Football has undergone many changes since it was invented. In term of tactic and formation, one obvious modification is how the number of forwards has been reduced to bolster the backline and midfield. The most primitve formation was 2-3-5 and then evolved to WM (3-2-2-3, Chapman invention) which were used by all of football teams back then. WM formation soon perished and the new formation emerged and evolved to 4-2-4 then 4-4-2. Formation 4-4-2 is the oldest most recognized modern formation and it all thanks to Viktor Maslov for the invention. Then, modern football would see a lot of modification instead of 4-4-2, such as 4-3-3, 3-4-3, 3-5-2, 4-5-1 etc. Well, the point is how the number of forwards in modern football is capped at 3. Only Juventus in beginning of 11/12 season had ever used 4-2-4 system, but it only lasted for mere few matches before Conte tweaked it again. And, the most extreme example is Ranieri who once used 4-6-0 formation in AS Rome.
There are several reason to explain why the phenomena, they are :
• More conservatism in modern football-industry
The biggest change in football nature is how it changes the game philosophy from “must win the match” into “must not lose the match”. With more pressure upon the board, coach, and player, it is just natural for every team to seek the safest route to obtain the result. The more you attack, the bigger hole left in defence. That’s why every team chooses to secure the defence first. Draw is better than lose afterall, furthermore for a small team against big team.
The pressure is even greater with the presence of money behind every football game. Football is not longer a mere sport anymore. It becomes entertainment and industry. So many stakeholders in a club body, they run the money, they have the business, which leads to more pressure exerted. So, no wonder the football game is getting more conservative.
• More room for football
From tactical aspect, more strikers doesn’t mean easier way to score. More forwards means more option, but it also means less space for each. Chapman, the Arsenal coach in 1930’s, realized it and he pulled his 2 wide forwards into the midfield to give more space. It was the beginning of counter attack tactic. Hence, Arsenal was the king of England backthen, Chapman became legendary figure in Arsenal and cemented his name as the father of counter attack.
And then, who supplies the ball to frontline if half of the team is encamped on opponents’s half ? Basically, 5 forwards means the back and midfield ought to do direct football, long ball from own half to the opponent’s. Of course such method has been proven less and less effective, let alone if compared with schematic football nowadays.
Forward From Time To Time
Formation, and number and role of forwards particularly, follows the current of football flows. Lets see the correlation between them.
Trace back to 1954 when Hungary shook the world with their technical football. The most famous name is Puskas whose shot terrified every goalkeeper in the world. Slump and short, he was not an ideal figure for football player. But such opinion would change instantly when he received the ball and shot it. But, this time the focus isn’t onto him. It is his partner Hidekguti who will be in spotlight this time. Hidegkuti was positioned behind the forwards line thus he was the first second striker/trequartista ever in football history. It all thanks to Jimmy Hogan geniousity in inventing second striker position and deploying correct man onto it. With Puskas, he formed a hot link and providing all kinds of supports needed. Magic Magyar had 5 great attackers (including them), but lets analyze how Hidegkuti and Puskas worked. In modern football, the analogy for their teamwork is trequartista-finisher and the example are Del Piero-Inzaghi/Trezeguet, Rui Costa-Batistuta, Kaka-Inzaghi etc. As Hungary had 5 great attackers, they needed space to utilise their skill to the fullest. That’s why Hidekguti was pulled behind to give space for other 4 and for himself too.
Fast forward to 1974. It was the era of Total Football with 4-3-3 as the trademark basic formation. It used 3 forwards and the explanation is about space manipulation which is the soul of Total Football. Total Football is about how to make the pitch bigger when the team possesses the ball and make it smaller when the opponent possesses it. In offence, the presence of 2 wide players means the defence is stretch to mark them, leaving the space for central striker. In defence, the forwards trio means easier for them to press the defenders when they hold the ball.
