Explaining the Target – Player Role Analysis

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Around this time last year, I established a brand new way of evaluating players beyond the typical statistical measures on sites like WhoScored?, FotMob and Sofascore. While these sites are wonderful in what they accomplish and help to increase knowledge about the game in various ways, their metrics for evaluating players are limited in that they use data as the sole basis for establishing player scores.

It’s quite a cool feature that we’re lucky to have, but their statistical evaluations cannot necessarily be used as gospel in the evaluation of players. Footballers within each unique position, let alone between the positions, play very different roles. They should therefore be evaluated based on how well they perform their role on the pitch, not how well they performed based on a set of pre-assigned statistics that stay the same for each player.

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The other problem with the traditional methods of evaluating players via data is that it inherently eliminates context. Metrics have become more complex over time and certain percentage points paint a nice picture for us, but the eye test can always help to provide more insight into the matter. If a player completes a pass, it does not necessarily mean that the pass was a good idea, or that they actually had much to do with that pass being completed.

Maybe the receiver had to run forty yards and pull off their best one-legged slide tackle just to keep the ball-in, to which they were immediately thwarted by the nearest defender. The passer would still receive credit for that successful pass, but the pass really wasn’t all that successful.

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Statistically, this might have been a completed pass.

This is where our Role Continuity Evaluation System comes into play, allowing us to assess the eye test and ‘IQ’ scores for decision making, alongside the traditional statistical metrics. This has been a resounding success in our ability to aid professionals in the areas of recruitment and scouting, and player performance. And now it’s finally time to reveal the final piece in this long-haul series.

Today’s article is all about the ‘Target’ – forwards who hang around up top and make a nuisance of themselves through their strength and aerial prowess. Here is everything you need to know about the modern day ‘Target’.

JOB DESCRIPTION & KEY PERFORMERS

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Historically known as the ‘Target Man’, we’ve rebranded this term to be all encompassing. More than just about any role, the word ‘Target’ immediately paints a picture of the type of player we’re looking for. That is, someone strong, typically tall, aerially savvy, robust, and frequently used by their team as a target for advancing up the pitch. In the hockey sense, they would typically be the one responsible for ‘roughing up the opposition’.

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But not only do ‘Targets’ need to be physically strong and capable in the air, they must be sophisticated with their back to goal. This is where the likes of Olivier Giroud and Ellen White excel. In fact, both are anomalies in their respective foot-holdings within the game. It’s a rarity for the women’s game to even have a forward who typically sits exclusively through the centre of the pitch, without doing the bulk of their work either running the channels or linking deeper on the field. White on the other hand was a one of a kind. Aerially dominant, incredibly astute with her back to goal, and not only a clinical goal-scorer, but a clinical play-maker.

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Olivier Giroud’s proven to be an anomoly in his own right. Discounted and dismissed throughout his career, the 36 year-old recently became France’s all-time top scorer. But his goal-scoring has never actually been the highlight of his game. His dominance lies in his ability to hold off defenders, link up with his teammates with his back to goal, and provide something of an all around physical beast that others can bounce passes into at any moment.

We all remember his innovative scorpion kick, but my favourite Giroud comes from the famous Jack Wilshere goal, where he played a magnificent double give and go with his Arsenal teammate before the goal.

We often think of ‘Targets’ as fairly limited players, but their superpowers extend more than just being born with physical gifts. The likes of Giroud not only excel physically, but have the technical quality to create deft moments of magic at their fingertips (or toe-tips).

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Due to their height and aerial prowess, they typically then become important all the way into defensive phases, especially from set-pieces. The likes of Giroud or Dominic Calvert-Lewin might remain imperative to those defensive phases in ways that a winger on their team might not. France for example will leave Kylian Mbappe as the instant outlet in transition more so than the ‘Target’ that is Giroud. Everton did the same with Richarlison and his excellent ability to run the channels, in spite of Calvert-Lewin’s remarkable vertical leap.

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This fascinating feature to their play means that ‘Targets’ are not just what their name suggests. They are not just bullseyes, but boomerangs. They typically push the opposition defensive line back more than a ‘Creative Link’, but they may even similarly engage in build-up play like their creative cousin. The defining feature between the two is more so the physical attributes associated with their play, but you might be surprised by just how much they involve themselves throughout the phases.

