The role of the ‘target man’ has been one that has been almost ever present in the history of the English Premier League. Players such as Duncan Ferguson, Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton were regular features at their respective clubs and enjoyed relative success in the process. The target man is traditionally a tall, strong forward with great aerial ability, who can score goals and bring others into play by holding it up. However as the make-up of the Premier League has become more continental the target-man has began to die out, a view corroborated by a recent UEFA report picked up in The Independent.
It is indicative of the recent trend that in the recent U19 European Championship there were no headed goals scored. Further evidence compounds this, in last season’s Champions League strikers scored 103 goals, of which only three were headers.
Why has the game changed?
There are several reasons for the shift in tactics that has led to a decline in both headed goals and the target man. The pace of the game has also changed greatly. The emphasis on route one football has declined as the Premier League has gone more in line with its continental neighbours adopting high tempo, ball playing tactics instead or direct long ball football.
Of the 355 goals scored in the Champions League last season 82 came from through balls in behind defences. Even with regards to goals from crosses of which there were 57 the majority of these were low crosses into feet rather than aerial balls. The reason for this in the EPL is that one of the key aspects of the target man’s game was to hold the ball up, slow down the play and bring others into the game. This feature of play is largely redundant with the increased tempo of the game. An example of this is the criticism that Berbatov sometimes receives, himself not a target man, but he is known for slowing down the tempo, holding the ball up and attempting to bring others into play, something that often angers United fans.
Modern tactics are ever evolving and even with teams like Barcelona often play two support strikers who would look to come inside more than they would try and cross it, how many times do we see Pedro, Villa or Messi play an aerial cross into the box? This is in line with the trend of teams playing left footers on the right wing and vice-versa who will cut in on their stronger foots rather than hit the by-line.
Teams such as Barcelona now arguably don’t even play with a traditional forward. Messi sometimes plays as the one up top looking to pick the ball up deep rather than getting in behind or holding it up. Rooney too plays a similar role for United when operating as a lone striker.
Andy Caroll and Liverpool
A £35 million British player is always going to make head-lines, but Caroll has simply failed to hit it off since joining Liverpool. There are of course several factors for this: Carroll has struggled with injuries since arriving at Anfield, as well as there being questions regarding his personal life. He has also suffered as a result of the signings of several key players such as Bellamy but also midfield players like Adam and Henderson who could block his route to the first team dependent on tactics. In big games Dalglish has opted for one up top, namely Suarez with Gerrard in behind. It seems hard to envisage Liverpool realistically playing with Gerrard, Caroll, Suarez and Adam in the same team, this would no doubt leave the side very, very open in midfield.
Suarez is clearly the favourite for the role at the moment. As mentioned earlier he fits into the mould of skilful, penetrative forwards who can make something out of nothing. Regardless of what you think of the player he is clearly a far better technical player than Carroll. Liverpool look to play on the ground, hitting balls in behind for the pacey Suarez to latch on to. Gerrard is always quick to try and play the pass as is Adam. Were Carroll deployed in that role he would undoubtedly slow down the play some-what. The majority of Liverpool[‘s goals this season have come by threading balls in behind defences and with Suarez running in behind to latch on to said passes.
A comparison of Suarez and Carroll makes dim reading for Carroll. Suarez has 4 goals in 9 to Carroll’s 1 in 8. With regards to Suarez’s far better build up and technical play Suarez enjoys better passing stats with 78% completion compared to Carroll’s 68%. Perhaps an even more worrying stat for Carroll is that for a player who is 6 foot 4 and widely assumed to be a good aerial player he has only won 60% of his aerial duels this season.
Carroll is a target man by build, however he does have more to his game than this. He is strong and quick, something that is rare for a man of his physique. What is for sure though is he will need to improve his technical game if he is to fit into Liverpool’s new style of play as well as his prowess in and around the box, for example his ability to run on the shoulder of the last defender, something thus far not associated with him. At such a young age he still has plenty of time to identify his role in the side or even move on to a side who will play around him.The signing of Bellamy who is more of a like for like replacement for Suarez does leave it questionable how many starts Carroll may get this term in the long run if Liverpool want to keep continuity in their style of play.
It should also be noted that whilst teams are shying away from the target man at least in their starting line-ups many sides have the option within their squads. In the national game for instance the idea of a ‘plan-b’ is key. England have the option of either Crouch or Carroll and Heskey was popular in that role for some time. Even the best technical side in World football Spain regularly give at least sub appearances to the less technically gifted but more aerially competent Fernando Llorente. This could mean there is a place in the England squad for a target man with Crouch and Carroll being favorites. Carroll will however need to gain a decent amount of starts to have a chance at making the squad with Crouch enjoying regular football at Stoke.