How about Pele and Maradona? Pele shone the most in 4-2-4 Brazil 1970. With Tostao, Jarzinho, and Rivelino as his forwards partner, the Brazil’s concept was to flood the enemy’s defence with the talentful attacking squad. It was all about attack, run and gun. They were able to do this because of the talents they had. For Maradona case, he was in 3-5-2 system of Bilardo and he was the second striker behind Valdano. Contrary to his nemesis who played in ultra attacking football, Maradona played in defensive game. Bilardo used 2 forwards because he thought it was enough to score. Why sacrificed the defence for offence if single Maradone could handle entire opponent defence ? Now, Pele always boasts about how his team played attractive football and being an everlasting legacy in football history. On the other hand, Maradona boasted how he singlehandedly led Argentine and Napoli to be champion.
In 1989, Sacchi introduced an intelligent football which emphazised on sturdy defence and pressing. The formation was symmetrical 4-4-2 which means there are 2 players working each other in each sector. The frontline were Basten and Gullit. Basten was a poacher, he didn’t give much protection in pressing. So, he must be accompanied with Gullit who gave physical presence to break opponent’s attack from the very first it began. It was worker-attacker, much like Kuyt-Torres, only Gullit had more guile than Kuyt.
Now football relies heavily on possession and it directly affects the forward. The poacher extincts, the targetman and complete goalscorer still exists, and the new breed of morphing striker and defensive forward emerges.
Death Of Poacher
For those who are unfamiliar with poacher, it is the sort of forward whose task is only to score goals. Only. He sits at the shoulder of defence, waiting for the chance to slot the ball home. The most renowned names are Gerd Muller, Paolo Rossi, Van Basten, young Raul, Nistelrooy, and Inzaghi. They can’t pass, they can’t dribble, no power or speed, they only can score. But since football result is determined by goals, their goalscoring ability is highly regarded.
Nowadays, there are only 2 notable names of poacher, Pazzini and Chicarito. Even now they are struggling in current campaign. There are several reason to explain why poacher hardly exists :
• The defenders are getting fitter, more systematic, and more cautious
With the number of forwards are getting less and the number of defenders are getting more, every forward would face difficulty to break through defence, let alone to score. It keeps getting worse for forward as the defence is getting better drill especially if compared with 30-40 years ago. The shift of nature - from “must win” to “must not lose”- means the defenders now are treated and trained seriously.
Also, now the forward at least must fight against 2 defender (mostly consists of marker and spare man). It means there are less defending blunder from the defenders. One of the most terrified characteristic of the poacher is how they could sniff when and where the defender would do mistake. Now, even when 1 defender stupidly gives away the ball to attacker, there is still at least 1 teammate to cover the blooper and negates the threat immediately.
Still about the defending blunders. Also, to punish the defender’s mistake is a natural talent and it is unlearnable technique. Coaches can drill his forward to possess more power, more speed, better shooting technique, better off the ball movement, but not supernatural skill to know when the opponent does the mistake. The only way to improve it is by playing more so his insticnt is well honed to detect the blunder. But how can he play if he contributes nothing to team?
• Better distribution from backline
This is where possession football hurts the poacher at the most. If long time ago a defender’s task was only to stop the opponent, now they also must be able to distribute the ball to front. The defender with good ball control brings 2 adventages both in defence and offence. In offence, good passing ensures the fluent sytematic offensive move. In defence, more possession means less time for opponent to score. Also, better technique means less chance for defender to miscontrol or mishit the ball. Nightmare for poacher. Poacher always aims the time when the defender is about to control or pass the ball. Less technical defender is at his most vulnerable time when he receives the ball, but the modern defender won’t let it happen thus shutting down the poacher.
If the game keeps growing by this rate, the poacher will perish just like the traditional winger and libero did. There is no help for it. Tactic evolves and the players too must evolve as time passes by. Even when the possession football begins to fade, I still think the poacher wouldn’t exist anymore. The only chance the poacher revives is when the poacher like Gerd Muller or Van Basten appears once more and scores in reliable rate. That’s when the world would acknowledge the poacher again, but still the chance is so little.
