Explaining the Channel Runner – Player Role Analysis

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We are now in the home-stretch of our thousand-piece puzzle to break down the various roles that players adopt in a football team. The goal of this series has been to identify how clubs achieve balance within their ranks, by creating a team of players who hold varying roles. We therefore break down the twenty-five player roles that footballers adopt as part of our Role Continuity Evaluation System, identifying the unique job descriptions, metrics for evaluation and the best of the art in 2022 for each category.

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Today’s article is all about the ‘Channel Runner’ – an ever-popular player role in the women’s game, that is slowly dying down on the men’s side in favour of strikers who are more involved in build-up. Here is everything you need to know about our unique player role – the ‘Channel Runner’.

JOB DESCRIPTION & KEY PERFORMERS

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Channel Runners are one of our most unique prototypes, based off the common phrase used for strikers that “run the channels”. They typically exist in a front-two, and in teams that intermix moments of counter-attacking football with quick and incisive long passes over the top. The use of a striker in this manner remains a more common approach to life in the women’s game, as strikers across all realms are becoming more versatile (and advised for that matter) in dropping into build-up play to receive the ball. This isn’t to say that the women’s game favours a more unfavourable approach to football; but rather that we less frequently see the big and tall centre-forward banging the ball into the back of the net from close range, and more often see a centre-forward who loves to use their pace and power in behind.

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‘Channel Runners’ have a fair degree of directness to their game via their speed and strength, such as our wing prototype ‘Direct Goal-Scorer’, but they actually don’t tend to use their channel running exploits for goal-scoring. Instead, they use it as a mechanism by which their team can quickly get up the pitch, where they can then use that speed and strength to hold the ball up, and create for others. This does not mean that they are not magnificent goal-scorers, nor that they never take the shot on from those unideal angles.

Jamie Vardy has shown throughout his career just how deadly a striker can be when catching the keeper off-guard with a shot from long passes into the channels. Sam Kerr meanwhile frequently dazzles and dances her way past two or three opposition defenders trying to hunt her down, before slotting the ball into the back of the net. But as you’d imagine for record breakers, Kerr and Vardy are outliers. Instead of goal-scoring heroics, ‘Channel Runners’ are typically the types of players who famously put in all the hard work and graft, to less end product. Think of your Neal Maupay‘s and Armando Broja’s of the world. They never stop running, and they perfectly fit into a system that favours long passes over the top. But in front of goal, they aren’t always the most clinical.

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Since they tend to exist in front-two formations, we can often see how ‘Channel Runners’ may be more likely to create chances for their striking partner, or allow midfield men to act as late arrivals into the box. Someone like Michail Antonio of West Ham United does this to magnificent effect. While you would look at the hulking Antonio and immediately peg him as a ‘Target Man’, he’s an incredibly dynamic player who actually wants to play in the half-spaces far more than through the centre.

This is one of the key distinctions of a ‘Target’ like Aleksandar Mitrovic, Olivier Giroud or Ellen White, and a ‘Channel Runner’ like Michail Antonio, Romelu Lukaku, or Alessia Russo. They constantly endeavour to use their speed and strength for the betterment of the team as they work the channels and drift wide to receive at the right moment, rather than pegging defenders back and using their strength to knock the ball down for others right then and there. This, in actuality, might even be a reason why Lukaku failed at Chelsea. He was asked to play as a ‘Target’, without the desire to do so.

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Before making sweeping statements about who qualifies within this player type, it’s worth noting that the complexity of strikers within our system is far and away the most open to interpretation. A player role like the ‘Channel Runner’ needs to take into account movement patterns, off-the-ball actions, and heatmaps far more than a prototype like the ‘Ball-Playing Centre-Half’, where it becomes easy to assess who fits the billing through on-the-ball statistical metrics for passing, progressing and team dynamics. When assessing ‘Channel Runners’, the eye-test of their off-the-ball movement patterns must be taken into account first, and this can be difficult given that forwards like Marcus Thuram may actually be excellent in all the ways that also make them ‘Direct Goal-Scorers’ capable of fulfilling that wider role. When looking at true ‘Channel Runners’, we’re operating under the assumption that these players have played next to no minutes in any other position either then up front – whether that be in a two or one. So when compared to the other player types, we find these important discrepancies….

TARGET VS. CHANNEL RUNNER
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  • Target – centrally dominant outlet through size and strength, more likely to hold their position.
  • Channel Runner – half-space dominant outlet through speed and strength, more likely to drift away from their traditional ‘position’ into wider areas.

We’ve already noted this important difference between a Lukaku and a Giroud; even if you might look at a player like Romelu Lukaku and instantly peg him as a ‘Target’. He’s far more dynamic in wanting to explode in the wide areas to half-spaces, and in drifting into these areas to allow others to take up positions through the middle. So when studying heatmaps, we don’t want to see a centrally-focused outlet, but rather one that spikes red in all areas of the pitch. Here’s a perfect example from the NWSL Player of the Year – Sophia Smith.

