Game of Numbers – #3 – The Evolution of the Target Man

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Target Men are often seen as the bottom of the barrel centre-forward in terms of footballing ability. But increasingly, it’s becoming more difficult to quantify ‘Target Men’, recognizing the vast skillsets they employ. The likes of Aleksandar Mitrović and Sasa Kalajdzic are easier to distinctly categorize as ‘Target Men’ for their physical, imposing frame that allows them to score headed goals for fun. But it becomes more difficult to keep the likes of Erling Haaland and Darwin Nunez in that same specification, recognizing the vast array of traits they possess, particularly speed on the break. Target Men have historically been seen as slow, technically inept individuals who use their physicality, whether that be height or strength, to get one up over the opponent. But more and more, we are seeing an evolution of the ‘Target Man’ in 2022, to include a vast array of traits.

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They’ve always been responsible for holding up the play and linking with their teammates, but the best of the art are becoming capable of so much more with their ‘front to goal’, accomplishing technical feats ‘not normally seen from such a big man’. That fact was showcased to perfection at the weekend, with several ‘Target Men’ taking center-stage in this weekend’s action, as key playmakers for their teams. Here is Game of Numbers Issue No. 3, all about the evolution of the Target Man.

ERLING HAALAND & THE OCCUPATION OF DEFENDERS

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Erling Haaland is the type of centre-forward who accomplishes all aspects of the game and more. Every single weekend it seems as though his owner’s taught him a new trick, and he’s immediately rewarded with a tasty treat. That’s a weird analogy, but you get the point. Haaland is unstoppable, and it’s in large part because he offers so much more than just brute physicality and strength, which are the first two things you might notice about the Norwegian. Yes, he’s fast. We’ve known that since his Salzburg days. But in the past few seasons, Haaland has become one of the best link-up strikers on the planet. He’s not just running in behind to score goals, he’s also phenomenally playing with his back to goal. His ability to play on a one-touch perfectly served Marco Reus and his energetic carrying ability through the thirds at Dortmund. Now it’s aiding the development of Kevin de Bruyne (as if that needed to happen), with the Belgian thriving in new pockets of space normally unfound.

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That’s simply because Haaland occupies several defenders at once. Take a look at City’s second goal, in which Walker releases pressure by hanging a long pass into Haaland’s head. The Norwegian fails to win the header, but he still does his job. Two defenders go up to challenge for the high-ball, and when Rodri breaks up the second ball and releases Foden, they now have their attention entirely on Haaland.

Foden meanwhile has sights solely set on de Bruyne, and releases the Belgian at the perfect moment. With a shimmy and shake, KDB snaps it home with the outside of his boot. But Haaland’s role in the move cannot be understated.

Yes, he didn’t touch the ball in the entire sequence. But the fear factor he naturally inflicts, mixed with the intelligence of movement away from KDB’s path, completely opens up space for both the shot and the goal.

Even on the third goal, Lloyd Kelly’s obsession with Haaland, who always appears on the blindside of his shoulder, means he reacts a second late to Foden’s late arriving run into the box. That’s a difficult to line to walk, as when you’re not watching Haaland closely enough, that’s when he’s most deadly.

So how about one where he does in fact touch the ball? As part of City’s 2-3-5 against Bournemouth, several players would float toward the ‘Inverted Fullbacks’, working angles for a pass. Ilkay Gundogan rarely participated in that venture, instead floating into the direction of his centre forward. This naturally gave the Norwegian an instant short passing option any time he received; and paid off in stunning style for the first goal. With Bournemouth running in circles, Haaland perfectly combined with his back to goal on a one-two and set Gundogan in on goal.

It’s just one more example of the back-to-goal, link-up brilliance of a man who’s done it now at the highest level for the past few seasons. But it’s also another example that helps to redefine the ‘Target Man’, as someone who may actually be as much a ‘playmaker’ as a ‘goal-scorer’. Just see Sasa Kalajdzic, and you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about.

Sasa Kalajdzic AS A PLAYMAKER

After the remarkabilities they achieved last week in securing a 1-1 draw with Leipzig, VFB Stuttgart would have been full of confidence heading into Matchday 2’s encounter against Werder Bremen. But after a slow start, they initially became shell-shocked by Werder’s quick attacking transitions and firepower up top between Marvin Ducksch and Niclas Füllkrug.

