It is no secret that biggest football stars aren’t just players. They earn as much shooting commercials as playing football. Cristiano Ronaldo is selling us anything from underpants and deodorants to cars. Did you ever ask yourself why is that? Popularity comes with success and various brands employ footballers to sell us their products. It is very much the same with tactics. The whole football world wants to emulate successful teams. This past decade, it was Barcelona so everyone wanted to play like them including the Spanish national side.
As teams throughout the world strived to be as successful as Catalans, we have seen the rise of popularity of 4-2-3-1 formation with wide strikers. Their success made a worldwide trend in football and today most of the teams use the same formation and even roles. It is, therefore, worth to take a look at the role that is widely employed at all levels and see what makes it so important and popular.
Inside Forwards: Arjen Robben, Thierry Henry, Nolito, Neymar, Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo
Essential attributes: Decisions, off the ball movement, acceleration, technique, finishing.
While the 20th century was dominated by prolific wingers, today it is difficult to find one in any of the top teams. In the modern game, it is the full-back’s job to bomb forward and put the crosses in from wide. Where winger used to rule, today you will often find an “inside forward”. Think of Thierry Henry in Barcelona or Robben at Bayern to get an idea.
Sir Alex Ferguson once said: “It’s funny when I see centre-forwards starting off in the middle against their markers and then going away from goal. Strikers going inside are far more dangerous…”
While inside forwards emerged within 4-2-3-1 formation, they have different roles in different teams. They are players who are either two-footed or play on opposite side of their preferred foot. This makes it hard for inside forward to cross the ball but his assignments rarely include crossing. The main job of an inside forward, or inverted winger, is to use his acceleration and technique to take on their man and drive towards the goal.
Tactically, Guardiola’s inside forward provides a challenge for the full-back that is marking him. When his team is in possession, inside forward needs to stay wide to keep the defense stretched. This makes gaps between the defensive line wider and more exploitable.
Above you can see Guardiola’s Manchester City in possession. Nolito is playing an inside forward role and you can see how important it is for him to keep discipline and stay wide. His positioning means Manchester United needs to stretch their defense which is then exploited by Silva. Off the ball positioning and teamwork is essential for a player in this role. If he was a bit hastier and wanted to score, he would go inside and cancel the option of a pass to Silva.
Once on the ball, inside forward needs the technique and dribbling combined with acceleration and good decision making. All these come together since he needs the ability to go past the full back that marks him. Once away, he can shoot since his stronger foot has a wider angle on the goal, or pass to one of the teammates.
From the tactical side, good inside forward provides a challenge for any defense. His movement from wide towards the center creates confusion in the defensive line. This comes from a fact that an inside forward is first marked by a full back. But, once he moves more to the center, responsibility for marking him becomes a gray area.
If the defense isn’t well coordinated and lacks communication, inside forwards can create all sorts of problems since the full-backs need to make difficult decisions in the short time window. Do they shadow the forward’s run inside?
Above you see a situation where a full-back decides to track the inside forward. This creates space for the onrushing opposition full back who has acres of space to either cross the ball or pass it back into the central areas.
The second GIF demonstrates a situation where full-back decides to pass the inside forward to his center back and tracks the run of full back. However, this creates a potential overload on top of the box.
Obviously, full backs do not defend alone but as a part of the team which makes it harder for forwards. For that reason, a good inside forward must be able to make a decision quickly as to exploit any hesitation, slip of concentration or misunderstanding in defense. Only then physical attributes such as acceleration and pace come into play.
While inside forwards have different tasks and responsibilities within different teams, they all pose a same fundamental dilemma for the defense. This is the main reason why coaches love to use such player on the pitch. Come back to see the next part where we will examine another important role often used with inside forwards. The false nine.
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