Sophia Smith’s heatmap for the Thorns in the NWSL 2022 season.

Smith spikes high in all areas of the pitch, but when you watch her play, it’s easy to see just how brilliant she is at using her pace and power to explode in the half-spaces. Just about every forward that operates in that front two ahead of Christine Sinclair for the Portland Thorns fulfills that same role – from Morgan Weaver to Janine Beckie.

CREATIVE LINK VS. CHANNEL RUNNER
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  • Creative Link – may drift side to side, but more so for purposes of receiving deeper on the field, coming closer to the ball. Often ‘False 9’ tendencies, and typically involved in build-up as others run beyond.
  • Channel Runner – often drifts side to side for purposes of receiving the ball closer to goal. Occasionally involved in build-up like any good striker, but it is not a hallmark of their game. Players typically run beyond when they drift wide, rather than when they pick up the ball with their back to goal.

Movement is key when comparing both the ‘Channel Runner’ and the ‘Creative Link’, but the ‘Creative Link’ must be more of a provider, creator, and typically even a ‘False 9’ figurehead. They tend to move closer to the ball and get in on the action deeper on the field, as opposed to the ‘Channel Runner’ that is looking for the moments to exploit the wide channels and receive long passes in behind.

Creative Link – Randal Kolo Muani – Heatmap 2022-23.

The heatmaps between these two player types may look incredibly similar, so chance creation and assist-making numbers become a key discrepancy. We want our ‘Channel Runners’ to still be creative forces as they drift wide, but their creativity is only a asset to their impeccable speed and subsequent goal-scoring prowess in front of goal. When you think of Sam Kerr or Jamie Vardy, this is what immediately springs to mind. When you think of a player like Randal Kolo Muani, you think of someone more skillful with their dribbling (Kerr might be a rare exception again) and incisive with their passing.

DIRECT GOAL-SCORER VS. CHANNEL RUNNERS
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These player types are close cousins. It’s quite possible that players who typically adopt a wing position then play as more of a ‘Channel Runner’ once they move into the front-line as either a lone centre-forward or a supplementary striker. But again, the key difference is that their output and speed out wide is typically guided toward scoring goals, perhaps even to dribble past several players, rather than stalling the play.

  • Direct Goal Scorers: Typically wingers who might be equally capable of playing up front (Kylian Mbappe, Marcus Thuram, Alex Morgan), who use their speed and dynamism as a direct, driving force to beat opposition players and score goals.
  • Channel Runners – May be equally direct and fast on the feet, but the purpose of those behaviours are typically to stretch the opposition and bring others into the game. They rarely play on the wing, if at all.

Channel Runners typically receive the ball in the half-spaces more than any area of the pitch, and typically go from in to out with their movement (central channels to wider ones) as opposed to out to in (like ‘Direct Goal-Scorers). Teemu Pukki’s heatmap illustrates a great example of this, as someone who rarely even receives the ball through the middle of the pitch.

Teemu Pukki’s heatmap in the Championship 2022-23

We’ve already alluded to this, but it’s worth noting that the ‘Channel Runner’ prototype includes several of the very best forwards in the women’s game, from Sam Kerr to Sophia Smith to Alessia Russo. On the men’s side, it’s typically a player role that exists more within sides going against the run of play like Leicester’s Jamie Vardy or West Ham’s Michail Antonio. At the height of his career, Jamie Vardy was one of the world’s best. Unfortunately, he’s become a more limited player now, and no longer attains the same heights in front of goal. A new set of youngsters are now emerging in Vardy’s shadow. But before we get to them, let’s first discuss how we measure our ‘Channel Runners’.

MEASURING CHANNEL RUNNERS

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Within our Role Continuity Player Evaluation System, players are first measured by what they are expected to do in their position and role first, accompanied by a secondary role. We utilize statistics to help measure performance, but go far beyond that to incorporate the eye test in analyzing player IQ, awareness and tactical understanding. We can then congregate data to more adequately assess aspects like positioning and movement, and how those endeavours impacted their performance. So with that, here is how we measure our ‘Channel Runners’.

1. ATTACKING THREAT & IQ

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The ‘Channel Runner’ should be one of the most threatening players on the pitch in any given situation. We would therefore be remised not to assess their ‘attacking threat and IQ’ above anything else. This includes…

  • Decision making on runs in behind, including into the half-spaces or wide areas.
  • Ability to receive progressive passes, and win subsequent 1v1 battles (attacking duel %).
  • Decision making on dribbles, carries and forward thrusts (including dribble %)
  • Decision making in transitional moments, and ability to link play in the attacking half
  • Expected threat (possession-value added)
  • Successful attacking actions %
  • Creation from open play, set-pieces and crosses
  • Shot on target % + Goal conversion %
  • xG + xA

It’s worth reiterating that ‘threat’ illustrates not what a player contributed in a match, but the success of those contributions. We can therefore adequately assess not just what a player did, but the impact of those actions.

