Jordan Morris: ruthless enough to be a great goalscorer?

By Paul Gardner

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 The English came up with a colossal oxymoron and decided he was a “withdrawn center forward” -- just like a married bachelor. Incidentally, being withdrawn didn’t prevent Hidegkuti from scoring three times.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.

14 comments about "Jordan Morris: ruthless enough to be a great goalscorer? ".
  1. Scott Johnson, August 29, 2016 at 9:23 p.m.

    Yes, soccer terminology is confusing and imprecise. Questions to consider when analyzing a player's position and role: 1) What is the player's primary responsibility, both when his team is on attack and on defense? 2) Where does the player stand and how does the player move, particularly when said player does not have the ball? Morris seems to be a classic target forward--it's his job (on offense) to receive the ball and score quickly. He's a player who needs service--you don't want him bringing up the ball from midfield. Such players can be successful--and many are--but Morris doing well requires a team that can keep and maintain possession, at least long enough for him to receive passes in a place where he can do something with them. (Having a guy like Morris on a team that plays defend-and-counter seems to be useless). If nothing else, Morris has the potential to displace Jozy Altidore in the USMNT lineup...

  2. Stevie G, August 29, 2016 at 10:22 p.m.

    I'm sure that at least once in the all the games played in England since the late1800's to date there has been an "assist" from one player to the eventual goalscorer. Whoopie whoo to the Americans who gave the act of "setting up a goal" a name.

  3. Ric Fonseca, August 29, 2016 at 11:10 p.m.

    Eh, wotts up doc? Another slow day for PG. Though I must admit that the entire piece was to be a focus on Morris and his role as a forward, however, here we are regaled by PG's penchant to give us a primer on English futbol terminology, but that's OK, 'cause we will, forever and a day, will always refer to the 1-11 numerology assignment of positions, and will bring in some "gringoism" futbol terms, mixed in with some other "foreign" terminology, e.g. jogo bonito, catenaccio, nr. 9, etc. But who really cares? So PLAY ON, I say!!!

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, August 30, 2016 at 2:29 a.m.

    Ric, you are being a bit too hard on him. He is a writer after all. He is supposed to be focused on words. In contrast you have a player's view of the game. That is my view too. What has always bothered me are coaches and players who "tell" players how to play. I am not talking about a few words, but lectures complete with text books, diagrams and Cliffs Notes. Too much talk, not enough action. Show them, don't tell them. Leave the talking to the fans and press.

  5. Ric Fonseca replied, August 30, 2016 at 9:32 p.m.

    Bob, point taken, however, if you're going to point fingers, then let's call the NSCAA out on this, vis-a-vis their penchant for doing exactly what you seem to decry. But me thinks you missed part of my point and that is that PG spins his verbage very freely and while some of his articles are fin and dandy, some are just plain dry, say just like some of the English chap commentators that worked some of the Rio Soccer games, that literally put one to sleep. Furthermore as a fan, and former member of the soccer press, all I can say about my amigo. whom I first met during the Final Four NCAA games when they were played at the Orange Bowl Miami and I was with the UCLA team - and Sigi Schmid's first venture into a national collegiate championship game, and during which time he wrote extensively about the Bruin's "UN-like team vs the likes of the Billikens of St. Louis University's "All American" team. But yeah, he can and will continue to put together his wordy - and admit it now, sometimes boring articles. I can say this, right?

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, August 31, 2016 at 2:46 a.m.

    You not only may say it, I admit you are correct too. While I haven't seen that with NSCAA, I have only taken one NSCAA course and found the instructor to be excellent, much better than I expected. (He was also a USSF instructor.) I took the course after I quit coaching and retired, mostly out of curiosity to see what the courses were like. On the field though, the game is all the language you need. Can you tell I miss playing?

