How the 2018 FIFA World Cup Has Proven That Target Men Are Back
Published on July 10, 2018
It’s fascinating to watch how soccer evolves over the years. There are constantly new tactical changes that impact the game and define whole decades. What’s even better is that no matter what innovation is born, eventually, a way to counter it is invented.
The best example of that is the Total Football of the 1970s, superbly represented by Ajax and the national team of the Netherlands.
It was designed to beat the Italian “catenaccio” which dominated the soccer world the decade before that.
If we look at the most recent state of the sport, there is one thing that instantly springs to mind: the evolution of the center forward position. A lot of teams have been relying on smaller, quicker, and more technically gifted players as opposed to the typically strong and tall target man from the past.
What caused this change? And why are we now seeing things swing back the other way in this year’s World Cup? In this post, I’ll try to answer these questions.
It all started with Barcelona’s great teams under Pep Guardiola and their tiki-taka style. The more mobile strikers the club used perfectly fit the concept of passing the ball around and penetrating the defense by instantly switching the direction of the attack.
A lot of teams followed suit, and it seemed like the traditional striker became a dying breed, at least at the top level of soccer. You could easily see that was the case in international soccer as well.
Pep Guardiola even went one step further and invented the so-called “false nine.” It’s a position that combines the duties of the striker and the playmaker. The idea is to play a dribbler who can both finish and provide killer passes in the center forward spot. His movement would confuse the center backs who are used to guarding more static players.
As a result, there are pockets of space that can be exploited by the false nine. This approach required an exceptional player to work, but the best European clubs and the strongest countries had the personnel to make it happen.
The likes of Jose Mourinho and other coaches who are masters of the defensive part of the sport found ways to counter the strategy. They used more mobile defensive midfielders and central defenders that simply didn’t allow the false nine to find enough space.
Another way to stop this style is the gegenpress. It’s a strategy that relies on counter-pressing and combines a couple of different ways to defend high up the pitch under certain circumstances but also defend deep when required. Jurgen Klopp is the master of this system, and he has used it in Mainz, Borussia Dortmund, and currently, in Liverpool.
The biggest success and proof that the gegenpress works was the clash between Klopp’s club and Guardiola’s Manchester City in the 2017-2018 UEFA Champions League knockout stage. Liverpool destroyed its opponent with an aggregate score of 5-1.
As a result, the logical evolution of the game was to find another way to beat the newly-organized defensive system used by the clubs and national teams. We now see more and more sides go BACK to the typical target man. The strong and tall number 9 of the past has returned but has some new tricks up his sleeve, as we’ve seen during the World Cup.
Probably the biggest proof that the target men are back on the highest level in soccer is the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Let’s take a look at the teams that have reached the last 4 of the competition and their style of play.
In the EURO 2016, the French coach Didier Deschamps was using Olivier Giroud as his main striker. The forward offers the traits of the typical target man, as he is around 6’4” and has a lot of strength. This created plenty of space for one of the stars of the tournament, Antoine Griezmann.
Every now and then, Giroud was substituted for Andre-Pierre Gignac, who is a similar type of player.
A lot of fans and the media put Deschamps under pressure and wanted him to use players who seem more skillful, but the coach resisted it. The system worked well, and France reached the final, almost winning the competition.
For some reason, the coach decided to abandon this approach in the first game of the 2018 soccer World Cup and started three faster and more mobile forwards. France struggled against Australia, and Olivier Giroud was reinstalled as the country’s starting striker.
Following the return of Giroud, Griezmann and Mbappe enjoyed a lot more space, and the team put in far better collective performances.
Similarly to France, the Belgium squad has plenty of players with pace and ability. The likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, and Dries Mertens all have exceptional skills.
And yet, I would argue that one of the most important players on this team is the less flamboyant Romelu Lukaku. The Man United striker is strong, fast, and more than capable of intimidating pretty much any defender in the world.
He tormented the Brazilian defense in the quarterfinals and was pivotal for the deep runs of Belgium. I would argue that this is one of the first names on the team sheet of coach Roberto Martinez.
