The Value of an Old-Fashioned Forward

As the Premier League moves more towards skilled, creative attacking players, the role of big, target forwards seems increasingly uncertain.

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?

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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.

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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

 

Harry Kane’s on Ice, Your Defense Isn’t Terrified

At the 2016 Euros in France, England was humiliated by Iceland, failing to score from open play against the smallest country to ever take part in a major soccer tournament. But statistics show that perhaps this was no coincidence, that maybe Harry Kane, England’s center forward, should not have been selected to lead the line.

England’s 2-1 defeat to Iceland this summer turned a disappointing tournament into a humiliation. Having failed to top a group containing Wales, Slovakia, and Russia, England crashed out to the smallest country to ever participate in a major tournament. Iceland, with a population around 155 times smaller (323,002 as per 2013) than England (50.1 million as of 2015), got the better of one of the premier soccer countries in the world. And yet, the only goal that England could put past the Icelandic goalkeeper was a contentious 4th minute penalty.

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Despite enjoying 63% possession, England was unable to convert a single chance in open play. A large portion of this blame must fall on those who are responsible for getting the ball in the back of the net. For England, this is Harry Kane. While it might seem baffling that Kane was unable to score at the Euros given that he was the golden boot winner in the 2015-16 Premier League season, his goals per shots ratio indicates that he was not the best player to lead the line. Jamie Vardy, who finished one goal behind Harry Kane last season, is a more efficient goalscorer and should have been starting up front at the Euros.

Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy each play in the English Premier League, the highest division of English soccer. Harry Kane plays for Tottenham, one of the traditional powerhouses in England. Under coach Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham play a high tempo pressing game in which they dominate possession and work hard to get the ball back when they lose it. This tactic was highly effective last season as Tottenham averaged the third largest amount of possession per game in the league (55.3%) and took the most shots per game (17.2) out of every Premier League team.

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As a result, Harry Kane was presented with many chances during the course of the season. Playing in every game of the season (38 games), Harry Kane took a total of 159 shots, 40 shots more than the next player. Scoring 25 goals, Harry Kane had a conversion rate of 1 goal in 6.36 shots. At the Euros, Kane averaged 3.3 shots per game and he played 240 minutes spread across all four of England’s games. Considering that Kane took thirteen shots in total, it is reasonable to think that, based on his statistics, one of these shots would go in. However, Harry Kane took free kicks for England, which he does not do for Tottenham. These free kicks make up some of the 13 shots Kane took, and Kane (evidently) did not make any of his free kicks. Furthermore, Kane was assigned to take corner kicks, so when the ball was played by Kane into the penalty area, where Kane scores most of his goals, he was not there to put the ball into the net. In fact, most of Kane’s shots came from outside the penalty area.

As a result, Kane simply did not have the amount of “golden opportunities” from inside the penalty box that he did on Tottenham, due to his free kick and corner kick duties, and he was unable to convert the few big chances that came his way at the Euros. Therefore, with not as many gilt-edged chances playing for England, and a conversion rate that suggests he needs more than a handful of chances to score a goal, statistics show that it is not as baffling as it may seem that Harry Kane was unable to score at the Euros.

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Jamie Vardy is another English striker who was backup to Harry Kane at the Euros. Vardy only played 166 minutes, far less than Kane played. Yet statistics show that Vardy is a more efficient goalscorer than Harry Kane. Vardy plays for Leicester City, a counterattacking team that allows the other team to dominate possession. Leicester had the third lowest percentage of possession in the league last season (44.8%). Since Leicester absorbed pressure for most of the game and hit on the break, Vardy had far fewer chances than Kane did during the season, registering a mere 114 shots.

However, Vardy scored 24 goals, only one less than Harry Kane. This means that Vardy converts one shot out of every 4.75 that he takes, a strike rate far better than Harry Kane’s. In addition, Tottenham’s possession soccer means that others set up chances for Kane while Vardy, one of Leicester’s only two genuine threats, has to create for himself. Vardy also had significantly more assists than Kane during the season, recording 6 to Kane’s 1, showing that even when Vardy doesn’t score he is still capable of setting up for others.

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At the Euros, Vardy was utilized primarily as a sub. This nullified his largest asset, his pace, as Vardy was mainly subbed on only when England needed a goal, and opposition defenses were sitting deep to try and prevent England from scoring, resulting in not much space for Vardy to run into. Still, despite taking 1.7 shots per game (Kane took 3.3), Vardy scored a goal at the Euros, while Kane did not. Given that Kane had a worse conversion rate than Vardy during the season, and the goals Vardy scores are more of his own making than Kane, who relies on service from others, it should come as no surprise that England struggled to score at the Euros with Kane as the main man up front instead of Jamie Vardy.

 

Data courtesy of whoscored.com and foxsports.com. Thanks for reading!

Written by William Seidman

Photo Credits: AP/Matt Dunham,  Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images, Frank Augstein/Associated Press, Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images, Clive Rose/Getty Images