2. ATTACKING CONTRIBUTION

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After establishing threat and IQ as a baseline, we then measure actual attacking output. This includes sheer statistical values that allow us to gain an even greater sense of how successful players were in carrying out their attacking endeavours, and fulfilling their role. This may include their total number of…

  • Shots + shots on target
  • Goal contributions (goals + assists)
  • Goal and shot-creating-actions
  • Dribbles + carries
  • Touches in the attacking third
  • Successful attacking actions + successful attacking duels
  • Key passes, through passes + passes into the penalty area
  • Passes and carries into the final third
  • Fouls won + fouls won to fouls conceded percentage

3. DEFENSIVE IQ + CONTRIBUTION

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As intense, physically adept warriors, ‘Channel Runners’ must be capable of leading their team’s press, and contributing positively on the defensive spectrum. This includes…

  • Tackle % and decision making when tackling
  • Pressure % and decision making when pressuring
  • Dominance in defensive duels, + combined % of duels won across thirds
  • # of successful defensive actions and defensive duels won
  • Aerial % + aerial duels won
  • Positional awareness and positional discipline
  • Awareness of own strengths vs. strengths of teammates
  • Discipline (e.g. fouls, bookings, and positional discipline)

The forward’s timing of challenges, angle of approach, positioning, and decision making on when to press and when to hold position all remain paramount to their role, rather than just the sheer number of tackles or interceptions they post. We don’t expect them to be team leaders in any defensive regard, but they must still make their presence felt. Doing so will only help the mental battle of their attacking endeavours.

4. POSSESSION & DISTRIBUTION

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As the players often ending moves rather than starting them, ‘Channel Runners’ do not have to be as technically gifted as other forward types. It’s the impact of those touches and battles in the final third that truly matter, and any flashes of brilliance on the ball are only a nice bonus. Nevertheless, we can evaluate one over another by how successfully they complete their basic tasks – such as successfully passing the ball to a teammate, or ensuring they don’t find themselves dispossessed. As part of our ‘Possession & Distribution’ score, we measure…

  • Control (touches, miscontrols, dispossessed, passes received %)
  • Passing % + forward passing %
  • Progressiveness (i.e. prog. passes and prog. carries)

5. ABNORMALITIES

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‘Channel Runners’ may also be given additional boosts or redactions for any abnormalities that they perform in a match, including the following…

  • Defensive contributions leading to a goal (GCA-Def.)
  • Penalty kicks won, or given away
  • Errors leading to shots or goals
  • Own goals
  • Red cards

While these metrics may affect a player’s rating in a given match, they don’t tend to change a player’s score over the course of a season, unless repeatedly conducted.

So with that, based on the five key evaluation metrics, let’s jump into what you’ve been waiting for – the very best ‘Channel Runners’ in the world of men’s football as of 2022.

TOP 20 CHANNEL RUNNERS (MEN)

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When assessing ‘Channel Runners’, we’re scanning for strikers who love to operate up and down the half-spaces, particularly when receiving long passes into the channels. It is therefore critical that our ‘Channel-R’s’ spike high in statistics like ‘progressive passes received’, ‘progressive runs’ and ‘attacking duels per 90’. If a striker is not actively participating in moving the play forward via their running and dueling power, they are not the right fit for this category.

With this information in mind, we assessed statistics across the calendar year (2022) and used the evaluation system detailed in the previous section, to come up with our list of the Top 20 ‘Channel Runners’ in the world of men’s football at the time.

Rank #Player TeamxG + xAAtt. Duel %
1Lautaro MartinezInter Milan0.61 + 0.1041.4
2Victor OsimhenNapoli 0.63 + 0.1132.3
3Darwin NúñezLiverpool0.62 + 0.1839.8
4Ciro ImmobileLazio0.63 + 0.0537.1
5Romelu LukakuInter Milan0.52 + 0.1230.9
6Michail AntonioWest Ham United0.37 + 0.1237.5
7Julian AlvarezManchester City0.49 + 0.1531.4
8Youssoufa MoukokoBorussia Dortmund0.55 + 0.0731.5
9Teemu PukkiNorwich0.33 + 0.1532.6
10Sheraldo BeckerUnion Berlin0.17 + 0.2848.6
11Callum WilsonNewcastle United0.70 + 0.1332.2
12Jamie VardyLeicester City0.38 + 0.0424.1
13Ollie WatkinsAston Villa0.34 + 0.0930.6
14Daizen MaedaCeltic0.39 + 0.1738.3
15Bryan MbeumoBrentford0.29 + 0.1438.8
16Kevin VollandAS Monaco0.32 + 0.1140.0
17Taiwo AwoniyiNottingham Forest0.63 + 0.0923.3
18Karim OnisiwoMainz 050.24 + 0.1831.2
19Jonathan BurkhardtMainz 050.53 + 0.0832.2
20Alexander IsakNewcastle United0.42 + 0.1333.7