The situation in the English squad is no different, as their skipper and main striker is Harry Kane. Sure, he is not as physically strong as Giroud or Lukaku, but he is much closer to the target man role compared to the false nine.
Kane is a clinical finisher, essentially what you call a fox in the box, but he is also strong in the air and provides a physical presence up front. On top of that, the English striker is more than capable of providing assists and bringing others into play with his back against the goal.
Many only see Kane as an exceptional finisher, but he’s much more than that, and England is blessed to have such a player up front.
The last team that has managed to reach the soccer World Cup semifinals is Croatia. Surprise, surprise, the main striker of the Balkan side who has started pretty much every game is Mario Mandzukic.
Tall, strong in the air, and always dangerous from set pieces, Mandzukic is more than capable of dragging the center backs of the opponent around to create enough space for his teammates.
It’s obvious that the successful formula in the 2018 soccer World Cup is to use a target man. Before I get to the reasons why I would like to point out that the players I mentioned have a more complex skill set than their colleagues from the past.
For a start, they are more technically gifted. The reason for that is the evolution of the sport and the training methods used. This generation has worked harder on the ability to control the ball, play with one touch, and use his feet in general.
This makes the modern strikers much better and well-rounded compared to the rather limited target men of the past. As a result, they have found their place in the game once more. Here are the main reasons why.
One of the main issues in modern football is to find enough space. Most teams have at least a couple of exceptional pacey forwards that have the skill set to hurt any team. However, they need some room to operate.
If the defense of the opposition team can stay compact, this is almost impossible to find. If you introduce a big striker, however, who is capable of occupying the central defenders and dragging them out of position on a regular basis, it becomes much easier for the rest of the team.
Especially if the target man can play one-touch soccer. The best example from the World Cup is Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman is very good at providing flicks with both feet and using his head or even chest to instantly find a teammate and create danger.
In modern soccer, such a skill is invaluable, as more technical players like Griezmann, Mbappe, and many others simply can’t do the same.
The most obvious contribution of target men is their ability to unlock packed defenses by creating space. However, they provide the opportunity to be flexible from a tactical standpoint.
One of the best ways to make use of a traditional target man is to mix short passes around the penalty area of the opposition with some crosses from out wide.
Also, if your team is under pressure, it’s almost invaluable to have a target for clearances. When you are pressed hard and have no big striker up front, every time your defense kicks the ball, you’re basically giving up the possession.
If you have a target man, he will be able to get some headers, win free kicks and throw-ins that will relieve the pressure, and give you some control of the ball. This also helps the defense get some rest before the next wave of attacks starts.
While most good teams in both club and international soccer rely on short passing and creativity to score, the dead-ball situations will always be a factor in the sport.
Having another potential scorer from corners and set pieces around the box could be vital. We’ve seen countless times how smaller teams defend well and look set to upset the favorite, but a goal from a set piece changes that in seconds.
Obviously, if you have a striker that’s tall and good in the air, you have a much better chance to find the net from such opportunities.
If you take a look at the way teams with a typical target man defend corners, you will often see the striker in a key position. Since he is not a defensive specialist, the forward doesn’t usually guard personally a specific player from the opposition.
However, he is placed in a zone that’s crucial for the team, often close to the first post or the penalty area. With his aerial presence, the striker often can clear the ball and prevent the danger.
The value of defensive support from a strike is even bigger when a team is forced to defend a one-goal lead towards the end of the matches. This happens frequently in big games, as they’re often very tight affairs.
I’m happy that I’m seeing a lot of big guys playing on the biggest soccer stage lately. I’ve missed the pure physical presence they bring. At the end of the day, the sport is not only about flair; it has grit involved, too.
The best part is that the target men have developed their skills thanks to the evolution of the game and nowadays have a deft touch.
I hope they are here to stay, but you never know where the sport might be headed next.
What do you think about big strikers? Do they have a place in the modern game, or are they a thing of the past? Please share your thoughts in the comment box below.