While many fans grew up watching their favourite teams deploy wingers and strikers in relatively rigid and defined roles, football’s evolution has meant that forward lines in the modern era are typically far more fluid and dynamic. With that in mind, this article will address the roles of both central and wide forwards.
With insights from the likes of Thierry Henry, Thomas Muller and Wayne Rooney, we will explore a range of strategies that attacking players can make use of to improve their games in four key departments. Namely; creating separation from defenders, exploiting depth, finishing the move, and serving your teammates. Video analysis will be used throughout to demonstrate each of the concepts being discussed.
Creating separation from defenders
Given the majority of teams’ tendency to defend with a numerical advantage on the last line, forward players typically face the most difficulty when it comes to getting free to receive. Having a set of strategies that increase the likelihood of losing a defensive marker is therefore essential for any attacker.
One of the most commonly used techniques involves making two runs; one for the defender, and one for yourself. This is often referred to as a ‘double movement’. The forward identifies the space he wants to receive possession, before making a trick run in a different direction to drag his defender away. Once this has been achieved, he makes a second run to exploit the space created by the first movement. This should give the attacker just enough time to receive and finish the move before the defending player can react a second time to get tight once again.
These double movements can involve an initial run to the front post and a second run to the back post, or vice-versa. Meanwhile, it can also involve an initial run ‘short’ before spinning in behind with the second movement. Most top-level strikers can be seen using this tool on a regular basis. One of the best examples is Inter Milan and Belgium forward, Romelu Lukaku. The clips below show the former Manchester United player drawing his marker towards the right, before exploiting the extra space created towards the left.
Another useful strategy for escaping defenders in the final third involves moving out of their line of vision. These ‘blindside runs’ make it more difficult for the defensive player to keep track of his man, allowing the attacker to make subtle, undetected changes to his positioning. Even if the defender does succeed in keeping tabs on both the ball and the player behind him with constant scanning, it is likely to cause some level of disorientation, increasing the chances of an error in judgement or a delayed response and therefore handing the advantage to the forward. Bayern Munich attacker, Thomas Muller, explains the importance of moving ‘behind the defender’s back’.
“It’s easier to defend a guy who always comes to the ball because then the striker is in front of them, they can see him and they can defend him. But when they always have a guy who is behind their back, they always have to turn. When the decision is easy for the defender, then you are easy to defend.”
Along with Muller, another player who exploits the blindside expertly is Leicester City’s Premier League winning striker, Jamie Vardy. The Englishman consistently positions himself on the ‘ball-far’ side of his marker. As shown by the clips below, the defenders are unable to drop sufficiently to increase their view of the play and attend to both the attacker and the ball, allowing Vardy to move into position to receive a cross from his teammate.
The next tool we will look at involves ‘arriving’ in an optimal position to receive at the last moment, as opposed to standing there. If you simply stand in space and wait for the ball, you give nearby defenders the opportunity to close the space before your teammate manages to find you with a pass. However, if you identify space and arrive there just as the pass is about to be played, you should have enough time to receive and either progress the play further or finish the move yourself.
Many attacking midfielders profit from the idea of arriving, darting into the box to get on the end of crosses and cutbacks. Along with making it impossible for the centre backs to mark them, coming from deep also gives them momentum over the defender. Dropping off to arrive in the box at the last second is a strategy that lots of forwards also make use of. The GIF below highlights this, with Barcelona striker Luis Suarez beginning his run from deep, making it more difficult for Sergio Ramos to mark him out of the game, before arriving in the box to finish a cutback from Ousmane Dembele.
The same idea can be applied in relation to movements within the box. For example, if the front-post is open and your teammate has the ball out wide – wait until the very last moment before making your run to exploit the space in the most efficient way possible.
The example below sees Arsenal player Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang taking up a starting position in the central area of the opponent’s penalty box. Recognising that space exists at the front post, Aubameyang waits until his teammate is ready to cross before darting into the space and getting to the ball ahead of his marker.
Another common trick that forward players use is to target the opposing team’s weakest link. This also involves understanding your own strengths. For example, If you are quick and the defending team’s left-back is slow, try to exploit this superiority by engaging him down the outside. Alternatively, if you have a significant height advantage over one of the opposing defenders, try to make sure that he is the one marking you when your teammates are lining up a cross.
The weakness might not be as obvious as physical attributes. Perhaps one of their players has a tendency to switch off when the ball goes dead. Whatever deficit exists in the opponent’s back line, playing off this weakness should make it easier for you to get free in the final third.
Threatening the space behind opposing back lines is an important responsibility for forward players, but doing so in an effective manner isn’t always easy. Particularly against well-organised defensive units, the timing and the angle of the run must be perfect to prevent getting caught offside or receiving the ball with sub-optimal body orientation.
