The pitiful lack of clarity that infests English-language soccer terminology was intriguingly exposed in Taylor Twellman's recent interview with Jordan Morris.
Twellman asked Morris how he viewed himself -- as a forward or as a goalscorer? An odd question. There is, after all, no reason at all why a soccer player should not be both a forward and a goalscorer. A goalkeeper would not, I’m pretty sure, bridle at being identified as both a shot-stopper and a goalkeeper.
Morris had obviously never given the matter any thought (and given that the alternatives posed by Twellman are fictitious, why should he?), but the youngster is learning to deal with the press, and managed a suitably dissembling answer.
My interest here, however, is not in the Q&A game, but in Twellman’s use of the word “forward.” Digging back, my boyhood soccer days were awash with forwards. We had five of them on each team. Three of them were actually referred to as forwards -- the center forward, and the two inside forwards. The other two were called simply wingers, but we all understood that they too were forwards (though some sticklers for what they regarded as correct usage did call them wing forwards).
They were part of the classic 2-3-5 formation which dominated the game, in England anyway, for so long. A formation donated to the English, like so much else it seems, by God himself.
But soccer formations and theology are a poor mix, and the whole thing came crashing down in the early 1950s. In 1953 the all-conquering Hungarians obliterated England 6-3 at Wembley. How could that be? Well, the English were bamboozled because of the heretical Hungarian formation that, apparently, did not include a center forward. Nandor Hidegkuti wore the center forward’s traditional No. 9, but played much deeper. The English came up with a colossal oxymoron and decided he was a “withdrawn center forward” -- just like a married bachelor. Incidentally, being withdrawn didn’t prevent Hidegkuti from scoring three times.
The wonderful Brazilians of 1958 taught us about the 4-4-2, or maybe it was 4-3-3. Whichever, it was clear that there were no longer five forwards. Two or three of them had disappeared into midfield.
During the 1960s there followed the troublesome task of having to adjust to new terms. Midfield was a new term. Of course it had always existed, but we never bothered to give it a name. It was the area previously occupied by the halfbacks (three of ‘em) who now became midfielders.
Midfielders sounded better, more modern. And it told you something: where, on the field, they played. That was helpful, halfback was always a vague description. The invention of midfield also meant that soccer people had to actually think about God’s formation. When they did that, they realized (or should have done) that the 2-3-5 was a fiction: what we’d been watching for years was really a 3-4-3 (maybe more accurately a 3-2-2-3) formation. The so-called W-M.
The other new term we had to get used to was striker. This too sounded more modern, sleeker, more aggressive. Forward, it seemed, was an old-fashioned term for an outdated player. But the forward has refused to disappear. There was a reluctance to use striker as a general term; it was considered by many to apply only to the center forward. The other one or two upfront players remained forwards. For wingers there was no need for a name change, they had almost completely vanished, the very species went missing. We found that out when Alf Ramsey’s England won the 1966 World Cup with his notorious “penguin” formation -- no wings.
There was another term for an attacking player that had a brief life in the late 1970s because the US national team coach Walt Chyzowych used it: front-runner. It never seemed right to me with its implication that attacking play was about nothing more than running.
The English then came up with “target man,” not so much a player as merely a huge hulking presence, a receiver of long passes who would attempt to hold the ball while fellow players raced into attacking positions. As a term it reflected the sheer banality of the role played -- certainly, neither was a contribution to the Beautiful Game.
Next we were treated to explanations of the skills a forward needed to play “with his back to goal.” Which was really another oxymoron. I discussed the notion once with Pele. He was totally baffled, his response was basically “Why would I do that?” Pele’s wonderful offensive skills only came to life when he was running at, facing, opponents.
So the forward -- or was it the striker? -- was reduced to drab role playing. As the formerly glamorous forward role sank into a mire of terminological twaddle, the player himself seemed to be following the winger into extinction. But he’s a survivor -- he hangs on, even though virtually all the top teams now take the field with at most two -- and frequently only one -- identifiable forward.
And the English are more confused than ever. They still talk of “withdrawn” forwards, and you can regularly hear references on TV to forwards “leading the line” -- a phrase that meant something in the 1940s when there was a definable line of at least three forwards.
Today it is meaningless, it cannot be part of a forward’s role, as there is no line to lead. But no more meaningless than all the other fatuous phrases coined by the English -- and invariably copied by American commentators -- phrases like “playing underneath” a teammate, or “playing off the back shoulder” of an opponent or “tucking in” or -- the witless commentator’s all-purpose cliche -- “making (or not making) runs.”
Getting back to Twellman’s question: He was definitely seeking to cut through all the terminological cant and get Morris’s opinion on the role of the modern forward/striker. But he muddied the issue by presenting Morris with alternatives which are not alternatives. Not only is it possible to be both a forward and a goalscorer, I’d say it’s essential.
Look at Sergio Aguero and Luis Suarez and Robert Lewandowski, the most lethal of today’s strikers. They do a lot more than score goals. That “more” has always been there, that vital ability to exchange passes, to combine quickly and dramatically with teammates. I think it is probably more essential than ever in the modern game with its packed defenses. And there is a new term by which we can, to some extent, measure that ability.
A very useful term. Tellingly, it did not come from England. It is pure American, meaning that the English are only slowly and reluctantly adopting it. The assist.
In a sense that was what Twellman’s question was about. Which comes first in a forward’s thoughts: the goal or the assist? I’m pretty sure that Twellman himself would choose the goal. That was the sort of striker he was. We don’t need a new term to describe that attitude, it’s just plain selfishness, and it is a strongly desirable attitude for a ruthless goalscorer.
Twellman was asking Morris: Do you have the ruthless confidence and selfishness to be a great goalscorer? A wonderful question, but a frightening one for a young player to deal with. Twellman posed it gently, but his admirable sensitivity took the sting out of it. Morris replied with equal moderation. So we’ll have to wait for an answer. But it will be on the field where Morris gives us the answer to Twellman’s probing question.