As the match wore on, Stuttgart eventually gained more control and command, where they were able to engage Sasa Kalajdzic as a target to hold up the ball. This is nothing new for the Austrian, who at 6’6½ is one of the tallest strikers in the world. But like most modern day target men, Kalajdzic isn’t just an NBA slam-dunk heading machine. He’s exceptional with his feet, particularly with his back to goal, and frequently links the play for others. This is where he has formed a nice partnership with the mobile and energetic Tiago Tomás since the start of the season, who often runs beyond the big man up top in transitional moments.

He has also formed a formidable partnership with French newboy Naouirou Ahamada, arguably Stuttgart’s man of the match on opening day. But the partnership that truly flourished on the day was that of Kalajdzic’s link up with Silas Katompa Mvumpa, the man who missed much of last season down to injury.

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With the score deadlocked at 1-1, Pellegrino Matarazzo smartly substituted Tomás for high-flying crossing wizard Borna Sosa, allowing Silas’s pace to be deployed up top instead. This worked to perfection, as the two big men linked up minutes later for a fantastic goal. The brilliance in the goal was not only in Silas’ perfectly timed run, but Sasa Kalajdzic’s precision through-pass.

As a lanky big-man, looks can be deceiving when it comes to the Austrian, and you’d be forgiven for not thinking him capable of pulling off such a remarkable pass. But the Stuttgart man perfectly threaded it through the eye of the needle into space for Silas to run onto, where the 6’2 forward slotted the ball into the back of the net.

But Kalajdzic’s exploits didn’t stop there. He even assisted the first goal of the game, perfectly laying off a pass to Wataru Endo. The brilliance in using a target man like Kalajdzic is in the spaces it opens up when that player comes toward the ball.

Even despite the perception of big men as incapable of pulling off remarkable feats with the ball, defenders always get touch-tight to them in trying to ward them off and wrestle them to the ground. That means that wherever the Austrian moves, he is likely to draw defenders with him, opening up new spaces for others. That’s exactly what happened when the team’s ‘Anchor’ stepped up to seek space for the strike. But it was down to Kalajdzic’s brilliance to play the pass on a one-touch into space for the Japanese midfielder, before his stunning strike.

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Special shoutout must go out again to Naouirou Ahamada, fantastic once more as a ‘Box-to-Box Midfielder’. Ahamada’s tireless energy and powerful running with the ball consistently helped Stuttgart break the intense Werder Bremen pressure, and he assisted the assist on both occasions. But it was Kalajdzic who stole the show on the night, helping to Stuttgart achieve a 2-2 draw on a night where they could have probably done more.


EVEN TONEY’S IN ON THE ACT!

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Conveniently for our purposes, Brentford also used Ivan Toney to magnificent and similar effect on the weekend against Manchester United. They used Toney’s superpowers in more traditional ways for a ‘Target Man’, particularly his aerial presence and ability to immediately release the team in transition. In fact, Brentford sometimes defended with all men behind the ball, except for Toney, ensuring the Englishman could be used as the outlet in transition.

He would then move and shift wide to receive long passes over the top or use his aerial prowess to combat against Maguire. His shifting wide was how Brentford scored their fourth goal, after Mathias Jensen’s immaculate pass released the striker into space.

On a one-touch, Toney used his passing panache to find his strike partner Bryan Mbuemo in space for an easy finish. But the first goal also came down to Toney’s excellent target-like aerial prowess off an Mbuemo corner-kick. Rising above everyone else with his imposing frame, Toney masterfully chopped down the inswinging cross right onto the noggin of Ben Mee. From there, the game was done and dusted and Manchester United had little hope of a recovery.

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Toney and Kalajdzic are both excellent examples of the modern day ‘Target Man’ as someone who not only scores headed goals, but links up and playmakes for others. The ‘Target Man’ will only continue to evolve as centre-forwards become more complete in their performance, with the likes of Erling Haaland serving as the perfect emblem for all that can be accomplished.


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In our latest analysis series: Game of Numbers, we break down the various tactical undertones of the modern game, most notably the roles that individual players hold on the pitch to help their teams explore avenues for greatness. Positions are often broken down into ‘numbers’ to describe the areas of the field that a player may operate. This series aims to illustrate the ever-changing, fluid nature of those roles, and the ways in which various footballing teams may use the same players in the same roles to completely different effect. This is Issue No. 3 – The Evolution of the Target Man.


What stood out to you during this weekend’s matches? Be sure to share your thoughts below and contribute to the discussion! Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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-> Game of Numbers – #1 – Lucas Paqueta & The Bernardo Silva Role
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