One of the reasons that more and more coaches are choosing to play with a wall player or a false nine centrally is because of the benefits associated with tasking the wide forwards with making runs in behind instead. If the central striker successfully manages to occupy the centre-backs, the wide forward should be afforded isolation against his opposing fullback. Furthermore, if the centre forward can draw one or more of the central defenders out of position, extra space will exist in behind with reduced cover.
The final benefit results from the diagonal nature of the out-to-in run. A wide forward running in behind can do so diagonally, meaning that he can ultimately receive the ball centrally and with a better body orientation to open up and finish beyond the ‘keeper. Additionally, as he prepares to make his run, he can maintain a good view of the ball, the space, the opposing players, his teammates, and the goal. The clips below demonstrates this type of movement.
As mentioned, exploiting depth also requires forwards to time their run so as to avoid getting caught offside. Simply standing in line with the defenders while pointing to the space you want to receive in is unlikely to achieve this on a consistent basis. It also means that you can’t get a head start over the defender before the pass is played. Instead, strikers should look to run in behind with either a lead up or a bended run.
Lead ups involve starting a run from a withdrawn position, typically two or three yards short of the defensive line. Along with allowing you to avoid offside calls and gain an advantage over the static defenders by building up momentum, it should give your teammate time to register your run and play the pass. It is important to wait until the ball-occupant is in control and a clear passing route is open (through, over, or around) before making your run. The image below shows AZ Alkmaar forward Myron Boadu starting his movement with a lead up. Boadu’s coach, Arne Slot, has stated in the past that he regularly works with his forwards on the timing of their runs.
Alternatively, strikers can threaten depth with bended runs, which simply involve running across the defensive line until your teammate releases the ball. Bended runs ultimately achieve the same results as lead ups, but with one added bonus. If you try to use a lead up and you are the furthest forward attacker, the opposing team might push out to get in line with you once more. With bended runs, you can still get a run up while also putting pressure on the defence to maintain their depth. If the back line does push up slightly to try and catch you offside, you are in a position to adapt your run accordingly because you are looking across the line. The GIF below shows Aubameyang making a bended run behind Everton’s defence.
Since moving to England, Aubameyang has recorded 0.6 offsides per 90, an impressive figure for someone who is constantly looking to make runs into depth. Thomas Muller is another player who bends his runs perfectly, getting caught offside just once every two games. For comparison, Emmanuel Adebayor holds the record for the most offsides in Premier League history, failing to time his runs on 328 occasions, or 1.3 times per game.
Finally, it is important to vary your game between asking for the ball into feet and requesting a pass into the space behind the opponent’s defence. If you only make runs in behind, you become predictable and good defenders will quickly learn to adapt. However, if you mix your game up, you will keep your opponents guessing.
Finishing the move
Mastering the art of getting free from defenders and timing your runs to perfection should result in you getting lots of high-quality goalscoring opportunities, provided your teammates fulfil their end of the deal. Taking advantage of these chances, however, is not always as easy as the best forwards make it look.
Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that without practicing your finishing on a consistent basis, you are unlikely to become a prolific goal-scorer. Like any other skill, it requires frequent repetition to strengthen and maintain the relevant neural pathways. We often hear forwards referred to as ‘natural-born’ or ‘instinctive’ finishers. But obsessive practice is typically what makes a skill appear like second nature.
It should also be noted that confidence is one of the most critical factors in performance, particularly when it comes to forward players. Whether you believe you are going to score or not, there’s a good chance you’ll be correct in both instances. With that in mind, it is advised that attackers use positive self-talk before and during matches. Run through some of your best goals in your head to remind yourself what you are capable of, and trust that your preparation has been sufficient to produce the desired results on matchday.
Provided that you have put in the work on the training field and gotten into the right frame of mind, you should be well-placed to take whatever opportunities come your way during games. However, there are a number of helpful strategies that should enhance the likelihood of the ball hitting the back of the net.
Once such trick is referred to as ‘freezing the keeper’. Former Arsenal star Thierry Henry has spoken regularly about this concept during his work as a pundit with Sky Sports. The Frenchman provides an explanation below.
“Goalkeepers come out quickly at you hoping that you’re not going to make them stop running. So, I would always look at the goalkeeper to make him stop. Once you break his momentum, the dive won’t be as far. You freeze him.”
While assisting Roberto Martinez with the Belgian National team, Henry passed on his experience to Romelu Lukaku. The next video sees Lukaku speaking about freezing the keeper, before demonstrating exactly what it looks like.
