The Joker in modern football.

Image by The Eastern Herald.

Center Forwards. They are the spear heads of the team on the pitch. The players that get most of the lime light when they score and absolutely crucified when they don’t.

The position was given the name “center forward” around the early 1880s under one of earliest base formation that was used in football, the 2–3–5. The positions were numbered in 1933 - thus given the center forward the number 9. In this article, we’ll talk about how this role evolved through the tactical evolutions of football? the different playing styles of strikers we have in the game? and the most crucial type for a dominant team today?

The 2–3–5 basic football structure in 1880.

In the early days, the center forward position way very rigid. The attributes that teams looked for in their forwards — still to this day in some cases — physical presence and an accurate powerful shot. This ranged from how they dominated center backs physically, leaped high off the ground to meet crosses, and finished their chances in a somewhat efficient manner. The focus was physical attributes rather than the technical attributes bar the shot.

The Danubian School — that includes countries like Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia — made a modification to the base formation 2–3–5 by shifting the center forward slightly behind the inside forwards so that he can function as a target man, holding the ball with his back to goal and connecting with the inside forwards who ran off of him. A deep lying striker, if you will, that makes space for other forwards by dragging out opposition center halves.

This was the first point of development of the center forward position. Eastern Europe started emphasizing the technical side of the central player in the most advanced position. The physical attributes remained a focus, however, the player now functions in deeper areas and he needs to release quality passes to his inside forwards/Wingers — who are further ahead in the base formation.

“The role of the striker kept developing across Europe depending on the area of the pitch a certain team wants to have more control. The final third or the middle third” — a team coach for under 18s.

In Italy, however, they were more concerned with the defensive side, as the 2–3–5 was too open for their liking. Under Vittorio Pozzo, the base 2–3–5 was adjusted to a new formation called Il Metodo (2323). It was applied between 1934 to 1938. Pozzo pulled both the inside forwards backwards and asked them to remain in midfield for counter attacks.

Italian manager Vittorio Pozzo defensive adjustment to 2–3–5.

The center forwards have been seen for a long time —on a surface level in my view—under two categories or types:

A) The physical target-man who lingers in the box or the opposition half to finish chances with efficiency (finisher) and/or have a knack of being in the right pace at the time (Poacher).

Note: It is also good to remember that the term “target man” is not only restricted to height and physicality. It is usually interchanged with the word “hold-up”. There are different types of “target man”/”hold-up”, there’s the tall physical players that use power and there the ones that use their ball control and delay and/or release.

B) The pacey technical center forward who can knit things together and bring the other forwards into play. He acts more as a *playmaker* and a press trigger than a striker in the pure sense.

Note: In type B, the center forward can also be a target man. However, in this sense, the target man is more of a “technical hold up play” (ball control & take-ons) than a physical — as mentioned in the note above. They wiggle their way away from the CBs and connect with others.

No position on the field was more of an evidence of the style of football the team plays than the team’s center forward. A more passing game (possession-based football), the center forward had to be style B. The more direct, counter attack and long the team plays, the center forward had to be style A. That’s not to say that a possession based team can’t have a TYPE A center forward. However, usually, a possession based team has TYPE B center forward.

As teams gradually adopted the 4-4-2 formation in the 80s and 90s, the center forward role was a shared partnership. Managers wanted to combine both types of center forwards. The reason was the distance between the wingers (wide midfielders at the time) and center forward were big to hold the ball long enough. In addition, the distance between the defensive line and midfield line of the oppositions started to shrink, thus shortening the time and space players get to think and make decision on the ball. Even if the center forward is a physical monster, if they don’t have a teammate within a short distance they’ll lose the ball.

Enter the two striker partnership. The 80s and 90s era were epitomized by the number of striker partnership that were famous at the time. In the 80s, Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish. In the 90s, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, or Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton or Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen or Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.

Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke lifting the CL in 98/99 with United.
Right: Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish. Left: Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.

The two striker partnership was not in reality “Two Strikers”, it was more of a Striker and single inside forward. This is where the term “second striker” or a midfielder acting as a second striker came to be known. Yorke and Bergkamp were the greatest example of that — more so Bergkamp. The partner to the actual striker — “inside forward or second striker” — must be highly technical in terms of ball control and have a variety of passing range. This is because the second striker has, more or less, a free role, they must have high positional awareness, ability to exploit space and linkup or find their other striker partner. The responsibilities and the dynamics changed in the modern game but examples of similar types are Donny Van de Beek and Thomas Müller. Although, those two are more space finders than creators in the way Yorke and Bergkamp were.

The main striker, however, just had to be Type A.

Elsewhere in Serie A, they were still concerned about the defensive duties of the team. The center forward didn’t evolve much. In Serie A, teams began to switch towards a 4–5–1 or 4–2–3–1 formation. Strikers or center forwards were still carrying the frontline solo. They were relied upon to finish chances opportunistically and this is because they were barely involved in the game. They were the embodiment of one touch, one shot, one goal — right place, right time. In a sense, the responsibility increased since they are doing it solo but the role itself didn’t evolve. Nonetheless, coaches focused on making existing attributes more refined and lethal.

