The difference in: Forwards


Football is and forever has been perpetually evolving, but things have really sped up over the last decade. Previously, roles were defined by positions. Everyone had a rough idea of what to expect from each area of the pitch. Now, though, one position can be, and regularly is, filled by a number of players all with different strengths and weaknesses. 

There’s too much of a focus on positions when what really matters is how the player operates within their role. 

We’ve already covered full-backs. In a detailed feature, we concentrated on Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Today, we’re focusing on central midfielders. 

We then turned our attention to those playing in midfield, with a special focus on Gini Wijnaldum, Bruno Fernandes and Kevin de Bruyne. 

Today, we’re looking at centre-forwards. 

It wasn’t that long ago that strikers were judged solely on goals. It didn’t really matter what else they brought to the team – if they weren’t scoring goals they were being scrutinised. Then the game evolved and inverted wide forwards became all the rage. With it, the false 9 was born. 

There have been iterations of this throughout history, but Pep Guardiola’s use of Lionel Messi made it fashionable. Managers then tweaked it to suit their needs and you started to see centre-forwards being tasked with creating space for team-mates. They went from being final phase players to ones heavily involved in the build-up. With it, expectations were adjusted. A striker with ten goals isn’t the end of the world these days; not if the other two in the forward line are netting 50 between them. 

Despite this, you regularly see comparisons made between forwards and the context of their roles within the team are overlooked or simply ignored. 

Last season, Timo Werner was prolific for RB Leipzig. Paired in attack with Yussuf Poulsen, the explosive German forward plundered 28 goals in 34 outings. His strike partner, the club’s No.9, netted just five times. However, the latter facilitated life for the former. 

RB Leipzig average position map during the 2019/20 Bundesliga season.

The Denmark international would drop deeper, as evidenced by the average position map above (RFW), and look to create space for Werner (LFW) to exploit. Poulsen was challenging for over six aerial duels per 90; the new Chelsea man wasn’t even averaging one. When looking at the stats, there’s a clear split between goalscorer and chance creator. Together, they worked well as a pairing. 

Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen's radar for RB Leipzig during the 2019/20 Bundesliga season.

When players rely on volume – and plenty of them do – they need selfless team-mates in attack for the dynamic to work properly. Werner had that alongside Poulsen and that is why the converted winger was as good as he was for Die Roten Bullen

Another example of this is in the Premier League. Roberto Firmino and Jamie Vardy wear the No.9 for their respective clubs and both, on paper at least, lead the line, but they couldn’t be more different as players. 

Roberto Firmino and Jamie Vardy's passes received and movements made map for the 2020/21 Premier League campaign.

The Brazilian is a quintessential false 9. He’s involved in the play in deeper areas, he’s a creative hub for the Reds sandwiched between the two goalscorers and is often the first line of the defence. One thing he is not is a reliable goalscorer. Vardy, on the other hand, is rarely involved in anything outside of the final third and a large part of his game is putting the ball in the back of the net. 

He is one of the most frugal centre-forwards in world football having scored 72 goals from 262 shots since the start of 2017/18. For context, he ranks 11th in the Premier League for shots taken during that period and third for goals. For comparison, Firmino ranks third for shots and tenth for goals. The Liverpool striker does rank 17th for shots assisted, however, whereas Vardy doesn’t make the top 50. 

During the same time period, the Leicester man is yet to complete 1,000 passes in the English top-flight, while Firmino is closing in on 3,500. Same position, but completely different roles within the team. 

You also get strikers who can do a bit of everything. They’re chameleons with the ability to fit into any team and their game regularly changes to suit the demands of the manager. Prime examples of this are Harry Kane and Álvaro Morata

Under Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs built their attack around Kane and the purpose was to ensure the England captain was able to have as many shots per game as possible. Now, however, under Mourinho, he’s much more involved in deeper areas. He’s leading the way for assists in the Premier League this term, too. 

Morata is another who seems to be able to tweak his game from a goalscorer into a creator. In fact, that’s what he did following his return to Juventus from Atlético Madrid. 

Alvaro Morata's radar for his time at Atlético Madrid vs his time at Juventus.

He went from the final phase player tasked with finishing off moves to being the one heavily involved in carving out openings for team-mates. In a rather ironic way, Morata’s ideal strike partner would be himself. 

Strikers should be judged on a case by case basis; there should be no blanket comparison.

More often than not, their roles in teams are so unique and specific that it makes it near impossible to compare them. 

All the graphics and visualisations in this article use Wyscout data and were produced in the Twenty3 Toolbox.

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