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Saturday, July 11, 2020

Yes to wide forwards, no to target men: Premier League and its changing terrain

Be it a 'Big Six' club or a mid-table one, the spotlight nowadays is more often than not on the technical wide forward instead of the big and burly striker of yesteryear in the Premier League.

Written by Debkalpa Banerjee | Updated: June 23, 2020 7:57:55 am
Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, both wide forwards for Liverpool, won the Premier League Golden Boot last season, scoring 22 goals each. (Source: Reuters)

Even before the birth of the Premier League way back in 1992, the cliché of the towering target man leading the attack existed in England. Standing the test of time, target men have become synonymous with the sport in the country. So, why is it that they are so rarely sighted on the field nowadays?

Bullying defenders with his physicality, getting into positions to tap/head in the final pass/cross, being the primary outlet of goals for his team — this is how the target man can be summarised. The Premier League has witnessed many such greats like Alan Shearer, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Didier Drogba, Les Ferdinand, Dion Dublin, and in more recent times Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku, and Dimitar Berbatov. Yet, as statistics testify, their time seems to have come to an end.

With Chelsea breaking the bank to seal the services of the in-form Timo Werner, the reliance of modern football teams on the versatile forward becomes evident.

Werner, the 24-year-old German international who has scored 32 goals and registered 13 assists in 44 appearances in all competitions this season, usually plays as a centre-forward for RB Leipzig. But when the need arises, he is more than adept to shift out wide in a front three, considering his senior career started on the left-wing at Stuttgart.

The scenario is similar back in England too — wide forwards have been dominating the numbers in almost all of the ‘Big Six’ teams for the past three seasons. Ever since Mohamed Salah joined Liverpool in 2017, he has won two Golden Boots, sharing last season’s award with his teammate Sadio Mane and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Unsurprisingly, both of them operate from the left for their respective teams.

The Premier League goal tallies of forwards from ‘Big Six’ clubs for the last three seasons.

As is evident from the data, wide-forwards have a free reign in the Premier League, with just four out-and-out strikers featuring in the list — Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero, Jamie Vardy, and Alexandre Lacazette.

Then again, Aguero and Vardy aren’t target men though — they don’t rely on their physicality to break down opposition defences, but instead put their pace, positioning, and finishing skills to good use. Vardy has even played as a LW early on in his career, and even as recently as the 2014/15 season.

Kane, on the other hand, is a curious case of persistence. The 26-year-old won two Golden Boots in 2015/16 and 2016/17, and has maintained his goalscoring rate owing to his multi-dimensional ability. Under Mauricio Pochettino, the Tottenham Hotspur striker’s output was maximised due to wide wingers and two central playmakers all feeding him balls from left, right, and centre.

What further delineates the stark shift from the nostalgic days of the poachers like Shearer, Cole, Drogba, and co. is the growing demand for creative and defensive outputs in an attacking arrowhead. The modern striker — for example, Roberto Firmino, Raul Jimenez, and Alexandre Lacazette — doesn’t only rely on his eye for goal to have an impact, he also contributes through his doggedness and vision in the middle of the park. Even the multifaceted Harry Kane has shaped himself in a way to not fall behind.

The statistics of top Premier League strikers in the 2019/20 season.

Although the metamorphosis of the Premier League winger into a lethal goalscoring threat is a fairly recent phenomenon, the seed was sown quite some time back. In his book, The Mixer, Michael Cox writes about how Eric Cantona was the pioneer of such a transformation of thought — that a forward can be technical in his approach and aid the team in building an attacking phase of play instead of just reaping the rewards of it.

Cox believes that the signings of Gianfranco Zola and Dennis Bergkamp by Chelsea and Arsenal respectively, and the influx of European managers with their dynamic ideas marked a shift in Premier League’s identity. Now, the league stands revolutionised by Jose Mourinho’s 4-3-3, Jürgen Klopp’s gegenpressing, and Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka which all specifically demand individuals to be more than just a one-dimensional player.

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Although it’d be factually incorrect to assume that target-men are extinct in the league, it’d not be wrong to argue that due to the ever-growing demands of modern football, they are finding it hard to prosper, e.g; West Ham United’s £40 million recruit Sebastian Haller, and even the likes of Christian Benteke and Andy Carroll. Even in mid-table clubs, the spotlight has shifted from the big and burly strikers to the silky and suave wide forwards like Wilfried Zaha, Felipe Anderson, Richarlison, Ryan Fraser, and Gerard Deulofeu.

Predictably, beyond the borders of the United Kingdom, the wide forward — rather, the “hybrid” forward — rules large as well. Following in the footsteps of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, world-class talents like Kylian Mbappe and Jadon Sancho are now aiming to conquer it all while slyly operating from the fringes.

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