Stability Of Targetman And Complete Forward
Kicking the ball from ownhalf to forward for him to control (or score) is the most primitive play in football. Only, now the build-up requires more patient approach. His job is not only to score, but also to hold up the ball and building the attack with his teammates.This is what Ibra, Drogba, Andy Carroll, and Mario Gomez does.
The classic targetman is the player with strong and tall frame, able to shrug off his marker physically. As the game develops, now the world also sees the new sort of targetman who relies on mobility. Milito, Llorente Suarez, Welbeck, and Torres are the example. They move around the pitch to get the ball in comfortable position and passes it again to his teammates. If the chance arises, they simply bring the ball forward and score by himself.
This is the adventage of the striker who has extra skill beside goalscoring. Even whey they doesn’t score, they still contribute something for his team unlike poacher. Unless there is drastic change in how football played, this kind of forward will remain everlasting.
If the defender now has to have technical skill, now the forward too has to have defensive capability. High line defence becomes more common. The entire team have to press the opponents as soon as they get the ball and the forward is the first player to deal with it. The adventage is, the opponent will have difficulty even to pass the ball to frontline. When the ball is intercepted within their own half, the danger is multiplied because the attacking unit obtained the ball in very close distance from their own goal. The downside is, often the forward runs out of energy to conduct his primary role as attacker because of his defensive duty. The most obvious example is when Barca defeated Madrid 1-3 in December 2011. Benzema scored after Madrid managed to exert pressure onto Barca defence and eventually Valdes buckled under the pressure as he gave away the ball just in front of his penalty box. But, the entire attacking unit of Madrid (Benzema, Ronaldo, Ozil, and Di Maria) couldn’t perform their best attacking qualities because they didn’t have any energy left.
The most extreme case is Dirk Kuyt. He rarely scores, he doesn’t have any technical knack to break through the defence. But his energy and work rate is his most precious asset as he tirelessly chases the ball anywhere it goes. Under Benitez tenure with his trademark Benitezque 4-2-3-1, he was placed at 3 on the flank. Which flank ? Depends on opponent’s full back. When they faced Chelsea, Kuyt was on the right flank to close down Cole as soon as possible. Or, he would be placed as left flank if opponent’s right back was dangerous.
Sometimes, forward’s position alone could do wonder in defence system. Again, the example is El Classico, only it was in Mourinho’s first season. Everytime Madrid faced Barca, Mourinho always deployed Ronaldo at his left flank far ahead on Barca’s half. The intentions were to give Ronaldo comfortable start to launch quick counter attack and to prevent Dani Alves ventured forward. Then, Alves couldn’t bombed forward as he used to do and in other occasion, Alves could go forward in expense of Puyol man-marking Ronaldo. And, it means there are gap somewhere else in defence as Puyol focused solely on Ronaldo. This is only one example and many managers have ever used such kind of tactic especially in inverted winger era to prevent opponent’s full back charge forward.
What is Messi’s best asset ? Is it his shooting ? His dribbling ? Passing ? Not all of them. It is his football intelligence. Messi roams around opponent’s half, sometimes he is at midfield and produces magic pass for his teammate and sometime he is ready to score when the chance is ripe. The most amazing fact is how he is able to play in 2 position and transits from one to another position seamlessly in terrifying timing. From midfield, he morphs seamlessly into a striker to score. And if he finds dead end, he morphs again into a midfield to build the attack once more. Without special football IQ, such play is almost impossible.
Admitted, the term of morphing forward is rather awkward because it has never been used. But, because I desperately need some kind of term to describe such forward, I decide to use “morphing forward” until the new popular term emerges. The term of false 9 or false 10 is rather inaccurate because he keeps morphing, depends of the circumstances.
Beside Messi, Van Persie also another superhuman who excels in such role. This is no coincidence that only Barca and Arsenal have such unique striker role. Both team shares the same view as true believer in passing football. With the play being patiently build, sometime the team needs extra man in midfield and there comes Messi and Van Persie to help them. The difference is, Messi also acts as key passer, proved by the number of assists he produces throughout his career in Barcelona. In football history, only Messi can achieve top scorers and top assists in same time and it all thanks to his immense football IQ. For RVP case, he helps his team via simple passing to support his midfield then charges forward to receive the ball and hammers it behind the net.
