Are target men ever successful?

England’s love-affair with the “big man” or target man perhaps transcends practicality. As a position, they are hoisted up proudly in the air like a totem, therefore, when one emerges, like Andy Carroll of Newcastle United, it is no surprise that they dangled over the balcony like one of Michael Jackson’s babies.

The giddiness, it seems Carroll’s form has created, that the calls for international recognition (which has now been granted) forget that the reliance of the target man was one of the reasons for England’s failure in the last World Cup. So predictable in fact, Franz Beckenbaur says they were, that he described England’s tactics in the tournament as old fashioned, resembling the “the bad old times of kick and rush.” Indeed, in a recent article for the Guardian, David Lacey concurs saying England have “rarely prosper with a traditional target man,” which is a bold statement perhaps but one which begs the question – are target men ever successful?

The target man in English football is an iconic position – archetypal almost and they are generally easy for fans to relate to. Normal men making the most of their limited ability which in the envy culture we are in now, hard to begrudge. As Simon Kuper writes, “there are two types of British footballers; ugly ones…and pretty ones. The British public usually prefers the ugly ones.”

Tactically, the target man’s brief can range from the simple; simply being someone for the team to aim at or more complex such as Christian Vieri or Alan Shearer who were mobile and technically as good on the ground as they were in the air. But in regards to the former, such explains why the target man has found its home in Britain because – as popularised by Charles Reep and Graham Taylor – if it’s not forward, it’s not progression. Overseas and the development of football since Britain delivered the game outside of these shores sees the target man as a freak of nature almost; an unattractive way of playing and an interloper in their adapted style of football. That was certainly the case for Brazilian forward Serginho in the 1982 World Cup.

The striker was tall and looked uncomfortable in his movement but his touch on the ball was often magnificent. Shame about his finishing however. And that was a huge part of why Serginho was derided as Brazil were defeated in the second round by Italy in a 3-2 thriller. Brazil needed a scapegoat and Serginho was the antithesis of the colourful football played by the team. He simply looked out of place. (He was ultimately third choice but injuries ruled out Brazil’s best strikers but despite his skill on the ball questions can be asked why he was picked. With Brazil’s emphasis on fitness conditioning and fixation of Europe’s increasing physicality, could it be they felt Serginho fitted those criteria).

Perhaps the most successful use of the target man at the top level was France’s deployment of Stephen Guivarch during the 1998 World Cup. The striker scored no goals but in front of a carousel of creators, was the ideal pivot for the midfielders in the 4-2-3-1 to play around. Bearing this in mind, Jonathan Wilson argues and Rob Smyth argue that Serginho may have been misunderstood – his role perhaps too early in the development of the game as Brazil had eight different scorers but at the same time, a fast mobile striker may have made them more voracious and ultimately, of greater balance.

Mobility is also a key factor in today’s game. Guivarch was technically weak but worked hard for the team but as a long-term value, may have been more suited to a six game tournament rather than the rigours of the league. For top teams, a target man may not suit their level of technicality however for a weaker team the use of a big striker may tip the scale somewhat. To be fair on Andy Carroll he is as a modern day striker should be; good on the ball, mobile and realises his role off the ball by pressing the opponents hard. Against France in the 2-1 defeat he was the Three Lion’s best player in the first-half but England’s predictable tendencies kicked in. Long ball were continually knocked to him but the all the work was outside the box.

One of the advantages of the target man, providing you get good service, is the goal threat in the air however England were unable to get any wing-play going either from Theo Walcott and James Milner. People will point to the use of Geoff Hurst, a Plan B which helped England win the World Cup in 1966. That is true however that was without wingers. Alf Ramsey did away with wide players, saying they can leave the users with a disadvantage as wingers hugging the touchline may be too far away from the action. Hard-work and creativity was key in a 4-1-3-2 formation and should the situation require it, could call on Hurst. We all know what happened next.

Peter Crouch, the ultimate Plan B, scored England’s consolation last night although his mobility impedes from starting the matches his goal record demands. It may be someone as good as Barcelona could score more goals with a more direct approach – we may never know – and indeed, Spain have found Fernando Llorente as the reliable option off the bench. Good form going two years back have yielded calls for more starts and certainly it makes sense. With much of Spain’s threat coming in front of the defence, as opponents play so deep, there is no space to get behind. As a result, Torres’ main strength is neutralised and Llorente’s presence to mix it up without a compromise to his ability, in some ways, make him a better option.

In the end, what it all boils down to is balance. Arsenal regularly has targets such as Marouanne Chamakh or Nicklas Bendtner to aim at but their style goes against playing high balls in the box. As a pivot they work better and Arsenal is also lucky that both strikers can operate in a more technical style. Target men, unsurprisingly, work best in a direct style and that is the reason why they are so prevalent in Britain but history is not littered with exerts of target men at the top level. It just doesn’t suit their primary style.

Ultimately, England’s tournament record – a win ratio of 0.46 – shows that England is just that: consistently inconsistent. Target man or not, it’s not conclusive if England are for better or the worse. More attachment lies on the culture of football. For the target man to prosper, England needs to have the right balance and less predictability. And that may mean runners in support of the striker, good wing-play and accurate passes. Until then, they can find solace in the presence of the target men to cover up their deficiencies.

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