The Renaissance of the Target Man

The return, not to mention the subsequent success, of the physical centre forward in European football is a phenomenon not many would have foreseen before the last couple of seasons. Over the previous 4 years, Guardiola’s Barcelona underlined their tactical supremacy by winning just about everything in sight, setting up with either strikerless formations, or formations that only allowed for strikers that couldn’t be described as “classic No. 9’s”. Eulogies for the traditional, bruising centre forwards were being delivered from all aspects of the media and public, particularly in England, where the apparent scrapping of a type of player almost synonymous with the English brand of football may have struck a melancholy chord within the English football fan. Even though it was clear at the time that the Target Man archetype was quickly becoming a sporting fossil, it was still sad to see it go, countless John Wayne sized fellows lumbering off into the distance to go and sit with the serve-vollyers, and non-batting wicket keepers.

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But their extinction was too hastily proclaimed and their exile was short lived. Did they even leave the elite footballing consciousness anyway? Mario Gomez was a Bundesliga record transfer when he was sold to Bayern from Stuttgart in 2009, the year Barca won the treble, and he went on to score ten hat-tricks in his three seasons at Bayern. Didier Drogba was arguably the most dominant centre forward in the Premier League, scoring 29 goals in the 2009-10 season. But on the other hand, the top five scorers in La Liga in 08-09 were, respectively, Forlan, Eto’o, Villa, Messi, and Higuain, none of them remotely cast in the Shearer mould. Zlatan Imbrahimovic was Serie A’s top scorer that season, but stood taller than most on the list. Cristiano Ronaldo and Steven Gerrard were second and third top scorers in England, behind Nicholas Anelka, who should be saluted (no, not like that Nicholas) for his efforts that season. But generally the top teams weren’t playing with classic number 9’s as their attacking focal point.

Taking a look at the line ups for the current European powers shows that a process of evolution has occurred, both in the Target Man’s worth as a footballing currency, and in the Target Men themselves. Olivier Giroud bravely leads the line for Arsenal, holding the ball up, laying off flicks to fleet-footed wingers and knocking down the occasional long ball. Alvaro Negredo rampages for Manchester City, scoring 19 goals in 30 appearances so far this season. Mario Mandzukic, ironically blossoming under Pep Guardiola at Bayern, hustles and presses from the front, attacking the peach crosses delivered by Robben, Ribery and Gotze with relish, slinging his 6 ft 2 inch frame around like the best of them. Romelu Lukaku (various clubs, except Chelsea) has the modern, lithe, ball-playing centre back waking up at night in a cold sweat, clammily groping his own frame for broken arms or legs. Llorente at Juve, Gomez at Fiorentina, Ibrahimovic at PSG, Mitroglou at Olympiacos, Benteke at Villa, Lambert at Southampton, Bony at Swansea, and poor old Andy Carroll at West Ham United, the numbers indicate that the Number 9 is well and truly back in vogue.
There has, however, been a change.

This video of Negredo’s touches at Everton this season helps to illustrate the evolution of the relevant Target Man. At 1:04, Negredo displays the qualities that define a classic centre forward, knocking down Kompany’s hopeful punt from deep in City’s half. He is barely shifted an inch by the defender challenging for the header, “The Beast of Vallecas” indeed. Then at 4:09, after collecting a clearance, he silkily nutmegs Leon Osman and lays through a weighted through ball to Sergio Aguero. This is the new number 9, the versatile Target Man, who can win an aerial battle, who can muscle centre backs off the ball, but who can also thread a needle with a perfect pass or go past a defender with an exquisite piece of close control. They can no longer be only battering rams, they need to be lock-picks as well.

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Again in this video of Giroud’s performance against Tottenham, at the 0:34 second mark, Giroud executes the typical duty for which his size and strength equip him perfectly; chesting down a long goal kick for a midfielder to collect. Then at 4:06, he collects the ball on the far touchline with two defenders surrounding him. He then, hugging the line, proceeds to dribble past both, and having completed the skinning, turns near the corner flag and dribbles into the box, squaring it perfectly for Walcott who fluffs the chance. Power and finesse must flow through the Neo-Target Man in equal measure. Admittedly, in both videos, the majority of interventions that Negredo and Giroud make are of the more Neanderthal persuasion; their observable qualities are more obviously suited to such acts, but crucially, they are (and have to be) capable of the latter type of technical brilliance.

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The resurgence of the target man has required the new Number 9 to be a Renaissance Man. They need to be versed in the arts of the Number 10. They should all aspire to be part Andres Iniesta, part Grant Holt. Having two left feet but a bullet header won’t cut in the company of Negredo et al. An identifiable process of universality is occurring for every position on the football pitch, the compartmentalisation of football is being broken down and modern players need to be able to do more and more. The Target Man is not excluded from the demands of this process and the products of these standards are being enjoyed by football fans today. One rule is king now; versatility never goes out of fashion.

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