While the previous strategy is applicable in 1v1 scenarios between the centre-forward and goalkeeper, the next focuses on situations involving blocking defenders. As a striker lines up a shot on goal in or around the penalty box, nearby defenders are likely to open up and make themselves big in an attempt to block the strike. Lots of forwards will respond to this by taking an extra touch to work a clearer route to goal. However, it is also possible to take advantage of the blocking player’s open stance instead.
As we know, when a goalkeeper spreads themselves to stop a shot, they often leave a gap between their legs where strikers can finish through. The same is true for defenders preparing to block an effort on goal. Below, Wayne Rooney explains how, on the advice of former Manchester United teammate Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he would regularly aim for the gap between defender’s legs. As he notes, this also makes it more difficult for the keeper to track the shot. In United’s victory over Manchester City in 2013, Rooney scored two goals using this technique, both of which are shown in the following video.
“Before joining United, I’d seen Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scoring all these goals by shooting through defender’s legs. I spoke to him ‘How do you know what the defender is going to do?’.
Ole explained that when you shape to shoot, defenders tend to stick their leg out to try and block and that makes a gap. It’s also harder for the keeper because they don’t see the ball when it leaves your foot.”
Something every forward gets told growing up is to follow up shots from teammates in the hope of getting on the end of a parry from the goalkeeper. However, when you watch elite level football it is incredible to see how many strikers don’t do this on a consistent basis. Of course, it is true that top goalkeepers learn to try and direct their parry away from danger. But this isn’t always possible. A slight swerve or a deflection on the initial strike can make it difficult for the keeper to judge where the ball will end up. Sometimes, they will simply make a slight error in positioning, decreasing their ability to guide the ball in the direction they would like.
It is therefore essential that forwards remain committed to following up their teammates’ attempts on goal. It might not result in a rebound opportunity for 10 games in a row, but in the 11th game it could be the difference between your team winning or losing. Lukaku, a player who constantly chases down shots, discovered this en route to helping Man United defeat PSG in their 2019 Champions League round of 16 tie.
Staying alive to the possibility that your teammate miss-hits his shot is also important. If one of your colleagues finds himself in a shooting position to either side of the goal, he will most likely aim for the far corner (across the goalkeeper). By making a run towards the back-post in these instances, you give yourself the opportunity to score an easy goal in the event that your teammate ‘drags’ his strike off target. The video below features the aforementioned Lukaku rebound against PSG, as well as examples of strikers profiting from miss-hit shots.
Most of the goals we have seen in this section involve one-touch finishes. We sometimes see forward players, particularly those struggling for confidence, squander opportunities by taking ‘too many’ touches of the ball. An important principle of final third play is to finish the move quickly to avoid giving defenders time to get into a position to shut down the threat. Provided your movement and your teammates’ delivery are well-timed, a large portion of the chances you get as an attacker should require just one touch to put the ball in the back of the net.
When Carlo Ancelotti took over as Everton manager in December 2019, striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin had just 5 goals in 17 games so far that season. One of first pieces of advice Ancelotti gave his new marksman was to focus on trying to score with one touch.
“A striker has to score with one touch. I told him that with more than one touch it is difficult to score. I had a fantastic striker in Inzaghi who scored 300 goals and 210 with one touch.”
Fast forward 12 months and Calvert-Lewin is the Premier League’s top scorer this season with 11 goals in 13 games. Remarkably, all of those goals have come from one touch finishes.
Of course, there will also be plenty of scenarios in which a forward player must, and has time to, take an extra touch before lining up a shot. Sometimes, this will be done in order to kill the pace on the ball. On other occasions, a striker might take a ‘directional touch’ away from a nearby defender and into space, ‘setting’ themselves for an attempt at goal.
Serving the team
While the tips outlined so far have suggested ways in which a forward player can create the conditions necessary to finish the move himself, the final pieces of advice relate to the unselfish role an attacker can play in his team’s build up.
Most centre-forwards are expected to be able to make penetrative runs in behind, but having the ability to link play with your back to goal can also be of great benefit. France and Chelsea striker Olivier Giroud has been one of the best at providing his teams with a reference point over the last 10 years. During his time at Arsenal, Giroud acted as a wall for the likes of Mesut Ozil, Lukas Podolski, Aaron Ramsey and Alexis Sanchez to play off. The Frenchman has the physical presence to hold off defenders, but is also technically proficient enough to engage in one-twos and 3rd man sequences.
One-twos on the edge of the penalty area offer teams the opportunity to breakthrough congested central areas where a dribble is not possible. Meanwhile, 3rd man sequences take advantage of defending player’s tendency to focus on the ball-occupant and the expected receiver in a given moment. The video below demonstrates how Giroud manages to execute these actions.
