the target forward’s job so difficult is the predictable nature of direct football. In this style of play, when the attacking team’s goalkeeper or backs have the ball, it is usually going to one player, the target forward. If the ball does not go to a player, it’s going to space. Not only is a good target forward responsible for tracking down lofted services, they are also responsible for hold-up play that is not only taxing, but often thankless.
Astute football minds understand the importance of balancing trendy styles of play with effective tactical execution. Just as a disciplined midfielder plays box-to-box, an intelligent target forward plays a different box-to-box, covering the entire width of the 18-yard box while staying “ball side” and staying out of the wide channels and corners. The proclivity for modern target forwards to chase a ball into the corner, especially at the younger levels, lends itself to a lack of tactical discipline and application by all parties. Operating on the strong side of the ball whilst initiating contact (locking up the centre back) and pushing that back line back to create space is a lost art. Ideally, players want the ball to feet with enough time to turn, beat a defender, and shoot on goal; all while avoiding getting snapped in half or kicked up and down. True target forwards seldom have this luxury.
The quickness of the game has seen a steady decline in true target forwards receiving the ball in-air without a swarm of defenders closing in on them. The art of posting up, staying side-on, and retaining possession has also declined as the game shifts towards an era of flopping defenders, soft fouls, and quick interchange through the midfield via a false nine. Furthermore, if defending was a selective possession, say 15 years ago, it’s considered a highly-skilled position more than ever today.
Defenders with the most skill have the ability to bully a target forward physically and mentally to the point where the forward starts to play too much one-touch football or shows to the ball too early. There’s a reason why the best in the business are able to lock horns with the best defenders. Players in the mould of an elite target forward like Falcao are a nightmare to mark. They stretch the play high to create space, they’re aware of the midfielders running through, they remain onside and ball-side, they know to get the ball wide and make themselves available for anything and everything near the six-yard box by placing themselves between the posts.
Football’s evolution is closely reaching a precipice whereby the best teams accommodate the best of a multitude of playing styles within a line-up. One team that represents this is Bayern Munich. Bayern play a possession-based game that resembles Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona teams, but with arguably more precision and quicker transition than the aesthetic tiki-taka the world has come to appreciate. Guardiola took an already successful system under Jupp Heynckes, who favoured a 4-2-3-1 system, and arranged for a more aggressive 4-1-4-1 where Guardiola recognises the need for only one holding player, which affords him two creative midfielders and two wingers who maintain their width pushing up behind a solitary centre-forward.
Guardiola, the man who has coached Xavi, Lionel Messi, and Andrés Iniesta has said Philipp Lahm is “the most intelligent player” he has ever coached. Whether that is true or not does not detract from the fact that Lahm’s tactical cognisance, technical ability, and passing percentages have been impeccable. Intelligence here frees up the wide channels for players to exploit space, while the lone front runner now operates in pockets of a back line that has to be mindful of Bayern’s multiple attacking threat and “free” players running off one another.
What makes Bayern Munich the benchmark example is the team is able to help perform some of the roles of a target forward through its play. First, the team presses more and plays further up the pitch. By pressing hard from the front line to regain possession as quickly as possible and closer to the opposition’s goal, the tempo in possession becomes devastating in transition.
The beauty of football is that it’s malleable. Players come and go, but great systems of play and philosophies generally withstand the test of time and trendy evolution. The target forward’s role has not changed, the game around the target forward has — it looks different, the play is faster and more technical. But the game requires goals and where there is clinical finishing, there is likely to be a predator lurking around the opponent’s box, doing the grunt work, getting kicked for fun to turn a half chance into a game winner. And for that, we must continue to find the target forward.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3