Scoring Goals And The Premium Of Space

Scoring Goals And The Premium Of Space

Whilst discussing the apparent changes in the dynamics of midfields the topic of attacking was briefly mentioned, and the intention of this article is to continue this analysis further.

Football, as with all things, is a beast that evolves. And we all know that the mother of invention is necessity. Even in this day and age of a multi-billion pound footballing industry, where the next big thing is plucked from obscurity, or even bought for tens of millions of pounds from up the road, tactical invention is still crucial.

The necessity of a divided midfield has had a domino effect on the different areas of the pitch. Although it isn’t an understatement to suggest that the midfield is the most important part of a pitch, there is no point in dominating this area of the pitch if you aren’t going to score goals – after all, that is the object of the game. However, it is also poignant to note that perhaps English football has been too crass in its insistence that games are won and lost in the final third, when in reality it is often the case that winning the battle of the midfield is the only way to ascertain access to goalscoring opportunities.

Of course, that isn’t always the case. You only have to look at the case of Greece in Euro 2004, of Inter Milan in the Champions League last season and the success of any lower standard side against a higher level opposition to see that ceding the midfield doesn’t necessarily instigate a defeat. But, for tactics like this to be successful you either require a lot of luck, a well drilled defence or a specific plan to score goals, or in a vast proportion of cases: all three.

The same division in midfield has caused a transition in the style of attacking in the same period of time, as common place as a double pivot at the base of midfield is a trident of wingers and an attacking midfielder behind a sole forward. This shifts the emphasis of goals from a dual-pronged forward line across a quartet of players who attack from various different positions.

Prior to this, certainly in English football where there is a distinct lack of a trequartista tradition, the emphasis was on a striking partnership performing in tandem. Here, David Pleat can be seen exemplifying the English tradition of striking partnerships. An emphasis is placed on the front two using their movement to pull the central defensive partnership they’re up against apart, and create space for the other, or a midfielder charging forward.

The primary problem with this idyll, however is that it requires an understanding and co-operation between the two, and between the forwards and the midfield. It is peculiar, that given the age of constant media comment that the relationship between a front two and the midfield behind isn’t as thoroughly extrapolated as it should be. After all, even when the forward line exists in a state of co-operation, its success is still dependent on the transitional phase the midfield provides. You can have two forwards with a fantastic understanding, but if they deal with balls lumped up from the centre backs for 90 minutes, they will never be as successful as they can be. You require a good use of wing play or a central midfield partnership who can get the ball into good positions and also get forward themselves as well as a sense of relationship to sustain the tactics utilised.

The premium of space is another reason why the tactics of attacking have changed, and the success of clubs and players who have embraced this is evident. In England, of the top 10 scorers thus far this season only 50% of them are arguably centre forwards, and the same percentage exists in Spain and a similar ratio in Serie A. The age of strikers only being goalscorers is rapidly dying away, and in its place are strikers who are converted wingers, players who attack from wide or deep.

If we examine the English game, arguably the slowest in terms of tactical development, we have the top ten goalscorers (in all competitions, I hasten to add) of:

  1. Dimitar Berbatov (20)
  2. Carlos Tevez (17)
  3. Samir Nasri (14)
  4. Nicolas Anelka (14)
  5. Andy Carroll (11)
  6. Didier Drogba (11)
  7. Rafael van der Vaart (11)
  8. Darren Bent (11)
  9. Gareth Bale (11)
  10. Javier Hernandez (11)

Of these, the 50% (at personal discretion) who I’d consider out and out strikers are: Javier Hernandez; Darren Bent; Didier Drogba; Andy Carroll and Dimitar Berbatov, with Nicolas Anelka generally playing as an inverted winger or in a fluid formation around Drogba and Carlos Tevez playing as a ‘false nine’ at Manchester City. The pattern seems to be that of more goals coming from players attacking from deeper positions. In previous articles I have suggested that this transition negates the traditional role of the defence and that some players/teams/coaches (delete as applicable) are struggling to adapt to this transition.

The formations that are generally prevalent throughout European competition are that of 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 (granted that is a very simplistic analysis) and in these formations the nature of attack comes from various different locales, rather than the one specific one. There was a sense of 2-dimensional-ism to some tactics previous to the last decade or so of football, with defences knowing they will have the role of either destroying their constructive force (in the sense of a trequartista, perhaps) or by a solid defensive partnership handling the centre forward partnership they’re up against.  But of course, it is the same sense of needing to stymie the creative forces of sides that has lead to the necessity for one or two defensive midfielders, so perhaps they weren’t quite so two-dimensional.

But now danger comes from between the lines, combined with a forward leading the line and trying to be a handful to the defensive partnership he’s up against. So now defences have the dual-pronged threat (in simplistic terms again) of dealing with an advanced forward and then players pushing behind their midfield and pressing on and looking for whatever space they can get. Quintessentially, defenders are, more than ever, required to have exemplary positioning so to nullify the opposition looking for space to operate in.

As has already been suggested by numerous coaches, the future of attacking in football will come through a fluid attack playing in front of the defence, rather than up against it. At the moment this has been done through having a ‘false nine’ who drops deep from the front line, either dragging defences with him or finding space to turn and attack the back line.

In the here and now, however, this un-arguably one team that dominates the rest of the world of football and that is Barcelona. Barcelona’s pursuit of space has lead them to playing without a central figure that the team works around. In generic nomenclature, they play a 4-3-3, but in essence it can be anything from a 2-1-7 to a 4-1-4-1 depending on the circumstance. But in terms of how they look to unlock defences, they play with a simple strategy in itself, a strategy that is essentially just the antithesis of how to defend: basically, overload the team you are playing. At any given time you will see a bare minimum of three players looking to get in behind the attack, or wandering into any space that is available besides of just in front of the defence and the entire side pushes forward. This, of course, isn’t a tactic that just anyone can use, it requires an intense amount of understanding as well as being nigh-on technically perfect with the ball, allowing the team to maintain possession.

That said, the key tactical component of how Barcelona attack (especially since the sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic) is that they don’t play with a figurehead, instead playing with a dynamism and fluidity that makes them one of the, if not the, best teams ever in the history of football.

It is in Spain that there are two perfect examples for the potential evolution of the centre forward, the top two scorers in Europe, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Beyond all comparison in the modern footballing world, these two seemed to have developed the ability to score for fun. Ronaldo exemplifies the embodiment of physical power and has all the ability of a winger combined with a centre forward. It’s this cross-over that has enabled him to become such a unrelentingly good footballer. On the other side of it, there is Messi who is perhaps the most technically gifted winger not only of his generation, but in history, and has the tactical nous and work-rate to be able to play in a central role as well.

Tactically, they both operate in a similar manner. They both, notionally, operate on the wings of their respective clubs, but drift in field and get into positions to score goals. This lateral movement, combined with very good dribbling skills enables both to regularly score, and in essence have become the two leading forwards in the World, and the primary exponents of the new tradition of attacking.

Another Barcelona forward deserves mention in this bracket as well. Pedro Rodriguez has been lucky, in a sense, to have inherited two of the greatest sides in history as his own, but his ability to play the Messi role so successfully, but without the same technical proficiency is demonstrative of what could very well be the next generation of forwards who aren’t super-humans.

It’s only really Spalletti’s Roma and Barcelona under Guardiola who have played with such abandon for centre forwards, but it seems increasingly likely that as time goes by, the centre forward may have to re-invent itself, either in the style of Ronaldo, Messi et al, or in some other unpredictable way, just as the trequartista, winger, libero and box-to-box midfielder have over the last 10 years.

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