Football is a game forever in a state of flux. Methods are under constant scrutiny from its foremost pioneers as they exasperatedly analyse copious patterns of play in order to concoct some form of innovation. Whether it be Herbert Chapman’s W-M formation, Helenio Herrera’s Catenaccio, or Johan Cruyff’s Total Football, the sport owes such great thinkers for its continued augmentation. Their vision has ensured their place in the history books through the invention of these distinct ideologies.
However, despite continued alterations to rules, formations and tactics, one position that seems to always find its way back into fashion is the target man. It may not be as glamorous as a slick winger, as energetic as a marauding wing-back, or as visually pleasing as a creative midfielder, but the target man is unquestionably effective. Having been dismissed as outdated on numerous occasions, powerful strikers continue to prove doubters wrong by enjoying one revival after the next to maintain a place in modern football’s landscape.
Britain – and in particular the Premier League – has always held a penchant for target men (albeit somewhat incoherently at times with the rest of Europe ostensibly progressing their respective games past the requisite skillset of a ‘big man’). This has often led to a myriad of criticism as England’s top flight is condemned for its indefatigable efforts to retain the use of such a player.
One of the main reasons why target men were most recently outlawed in the late-noughties was due to the rise of tiki-taka football. A concept championed by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, it seems as though a new era of false 9s and inverted wingers took precedent over out and out wide men and a big number 9. Even the Premier League – the bedrock of target men – began to see fewer long balls, reaching an all-time low of 60.9 per game in the 2012-13 campaign. English managers, media and the fans alike began to accept the need for greater positional fluidity throughout the team and that the lack of mobility offered from a target man had negative effects on a side’s functionality.
Yet, in typical fashion, big powerful strikers have managed to muscle their way back into manager’s plans on English shores. This season has seen that aforementioned statistic rise back up to 69.3 as players such as Andy Carroll, Christian Benteke, Salomón Rondón and Fernando Llorente have found a new lease of life. It may not provide spectators with the most visually stunning game, however aesthetics is often compromised in what is a results-driven business.
So how and why has their latest renaissance come about? How have players seen as near-neanderthals compared to the majestic panache of their team-mates managed to forge their way back into the limelight?
One explanation comes in the form of a backlash to modern-day tactics. The objective of football is to score, and many align themselves to the idea that to do so, you must get the ball into your opponent’s penalty area as quickly and as effectively as possible. For all the intricate thinking and complex movements, coaches of the ilk of Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis still subscribe to the notion that over-complicating the process is unnecessary and that the same end results can be achieved through direct, physical play. Or in the words of Bill Shankly: “Football is a simple game complicated by idiots.”
Looking closer into this – and linking it back to Guardiola’s philosophy – we are seeing a new form of centre-half come to the fore, perfectly adept at carrying the ball out from the back and experts in transitioning defence to attack when in possession. But these attributes are often detrimental to others which one would consider pure defensive qualities. A perceived weakness aerially from these modern ball-playing centre-backs has aided the recent ascension of the newly revitalised target man.
Another tactical use for the traditional number 9 is to beat an aggressive frontline press. Popularised by Jürgen Klopp via his iconic gegenpressing, more and more sides have adopted this approach where players will hunt in packs in order to win possession in the final third. This can be devastatingly effective, with a turnover high up the pitch often leading to lethal counter-attacks when the opposition are out of balance.
Playing a long-ball negates the ability to press as opposed to passing out from the back, and who better to latch onto such balls than a target man who can flick it on or hold the ball up and bring his team-mates into play. This tactic is often deployed by teams of modest stature to bring some parity to fixtures where they are largely out-weighted in terms of creative quality.
Although they serve a purpose, a target man is not solely limited to lesser sides. As demonstrated by Didier Drogba at Chelsea, a tall, powerful forward can also possess a great deal of star quality. The striker’s use was best exemplified during the Blues’ maiden Champions League triumph in 2012. The Ivorian used every ounce of his muscular frame to hold up play, win flick-ons and, perhaps as importantly, defend set-pieces – an advantage often overlooked when discussing strikers. His inspired displays helped Chelsea overthrow two technically superior sides in the form of Barcelona and Bayern Munich and saw them anointed kings of Europe.
With the upper echelons of England’s football pyramid played at such a frantic tempo and the need to be physical coming from the games mob roots, it’s understandable that the target man has been able to stand the test of time. This fortitude is mainly greeted by deep sighs from a community that is becoming ever more saturated with self-proclaimed ‘football purists’, although it’s called the beautiful game for a reason; whilst fallible defenders exist, the modern-day target man will continue to thrive.
Even Guardiola, the godfather of the pass-and-move game, has adapted his game model to incorporate more aerial play. His coaching transformation at Bayern Munich was never more apparent than in games where he fielded two out and out wingers in order to supply Robert Lewandowski with ample service. This was not only so the Polish international could showcase his aerial prowess but also for the ever-lurking Thomas Müller, who would regularly feed off second-ball opportunities that fell his way as a by-product of the original cross.
Guardiola has since conceded the need to tweak his game model even further as he continues to learn the ins and outs of Premier League football. It would be foolish to suggest that we will ever see the Catalan boss cave into the overwhelming, cocksure media and fandom that seem desperate for him to fail and start aimlessly lumping the ball up field. On the other hand, with his recent preference for wingers to play on the flank of their dominant foot, it would also be ill-informed to suggest that he won’t continue to incorporate a greater emphasis on aerial play into Manchester City’s game.
So, the next time Andy Carroll takes a headed opportunity with great aplomb, rather than chastising it as a brand of anti-football, we should just appreciate that football comes in many art forms and it’s these contrasting styles that help shape the game we love.