Is the target man a position that is slowly dying out?
Tactical variations in football generally go in cycles. One minute an attacking 4-3-3 will be in vogue, the next a “Christmas Tree” set up is the catch-all for teams looking for one-upmanship on their opponents.
Barcelona are probably the exception to the rule having steadfastly refused to be drawn from their principles of play. It is an admirable stance from the Catalans but perhaps stagnates any further innovations from being utilised by the club and its technical staff. Although Barca’s style hasn’t changed, its personnel have, and to the extent where we saw them play without a recognised target man post-Ibrahimovic. Other teams have since followed suit, and a trend has developed.
The removal of a true “number nine” from the line up asks an awful lot of questions, particularly whether the position per se is dying out?
Target men are not just all about aerial prowess
One of England’s most successful periods, under the stewardship of Terry Venables, came about as a result of having the archetypal target man in Alan Shearer up front. Les Ferdinand and Duncan Ferguson were others from the same timeframe who were expert in the art.
Yet nowadays we look at exponents such as Emile Heskey, Peter Crouch, Andy Carroll, Rickie Lambert, Christian Benteke and the like as essentially one-trick ponies. Players who can power home a cross when rising above an often static defence, and little else.
There is no doubting a target man's aerial prowess, of course, and that is often the reason that they are bought in the first place. But to label them as nothing more than immobile strikers is not only a little disingenuous but also disrespectful to the players concerned. Yes, a lack of pace often underscores their work. But it doesn’t render a player completely useless.
Would football fans generally, and Chelsea fans especially, say the same about Didier Drogba? A player who is always in the top two or three when discussing the club’s best-ever players. No, of course not. It is the same with Romelu Lukaku at Everton. There are certain other players whose brawn as well as brain make them ideal for the target man role.
England far behind Europe in evolution of target men
But where the status-quo is changing is on the continent. England have always lagged light years behind the rest of Europe when it comes to innovation and technical ability, and will continue to do so until the Academy structure is given a root and branch clear out and a new broom has swept clean from the bottom upwards.
The Premier League lends itself to burly and more powerful exponents but it is a league that is completely at odds with the likes of Spain, France , Holland and Italy. There was a reason why EPL teams didn’t make it past the round of 16 stage in the Champions League last year and why there is a routine failure of the same to dominate in European competition.
European teams are moving away from the traditional big man-little man combination up front and engaging in different ways of expression. Arguably, if a defence is able to curtail the excellence of a target man then that team’s entire system becomes moribund to a large extent.
The easy get-out ball to the man up front becomes a drawback of the system as midfielders and even defenders look to punt it long to get themselves out of trouble. That’s hardly “football”, is it? And certainly not something that fans who pay their hard-earned money every week would wish to see even if it paid dividends in terms of winning.
Media pundits often talk about “playing football the right way”, keeping the ball on the floor etc. The utilisation of a target man does not lend itself to the same.
And that’s where Liverpool have bought well during this summer.
Having a monster like Benteke up front obviously indicates their preference but in Roberto Firmino and others, Brendan Rodgers has enough about his squad to be able to mix things up a bit and only use the Belgian’s physicality when absolutely required, rather than the same becoming the be all and end all to every attack.
Stoke City are probably the best example of how the status quo is beginning to change. Mark Hughes has changed the style of the side from long ball to cultured ball-players. It is why Peter Crouch’s role is not yet obsolete but is being utilised less and less.
Who will replace the target man in the future?
If we look at the systems that many teams now employ, the 4-4-2 that would be most beneficial for a target man to operate in has, in general terms, been pushed aside and seen as “old hat”. There is definitely a feeling that the target man role is therefore being phased out to some extent.
For a main striker to operate in a 4-3-3 for example, he has to work the channels and become a fluid extension of the striking element of his team. For players of a certain build, that is nigh on impossible to achieve.
Moving forward, it is highly unlikely to imagine that footballing styles will revert back to the 4-4-2 of yore. And to that end, we could begin to see the emergence of a hybrid role for certain players.
Players who expertly fuse the rigours of top level physical combat in England with the nous, style, movement and interplay of a more technically minded exponent. Players just as adept at working effectively across the line and can play the killer pass when necessary. Players that remain like gold dust at this particular juncture.
Lukaku is probably something approaching a more modern Premier League forward. If Louis van Gaal wishes to use him there, dare we suggest that Marouane Fellaini also falls into that category?
It’s certainly an interesting debate and one that has some time to run yet.