Ronaldo and Rooney too played in same role, only they don’t have Messi and RVP’s game understanding so they play it rather differently. Basically, 4 of them begin from deep and then break forward. Ronaldo is always deployed at flank behind striker and then drifts inside or ghosts onto penalty box utilising Benzema of Higuain as defender’s bait. He rarely involves in offence build-up, his main task is scoring and that’s what he does excellently. For Rooney, he must involve himself in the game as much as possible. It is because his team, MU, really lacks creativity and mobility so Sir Alex has no choice but to use him as the hub between striker and midfield. Just like Ronaldo, the task of executing killer pass is not his speciality, but he compensates it with great goalscoring rate.
How could such role has never existed before? The main reason is the emergence of possession football which was popularized recently. Back then, the attack was called good if it could produce goals, the more the better. Now, the standard of attacking is lifted to greater height. The attack is good when it produces goals -the more the better- and prevents opponents from scoring. The defence begins from attacking and possession is the best defence because the opponents don’t have the ball. Another extra man in midfield means more passing option and the patient built-up play means longer ball possession. Since the forward’s task is not solely about goal scoring anymore, now he must contribute something to team and it is as the extra passing option.
The adventage of morphing striker is how the attacking team can flood the midfield and proceeds the adventage to final thid. The defender would find the dilemma, either marks the striker up to midfield or stays in his hole. Follows the striker to midfield means there is a hole in backline, much to the risk of being exploited by another attacker. Stays in backline means he will face confirmed-attack as the midfields cannot cope with the number of players in their zone.
Nothing is perfect. Morphing striker too has some weakness. First, it requires extreme football understanding within the team, individually and collectively. Usually, the leading team and player would act as trendsetter and the whole world would emulate the way they play. But, despite Messi and Persie scores in unstoppable rate, it seems the entire world couldn’t follow their lead. It is because only Messi and Persie who have such exceptional football intelligence to allow them role as morphing striker. Also, it requires great synergy and outstanding passing ability within the team. The keywords are teamwork and passing ability. That’s why only Barcelona and Arsenal could play such kind of football.
Second, there is difficulty in converting the possession into the goals. There is no perfect player. If he excels in scoring, usually he is bad at passing and vice versa (that’s why Barca is so lucky to have Messi who excels in both). To pull the striker into midfield means greater possession, but less goal threat. The most recent example is Barca (again). Barca losted twice consecutively against Chelsea (1-0) and Madrid (1-2) and there is similarity between both games : Barca didn’t have forward. Against Chelsea, Alexis played terribly so he was substituted. Indirectly, Barca didn’t have forward even from the match started. Against Madrid, Pep didn’t deploy any forward from start and he prefered Tello as wide forward. The effect was, Messi put himself at midfield zone but he had no one to pass in front. Indirectly, it was Pep’s scheme himself who cut half of Messi’s ability. It went worse with lack of vertical run from Iniesta and Xavi. Look, the best chance Xavi had was, he runs forward and receives the ball in penalty box freely because there were 6 Madrid players focused on Messi. Too bad he missed it. And, as soon as Alexis came in, he scored the goal. It was not a coincidence because finally there was a threat right within Madrid penalty area. This was totally tactical mistake from Barca. It was not coincidence Barca lost twice consecutively in both strikerless game. Messi-Xavi-Iniesta trio is famous because of their combination. When Xavi and Iniesta holds the ball in midfield, Messi will find his way to score. When Messi pulls back, Xavi or Iniesta will execute vertical run to recevie killer pass from Messi. When 3 of them didn’t perform such strategy (in Chelsea and Madrid match), Pep cut his attacking lethalness by half by himself.
Looking at how difficult the role is played, there is little chance other players would play as morphing striker. My prediction is, such kind of forward will fade if possession football fades too. And, as dynamic as football evolves, the forward too will evolve and give birth to new kind of forward type.