The likes of Hernán Crespo, Filippo Inzaghi and Gabriel Batistuta became goal machines in Serie A. The term “goal poacher”, which means the ultimate opportunists, was born. In a primitive footballing sense, Serie A still relied on Type A center forwards. The sheer presence of those types of forwards at the time was enough to create space for their other teammates and keep the defensive lines occupied.

Legendary Strikers of the 90s in Serie A.

The 2000s, probably, have been the most revolutionizing decade of modern football tactics. In the premier league, Liga NOS and La Liga, two men changed how we saw football and the roles of a center forward. Jose Mourinho saw Type A center forwards and refined them in the form of Didier Drogba, and Gonzalo Higuaín. These center forwards were honing the target man attribute of a center forward coupled with being a passing outlet for his other teammates.

The other — Pep Guardiola — tinkered with the role of the center forward and provided it a very different dynamic. Guardiola, surprisingly, added a little fellow called David Villa to his front three. Not particularly a prolific goalscorer like the out-casted Ibrahimović (Type A). Nonetheless, Guardiola didn’t want the goals from his spread head. The goals were a bonus. Guardiola wanted control and pressing to regain possession once its lost. In addition, Villa was fluid and he could interchange with another tiny fella called Lionel Messi. The wide skillset David Villa had as a forward player allowed for fluidity, his untraceable movements and ability to make space for his teammates allowed Barcelona to control and his “intelligent relentlessness” allowed them to press effectively. David Villa is one of those players that never got the flowers he deserved in Europe, the way players get celebrated nowadays. Moving on…

In Germany, Jupp Heynckes and Jürgen Klopp also started integrating pressing to an even larger degree into their tactics with the addition of the fluid front three idea.

Note: Manchester United had implemented the idea of a fluid front 3 first before anybody else under Sir Alex Ferguson in 2007/2008. However, Manchester United’s version didn’t include pressing. The rarely pressed in the opposition’s half and only closed down opponents in their own half after sucking them in order to use their counter attacking prowess to pick them off.

Guardiola’s fluid front 3 was different than that of the Germans. He was concerned more with his Center forward (false center forward) entering the midfield and his wide players cutting from outside and interchanging their positions. Klopp and Heynckes, were more concerned with the ability of the center forward to play across the entire front line — not only to create havoc for defenders but to be an aid in pressing triggers.

This signaled the end of the traditional winger and the traditional striker. The traditional winger that hogged the touchline and crossed as their main job started to disappear — not entirely. The “Striker” that only had scoring duties became less and less important or are associated with teams that are not that dominant.

Nonetheless, players like Robert Lewandowski, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Sergio Agüero and Robin van Persie have continued to stay relevant with their goal-scoring prowess. These players lethal finishing ability and their movement coupled with a fairly good technicalities and willingness to press (not so much Zlatan) made them very much needed — not everyone had to follow Guardiola and Klopp. Mourinho was out there proving that with his Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Chelsea teams.

The norm now is that your center forward has to be well rounded. They have to press, have to link up, have excellent movement, and score goals. As Klopp said: “Firmino is our first defender. we recover the ball as early as possible and disrupt the scoresheet before the opponent reassembles its defense.”

The growing breed of forwards in this era operate just like a joker in a pack of cards. They are chaos creators put with purpose and extreme intelligence and technique. They will exploit half-spaces, create space for their teammates, drag opposition defensive line out of position, and while doing this, won’t shy away from scoring goals for their teams.

There are still instances where the Center forward can just be type A but the accommodation has to be great to cover their weaknesses (i.e. Sabastian Haller, Olivier Giroud, Cristiano Ronaldo post 2018). Center forwards that are limited in possession require all outfield players around them to be proficient in possession as they can’t be used as a point of centrality, as a link and a glue point. In Ajax’s case, the team was technical enough to carry someone like Haller who is very limited in possession and they focused on his good attributes. However in Ronaldo’s case, that United team of 2021/2022 was nowhere near ready to have someone like Ronaldo added to team. While Ronaldo’s sheer brilliance meant he kept scoring himself, the team around him suffered because they needed a central glue point in final the third.

Another example of Type A being used in the modern game by both possession based teams and non possession based teams is Olivier Giroud, Giroud was always seen as just a target man and his passing was never his strong suit. To further emphasize this, Giroud won the world Cup with France having scored none of the goals. The team relied on counter attacks with Giroud using physicality to hold people off until he can execute a small lay to Griezmann, Pogba or the running Mbappe. At Club level, he always played in possession based teams (Chelsea and Arsenal) and was used in a varying degrees of effectiveness depending on what was around him. Giroud is great at what he does but what he does is limited.

Versatility is the name of the game in modern football. A well rounded — almost a complete forward — has become more favorable than a forward that only come alive at the moment of delivering the ball to the net. As of 2014, football has moved beyond strict roles and duties based on a position on paper. The role of goalkeepers, defenders and midfielders have changed. The forwards started the movement and it spread.

The masters of their trades will always find a place in the game but the top teams now are looking for more and more the joker types, those who are a jack of all trades but a master of none.

Extra: There’s such a category called a complete forward. They basically have all the attributes of all the types. Ronaldo Nazario ‘El Fenomeno’, Adriano, Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo (2016–2018) are examples of a forward that has/had it all. Lionel Messi would be in that category if he was better at heading.

Hope you enjoyed this.

Abdel Rahman

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