Is the defensive striker a toothless tiger?

By Paul Gardner

Allow me to present the latest (I think they're the latest) developments in the realm of soccer tactics and terminology.

Some years back -- it was in 1998 -- I commented on the lovely remark made by the Brazilian forward Giovane Elber. He had just joined Bayern Munich, there to fall victim to Coach Giovanni Trapattoni’s defensive mindset. Unhappy about that, Elber remarked sarcastically to journalists that his new position was “Defensive striker.”

It was intended, and was widely received, as a humorous -- but incisive -- comment on the contradictions of modern tactics.

I regret to report that there is no longer any humor in the oxymoronic defensive striker. He is now a reality and the term is bandied about by tactical experts with straight faces.

Just last week we had Rafa Benitez, the latest in the procession of interim Chelsea coaches, praising forward Fernando Torres - yes, the Spanish goalscorer who’s been having trouble scoring goals - for his defensive skills: “If you analyze [our defending at] corner kicks, he was amazing. He was two or three times clearing the ball and afterwards doing man-to-man marking. It’s what he had to do.”

This is actually a good deal worse than it sounds. The new “defensive forward” term is applied to forwards who stay upfield (which we can define, optimistically, as meaning in the other team’s half of the field) -- and who do their “defending” up there. Nothing too sophisticated -- it consists mainly of closing down space that might be exploited by opponents.

At least, that’s how it started. It has now bloated into a goal-line to goal-line activity, described by another of the sport’s workmanlike terms -- “tracking back” -- an activity that, if practiced diligently, takes a forward far, far away from the area that used to be considered his rightful territory.

And those words from Benitez -- “it’s what he had to do” -- are disturbing. They imply compulsion and underline another phrase, “defensive duties,” often heard these days.

But what Benitez was praising Torres for was something much more radical than having a defender make defensive-type plays upfield. Here we have Torres playing in his own penalty area, required to use his height and strength to outjump and outmuscle his opponents. Of course, should the ball be won by Chelsea, opening up the chance of a quick counterattack, it is not likely that Torres will be a part of it. If he is, it won’t be that quick.

Does the greatest goalscorer of our time, Lionel Messi, prowl his own penalty area when Barcelona concede a corner kick? Not that I’ve noticed. Well, he wouldn’t be much use, being, you know, sort of on the small side. So Messi can be safely left to concentrate on what he does best. Not so for poor Torres, who gets tabbed as a defender simply because of his physique.

And if Torres were told to forget about defense and just fix his mind on scoring, what then? I’d say the chances of Torres regaining his scoring touch would be increased. But possibly at the risk of a tremendous distortion in the shape of the team, and maybe a total collapse of tactical discipline.

Then again, maybe not. Also playing in Spain, where the incomparable Messi operates, are two more great goalscorers -- Cristiano Ronaldo and Falcao. Maybe Ronaldo does some defensive work -- but certainly not as a “duty” -- but he is an absolutely extraordinary athlete who might well be able to cover all the necessary mileage without tiring himself.

Falcao, we know doesn’t operate like that. This is Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque: “Falcao is the goalscorer inside the box par excellence. Ronaldo is more a player who operates down the wing in search of goals, and Messi just goes wherever he wants.”

I’ve been studiously omitting to bring up one highly relevant point here -- one that tends to completely undermine all this stuff about having forwards play defense. Because we seem to be heading for a soccer world in which forwards are ceasing to exist. Most teams now play with only one player who could fall within the classic definition of a forward -- an advanced player with a primarily (or, heaven forbid, exclusively) attacking role.

Formations without any forwards at all have been sighted. Then there are the formations that employ a forward, just one, who is “good with his back to the goal.” I find that one amusing when combined with another phrase that has survived its genuine use in the 1930s, but has long since ceased to have any meaning. This talk of a forward “line” in the era of the single forward. This past weekend I heard an English TV commentator talking about a team needing a forward “who can lead the line.” Even if there were a line, I’m pondering, is it possible for a line to be led by someone who plays with his back to goal?

I jest. Soccer has been trying, for ages and ages now, to field teams of 11 super-skilled all-around players who can attack and defend and do just about everything with amazing ability. Maybe we came close to that with the Dutch and the Germans and their Total Soccer of the 1970s. Maybe Spain and Barcelona are getting there.