  7. Scott Johnson, August 30, 2016 at 2:41 a.m.

    Actually, you have the Canadians to thank for the assist, as hockey has kept that particular statistic for nearly a century; no less a sage of the game than Lester Patrick is credited with inventing the assist. Basketball and US soccer (specifically the NASL) wouldn't start keeping track of assists for another half century. For a while in basketball, the game suffered under the cult of the assist (perhaps an overreaction to forms of streetball that focused on individual skill over teamwork, and which rewarded selfish players); and many analysts of the game treated a shot that resulted from a pass as somehow better than one resulting from the shooter breaking down a defender. (Improved statistical analysis in hoops has added needed nuance to this debate). In most sports, the best strategy is the one the players are suited to play; anyone who pronounces one style of play better than the others is often a fool.

  8. James Griffin, August 30, 2016 at 10:25 a.m.

    Well-said, Scott. PG, Good summary of the many changes in our sport over the years. His comments about Morris seemed to be trivial. I got the impression some new terminology would be offered by sir Paul since he seemed to be criticizing the current terms. Guess not... IMHO what has changed significantly, besides the terminology, is the fitness level of players and the technical skills at all positions. The one new statistic that is extremely misleading and often pathetic is the "time of possession". As if that is vital to the game. If the quantity of shots and amount of possession would always lead to a game victory, it would be a different and less exciting game. As the Italians and of late, the Swedish Women, have demonstrated, the game is not always won by the "best" team.

  9. Scott Johnson replied, August 30, 2016 at 1:34 p.m.

    Time of possession in soccer is nearly as useless as time of possession in American football. In the latter case, net yardage is a far better predictor of victory. In the former, it matters where a team possesses the ball. I'd rather the other team be in possession of the ball in front of their net, then my team be in possession of the ball in front of mine. A "danger factor" (position-weighted time of possession, possibly also adjusted for amount of pressure as well, as having the ball in your own box isn't a problem if the other team is all behind the midfield stripe; but is a big problem if your defenders are being pressured by the other team's offense) might be a better indication of execution than time of possession by itself.

  10. uffe gustafsson, August 30, 2016 at 5:44 p.m.

    Simple look at Leicester team last year.
    Possession don't mean nada.
    It's the score that tells you.
    Passing around mid field back to defense and outside the 18 and not getting quality shoots maybe looks good. But it's not what always give you the results.
    Counter attacking is something we will see and it's here to stay. And some are better then others at it.
    Think Leicester shown that, and frankly it's pretty exciting to watch, Jogo bonito with standing.

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, August 31, 2016 at 2:56 a.m.

    I never played for a possession style coach so I never appreciated the subtlety in the style until I read a book by a possession style college coach. The apparently purposeless passing does have a purpose in wearing out the opponent physically and mentally from constantly defending, which will then eventually open up the game. The possession style still scores by relatively quick and direct combination play to take advantage of spaces when they open up.

  12. beautiful game, August 31, 2016 at 4:48 p.m.

    It's the individual player's abilities which likely dictates the style of play. What turns me off totally are players who constantly can't deliver a 20+ yard pass and they keep repeating their failures. KISS rules in soccer, period. And than there are players who wander into pressure and have no idea how to evade it.

  13. Wooden Ships replied, August 31, 2016 at 8:49 p.m.

    I w, a players ability does influence style of play like you say. Do the players have soft feet and at speed? Growing up, most of my experience was possession, because we could. It was a pride thing and it was demoralizing for the teams that had to constantly chase. Did lesser skilled teams sometimes win, sure. It was also a pride thing to not simulate. My peers, St. Louis, played alot without adult instruction. Sure, we had great coaching, but our love of the sport and eventual control-touch on the ball came outside of club training. Not sure that Taylor was trying to be tricky with Jordan as much as he was prodding him to become more narcissistic as a finisher.

  14. Scot Sutherland, September 12, 2016 at 8:27 p.m.

    PG. I really enjoyed this article. As a coach I simplified terms for my players, even the older ones as follows. Backs, Midfielders and forwards. Right center (inside left, inside right), and left. I simplified all formations to 3 layers that changed with the phase of the game. For example one approach that worked well with our U19 team: 5-3-2 defensively, 3-5-2 midfield phase, 3-4-3 offensive phase and worked hard to help players understand the relationships with the players around them. When we played one-touch soccer at a high tempo we had achieved good understanding. The best passing advanced the ball and increased the time and space for the player receiving it. The best sequence put a player on goal against the keeper.

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