Thibaut Courtois thumps the ball in the direction of Diego Costa. Even before television cameras shift their focus to the Chelsea striker, those watching the game have a reasonable picture of the grabbing and pushing Diego Costa is doing as he jockeys for position. Diego Costa, it can be said, is not one to shy away from a confrontation. He is the prototypical old-fashioned center forward, using his physicality to hold off defenders and hold up the ball, committing himself into every tackle. But the Premier League, it seems, is moving away from the passionate, physical forwards in favor of more technical strikers, with the ability to elude the defense with quick feet and smart runs. Theo Walcott, a quick player who likes to operate on the shoulder of the last defender, seems to have displaced Olivier Giroud, a target man who relishes physical encounters, in the starting lineup. Arsenal chose to embrace more mobility among the front three players instead of using a focal point in their attack to hold up the ball and bring others into the game. So far it has worked brilliantly, with Walcott, Alex Iwobi, and Alexis Sanchez shining in the opening games of the season. Sergio Aguero is another prime example. Quick and a fantastic finisher, Aguero is one of the most lethal center forwards in the game. This begs the question, how much value does an old-fashioned center forward really add to a team in the Premier League?
This question is difficult to answer, given that old-fashioned forwards supply much more than just goals. They provide their team with an outlet, holding up the ball and having others play off of them. Take Troy Deeney for example. The Watford forward finished last season with a respectable tally of nine goals. His strike partner, Odion Ighalo, meanwhile managed five more goals than Deeney. To further add to this gap, many of Deeney’s goals came from the penalty spot, rather than open play. However, Deeney was a far more important player for Watford during the season. Watford, who were a newly promoted team, sat back, and invited their opposition to dominate possession, and out of all of the Premier League teams, had the third least average amount of possession per game, at 46.3%. When Watford win the ball back, they needed an outlet. This outlet was provided by Troy Deeney, an old-fashioned center forward who holds up the ball and gives his teammates a chance to get up field. This tactic worked brilliantly, with Deeney holding up the ball and linking with Odion Ighalo, who would look to run in behind the defense and is a sharp finisher. By the end of the season, Deeney had eight assists and Watford had a hugely successful season in which they comfortably avoided relegation. Deeney’s ability to hold up the ball and allow Watford, who were sitting deep, to get out of their defensive zone proved invaluable and was paramount in their achievement. This season, other small or newly promoted sides are also using an old-fashioned forward to hold up play and allow others to work off of them. Sam Vokes is a powerful forward, and is used by Burnley as an outlet, freeing up speedster Andre Gray to run in behind. Burnley also sit deep, having only 19% possession against Liverpool earlier this year, and look to Vokes to allow them to move up the field. This strategy has worked so far, with Gray and Vokes each bagging a goal in the seven games played so far this season and Burnley sitting in a respectable 14th place. Other small sides also use this strategy. Fernando Llorente provides an outlet for Swansea and Alvaro Negredo is the target man for Middlesbrough. Negredo uses his strength to hold the ball up and allow his creative midfielders, notably Christian Stuani and Gaston Ramirez, into the play. Stuani in particular has benefited by Negredo’s work, bagging three goals already in Middlesbrough’s return to the Premier League. Having an old-fashioned forward is extremely important for small teams that like to cede a large deal of possession to their opposition. The forward is used to ward off defenders and allow his team to move up the field, instead of allowing the other team to come in wave after wave of attack. The old-fashioned forward brings creative midfielders into play, and provides an outlet for a side sitting in to deny space to the opposition. As a result, the value of an old-fashioned forward cannot be quantified with goals and assists. The work an old-fashioned forward puts in and the ability to hold up the ball relieves pressure and allows the team to sit in on their opposition, rather than pursuing the ball which causes gaps in the defense to open up. To smaller clubs who simply wish to maintain their Premier League status, an old-fashioned forward is invaluable in helping them accomplish their goal. Even for some bigger clubs, old-fashioned center forwards are successful. Diego Costa for Chelsea is a prime example. The leading scorer in the league with six goals in seven games, Costa never shies from a challenge and occupies his defenders so that creative players such as Willian and Eden Hazard can operate between the defensive and midfield lines. Chelsea is one example of successful bigger teams that uses an old-fashioned center forward.
Some teams, however, choose not to use an old-fashioned forward. Sunderland, for example, is a small club that succeeds despite reliance on Jermaine Defoe, a small, quick forward that is one of the best finishers in the game. Sunderland are able to get away without a target man due to the other players in their lineup. Creative midfielders such as Adnan Januzaj and Wahbi Khazri are used to link play from the defense to the forward. The main reason that Sunderland can get away without using an old-fashioned forward, however, is because of Defoe’s finishing ability. Last season, Defoe netted 15 times from only 85 shots and 39 shots on goal. As a result, Sunderland do not need to create as many chances to score, and can thus sacrifice an old-fashioned forward for a more defensive minded player, letting the opposition to control the ball, knowing that Defoe will convert a good portion of the chances that come his way. Many big clubs also do not use an old-fashioned forward up front. Manchester City play Sergio Aguero, another small, quick forward who is also an incredible finisher. Despite playing only 30 games last season, Aguero scored 24 goals, joint second top scorer in the league, from 50 shots on goal. Manchester City usually dominate possession against their opposition, and need quick strikers who can find pockets of space between the lines. Old-fashioned center forwards, who hold off defenders and provide a target, are unnecessary for a team that moves the ball quickly and looks to exploit the smallest of spaces that the opposition allows as they sit in, denying space to their quality opposition. Arsenal also have moved away from an old-fashioned center forward. Last year, Olivier Giroud, a big, physical striker, led the line. However, Arsenal looked static with Giroud, and opponents were able to keep tabs on dangerous wingers like Alexis Sanchez and Alex Iwobi. This year, Arsenal have used a mobile front three of Iwobi, Sanchez, and Walcott, and defenses have a tough time against their searing pace, as playmaker Mesut Ozil looks to play one of his front three in behind. By benching Giroud, Arsenal have a sort of unpredictability that they previously lacked. Iwobi, Sanchez, and Walcott interchange and wreak havoc on defenses, while Giroud simply occupied space, restricting Sanchez and Iwobi to the wings and making them easy to mark. As a result, for top teams, an old-fashioned center forward might get in the way as the team looks to break down a full team sitting deep in their defensive half. For smaller clubs, the value of an old-fashioned center forward cannot be understated, but an old-fashioned center forward might not be necessary for teams with a top finisher or for big teams that dominate possession and look to break down a stubborn defense.
Data courtesy of foxsports.com, transfermarkt.com and ESPN. Thanks for reading!
Written by William Seidman