Of note, many of the players listed here operate in a front-two, and the likes of Onisiwo-Burkhardt and Lukaku-Martinez even operate collaboratively in the same system. This illustrates the ‘Channel Runner’ to be a player type that can co-exist alongside another of the same type, or as a juxtaposition to more of a ‘Target’, like Sheraldo Becker’s partnership with Jordan Siebatchu. We’ve also found that the recruitment of clubs like Nottingham (Dennis and Awoniyi) and Newcastle (Wilson and Isak) are clearly working toward finding a player of a similar style, rather than several players who can fulfill the ‘9’ position in a completely different manner.

So now when breaking down the top 20, it’s clear that ‘Channel Runners’ are incredibly quick and completely unapologetic about using their speed to exploit those wider channels. The likes of Darwin Núñez and Romelu Lukaku have received criticism throughout the year, but our statistical analysis shows that they are still among the best in the world at what they offer a football team.

PERFECT PROTOTYPES

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Among the players in our database, these are the ten most prototypical ‘Channel Runners’. To rank high on this list, a player should boast a pure sense of directness and intensity in running the channels, to help their team evade pressure and advance up the pitch. Statistics like the ability to receive progressive or long passes are therefore essential to the role.

But in order to set themselves up into the type of positions to receive these passes, we can also assess statistics like progressive runs, accelerations, and the zones in which they touch the ball. They should also test lower on behaviours associated with other player types, such as playing more of a creative role through the centre, or remaining relatively uninvolved until the end of attacking moves. Finally, while ‘Channel Runners’ are typically similar to ‘Direct Goal-Scorers’, we’re looking for players who rarely operate on the wing; or at the very least, are significantly more suited to the forward position. Here are the names!

Rank #Player TeamAtt. DuelProg R.LP. Rec.
1Sheraldo BeckerUnion Berlin9.972.512.70
2Darwin NúñezLiverpool9.502.592.26
3Michail AntonioWest Ham United14.691.701.32
4Karim OnisiwoMainz 0514.641.842.11
5Emmanuel DennisNottingham Forest15.533.242.09
6Armando BrojaChelsea12.452.251.93
7Jonathan BurkhardtMainz 0511.841.561.40
8Bryan MbeumoBrentford8.891.842.54
9Taiwo AwoniyiNottingham Forest12.991.082.41
10Ollie WatkinsAston Villa9.881.452.15

As a striker, Emmanuel Dennis is a perfect example of the role. He constantly endeavours to use his speed in the channels, and wants to fight tooth and nail to win attacking duels for his team. Unfortunately for us, he’s spent nearly 27% of his time in the last calendar year as a winger, and the ‘Direct Goal-Scorer’ prototype also makes sense for his playing style. Watch Armando Broja play, and you’ll get a perfect encapsulation of the role.

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For now, we’ve gone for Sheraldo Becker of Union Berlin, who operates in a team that actively favours long passing and quick attacking transitions, making his pace and power perfectly suitable for the role. He spent much of 2021 as a box-to-box midfielder, so this is only a semi-recent transformation he’s made into an out-and-out goal-scoring striker.

CONCLUSION

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‘Channel Runners’ are a popular player type for strikers to adopt on the women’s side of the game, including some of the world’s top tier stars like Sam Kerr and Alessia Russo. On the men’s side, you’re more likely to see counter-attacking specialists come to the forefront in chasing down those channels, where they can use their speed and strength in behind to cause chaos for the opposition. But ‘Channel Runners’ are not only limited to the act of ‘running’.

Like any quality striker, they must also be capable of finding the back of the net and creating for their teammates. But it’s more about how they set themselves up for those chances, and players like Sam Kerr and Jamie Vardy have perfectly illustrated the idea of running onto long passes into the channels as a mechanism for scoring brilliant goals over the course of their careers.


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So there it is! Explaining the ‘Channel Runner’ within our Role Continuity Evaluation System. Be sure to check out more from this series as we detail all twenty-six roles, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon! 👊⚽

More in this series…
-> Explaining the Shot Stopper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Sweeper Keeper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Wide Warrior – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Inverted Fullback – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Wing-Back – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Ball-Playing-Centre-Half – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Stopper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Sweeper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Midfield Destroyer – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Anchor – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Deep-Lying Playmaker – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Shuttler – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Box to Box Midfielder – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Tempo Setter – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Midfield Maestro – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Creative Ten – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Inverted Winger – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Dynamic Dribbler – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Direct Goal-Scorer – Player Role Analysis

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