Another way in which forward players can contribute to their side’s build-up is by making lay-off passes. These provide the opportunity to access players behind defensive cover shadows as well as giving teams an out-ball when attempting to bypass a high-press.
When an attacker offers a lay-off option to his teammate on the ball, he isn’t required to be completely free because his role is simply to play a first time back pass to the 3rd man in the sequence. There are numerous other benefits to lay-offs and full ‘up-back-throughs’. For example, the forward’s dropping movement and the fact that he is taking the ball facing his own goal should act as a pressing trigger and as a result, is likely to draw a defender out of position, giving the 3rd man gaps to play through the opponent’s back line.
Additionally, the 3rd man can receive possession facing the opposition’s goal, allowing him to play forward immediately without the need to turn. The example below shows former Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata dropping to lay the ball off to Jorginho, who was previously inaccessible due to the opposing forward’s positioning.
In the Premier League this season, Liverpool left-back Andrew Robertson has the most touches with 1,440. Robertson’s partner on the left, Sadio Mane, only has 651 touches in one less game. Regardless of a team’s playing style, forwards typically have far fewer touches of the ball compared to players who occupy deeper roles. With this in mind, it’s important for attackers to understand that even in situations where it is not possible for them to receive possession themselves, they must still make an effort to contribute to the team.
One way in which this can be achieved is by making decoy runs. For example, if the player on the ball is driving forward on the counter-attack and you are being closely marked by an opponent, move away from your teammate in order to drag the defender with you. If the defender follows you, your teammate will have more space to continue progressing the attack. Meanwhile, if he lets you go, you suddenly become a passing option.
It is also possible to drag defenders out of their back line by making movements ‘short’, or towards the ball. Again, if they go with you, it should create a gap in the defence for one of your teammates to run into. While if they choose to hold their ground, you have space to receive the ball yourself. Below, former Spurs striker Darren Bent explains when you should look to make this type of run. The subsequent GIF demonstrates exactly how both of the decoy movements discussed above can be executed.
“If you’re up against a physical defender who wants to hold onto you, take him into deep areas where he doesn’t want to go, leaving space behind for your teammates to exploit.”
Along with working hard to disrupt the opponent’s defence when your team is attacking, you should also work hard to disrupt the opponent’s attack when your team is defending. It’s completely understandable if you’re not particularly fond of the defensive side of the game, I know I wasn’t. But think about it this way: defend not because you enjoy defending, but because you want to attack again as soon as possible.
It’s also worth noting that there will be days when you are not at your very best. But if you work hard for the team, you can never have a truly bad game. Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino is a great role model for young attackers with aspirations of having successful careers in the modern game. Below, he explains his selfless approach to the centre-forward role.
“I don’t forget about defending. It’s always in my mind to help my teammates the best I can. I try to do both on the pitch – attacking and defending – never forgetting either responsibility.”
Aside from helping to prevent the opponents from building dangerous attacks of their own, applying pressure from the front can also lead directly to high-quality goalscoring opportunities for your team. Along with Liverpool, forward players at clubs like Southamption and Borussia Monchengladbach consistently create goals by applying intelligent and intense pressure to the opposition’s build-up.
In the first clip below, Gladbach’s Alassane Plea angles his approach to shut off a nearby passing option for the opposing goalkeeper, forcing a fatal error in the process. In the second clip, we see Saints’ striker Danny Ings recovering possession for his side in the attacking third of the pitch by exploiting the ball-occupant’s vulnerable stance, before his teammates attack the goal at speed.
Because modern teams are typically so well organised when defending deep, space can be hard to come by. As we discussed earlier, there are a number of strategies that forwards can use to generate more space. However, it is also important to take advantage in situations where the opponents are more vulnerable. In the video above, we saw two teams building out from the back with players positioned far apart from each other. By applying pressure in these moments, you stand to profit from their imbalance.
Ultimately, pressing high is about creating and exploiting vulnerability. Precisely how you create vulnerability and when you exploit it is dependent on your coaches’ personal philosophy.
Earlier, we heard Carlo Ancelotti discussing Pippo Inzaghi’s goalscoring exploits in Serie A. Inzaghi, as so many of his former teammates have noted, was not a particularly gifted technician. Dutch great Johan Cruyff once said of him “he can’t play football at all. But he’s always in the right position.”
Despite having limited ability with the ball at his feet, Inzaghi enjoyed incredible success as a player. Like Cruyff alluded to, the Italian poacher made up for any technical deficit he had with exceptional game understanding. He knew every trick in the book.
This article examined some of those tricks, hopefully providing a foundation for ambitious strikers to maximise their performance.
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