But I doubt it. The “universal” players come along every so often -- the classic example, we are told was Alfredo Di Stefano. I think Ronaldo is the closest we have nowadays. But these are rare creatures. For the moment we continue to have the lesser mortals divided into defenders and midfielders and forwards. But it’s that last category that worries, constantly under attack by the tacticians, a category being slowly eroded by the imposition of defensive chores. Surely, we can’t be entering the age of forward-less soccer. Can we?

8 comments about "Is the defensive striker a toothless tiger?".
  1. Gus Keri, December 14, 2012 at 9:41 a.m.

    Paul, This "defensive forward" Torres scored 5 goals in his last 3 games. It seems working just fine for him and the club.

  2. Bobby Bluntz, December 14, 2012 at 10:02 a.m.

    Gus, I think he's writing more about the fact that rather than celebrate his goals, he's being praised for clearing a header from a corner. Imagine if he could stay a little higher, maybe a 6th goal was there? And whereas Torres is on fire, Falcao, the example of the goal box predator, got 5 in one game.

  3. Gus Keri, December 14, 2012 at 10:37 a.m.

    Bobby, I agree with you. Paul was unlucky, SA posted the article when Torres was doing great. It would've been perfect if it was posted 10 days ago. The irony!

  4. Walt Pericciuoli, December 14, 2012 at 10:44 a.m.

    These "modern" managers are giving more and more defensive duties to players that are supposed to be "forwards",but also more and more attacking duties to players that are supposed to be defenders.I think positions are getting blurred in the modern game.Barcelona has 11 players who attack all the time,no matter where they are positioned or from wherever they win the ball.They also have 11 players that defend from wherever the ball is lost.Barcelona certainly has no lack of scoring goals.If this is where the "modern" game is going,then I applaud it.

  5. Walt Pericciuoli, December 14, 2012 at 10:55 a.m.

    Also,it seems to me the more players you leave in the forward positions(the other team's half)the more players your opponent will have to keep back to defend them and the fewer players they will have to attack with. So, logically speaking,by just leaving 2 or 3 players in the attacking forward positions,with no defensive duty in their own end,they would be passively defending anyway by occupying more of the other teams players having to defend them in those forward positions, even if they don't have the ball.

  6. Kent James, December 14, 2012 at 11:17 a.m.

    It seems to me that PG is conflating two separate issues; first, is team tactics, and second, working to the strengths of the players you have on the field. If Torres is one of the best defensive headers on the field, then it makes sense to bring him back for corner kicks, where the likelihood of the other team scoring off of a header is relatively high (but tactically, it would also make sense to have a speedy play move up the field to serve as an outlet for a counter, and to force the opponent to hold players back). I don't think that's a bad thing. Along those same lines, if you have a goalscorer who is also naturally aggressive an fit, then you encourage him to defend up top. But if you have forward whose strength is not fitness (or is mentally prone to preserve his energy), maybe you don't ask him to play so much defense (because it may hurt his ability to produce offensively). So while I agree with PG's concern about a tactical shift towards not as many players being stationed up the field, I don't think Torres defending on corner kicks is a problem; you have to play to the strengths of your players.

  7. Andres Yturralde, December 14, 2012 at 12:55 p.m.

    Seems to me the easiest thing in the world is to be yourself; the most difficult task is to be something you're not. So let me turn the table on its head for a second, and praise dudes like Torres who work hard day-in-and-day-out, trying to be something they're not. "Hay que ser muy bueno para ser otro".

  8. Ramon Creager, December 14, 2012 at 4:57 p.m.

    I think PG is missing the mark here. The highest scoring teams are often those who don't field traditional forwards. That's because powerful teams like Real Madrid or Barcelona (or the Spanish NT), simply don't need them. For them, any field player is a goal scoring threat (Jordi Alba, Dani Alves, Marcello, etc.). (Remember, back when there was a "forward line" defenders didn't do much scoring.). These teams can build from the midfield and dominate possession and create numerous chances. If a team does field a true forward he had better have great ball handling skills to fit this style of play, or be outrageously good like Falcao. Otherwise he's a liability. That's the big teams. The modest teams do have room for one pure forward, as they often rely on the counter. For them 2 or more would be a waste of resources, because these teams must defend. A lot. So it makes perfect sense that this forward should be truly good at playing "with his back to the goal", as he is often the first outlet of a counter and must hold the ball well on his own until number come forward. Examples of such forwards are Didier Drogba, & Arouna Kone (formerly of Levante now at Wigan). It seems to me that this state of affairs is dictated more by the economic reality of vast wealth disparities within leagues, not by tactical vogues.

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