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But overarchingly, these are players that you would much rather have hanging around at the front end of the pitch. They are tasked with getting on the end of crosses, knocking the ball onto others, and fighting tooth and nail to win every battle up against the opposition’s defense. It becomes more difficult to do this if they aren’t found up front as expected. This is where City fans often complained for years about their lack of a ‘Target’ to score goals and finish off the stunning chances that everyone else created. By adopting that ‘False 9’ approach, they sometimes lacked that clinical edge before Erling Haaland entered the fold.

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Speaking of Erling Haaland, he’s also included in this category, even despite the vast range of attributes he possesses. While Haaland loves to run the channels, he’s most frequently involved as a back-to-goal striker through the centre of the pitch, before banging in the chances. He’s an incredibly powerful runner that you would never want to reduce to just being used for aerial strength, and that’s actually why clubs like Dortmund and City have been such natural fits for his incredible link-up play.

Haaland provides a perfect example of someone that acts as a ‘Target’ not only for his height and strength, but for his ability to play one-two passes on the grass. City prefer to play with short passes through the thirds, and Haaland excels in finding space away from defenders to combine with his mates. The same could even be said of 6’7 Sasa Kalajdzic, who became quite creative toward the end of his time at Stuttgart.

We’re also starting to see ‘Targets’ that excel not just with their passing and back to goal play, but with their ability to dribble up the field. Due to their seismic strength, it becomes very difficult to dispossess a freight train in the form of Aleksandar Mitrović. Haaland might knock it past you and then keep sprinting, while Giroud might even nutmeg you.

Again, these are not limited players by any means, and in fact, quite a few of the top names in the business fulfill this role for their teams. That’s because in football, targets don’t just get hit. They bounce and gallivant around, ensuring they can make their presence felt every step of the way.

MEASURING TARGETS

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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 ‘Creative Links’.

1. ATTACKING THREAT & IQ

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We often start with ‘Attacking IQ’ for players high up the pitch, but the most valuable of ‘IQ’ traits for a ‘Target’ are different from other roles.

  • Ability to ‘link up the play’ and hold the ball up for others.
  • Dominance in aerial duels + aerial duel %
  • Dominance in 1v1 duels + attacking duel %
  • Decision making on movement off the ball (including progressive passes received).
  • Successful attacking actions %
  • Advanced playmaking threat (NEW*!)
  • Expected threat (possession-value added)
  • Creation from open play, set-pieces and crosses
  • xG (xA included in APT)
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Throughout this series, I’ve endeavoured to test out different metrics and see the results in truly finding adequate mechanisms for evaluation. Using Wyscout’s data resources has been revolutionary in that regard, by breaking down ‘shot-creating-actions’ into more categories – ‘shot assists’, ‘second assists’, and ‘third assists’. This is important for a ‘Target’, as the best of the art are involved in nearly every attacking move. We’ve therefore lumped those metrics in with Wyscout’s own ‘smart passes’ feature, xA, and key passes to create an ‘advanced playmaking’ metric. Moving key passes into this category is also useful, as any key pass is more than just a positive contribution, but a genuine threat.

2. ATTACKING CONTRIBUTION

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After establishing threat and IQ as a baseline, we then measure actual attacking output. Since we want our ‘Targets’ to lead the line and bully the opposition’s defense, it is therefore more important for them to make these attacking contributions over our ‘Possession & Distribution’ score, which took credence for the ‘Creative Link’. 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…

  • Goal contributions (goals + assists)
  • Goal and shot-creating-actions
  • Headed shots + headed goals
  • Touches in the attacking third
  • Successful attacking actions + successful attacking duels
  • Through passes + passes into the penalty area
  • Shots + shots on target
  • Shot on target % + goal conversion %
  • Dribbles + carries
  • Passes and carries into the final third
  • Fouls won + fouls won to fouls conceded percentage

3. POSSESSION & DISTRIBUTION

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‘Targets” should not be accumulating the amount of touches as a ‘Creative Link’, but must remain an influential force in possession. That might manifest in the form of their progressiveness in breaking lines for runners in behind, or in terms of their ability to simply maintain possession and keep the game ticking along. As part of our ‘Possession & Distribution’ score, we measure…

  • Decision making on-the ball (including various passing percentages)
  • Ability to drop in deep and pick up possession successfully (including passes under pressure %).
  • Control (touches, dribble %, possession lost per touch, miscontrols, dispossessed, passes received %)
  • Progressiveness (i.e. prog. passes and prog. carries, and the percentages)

4. DEFENSIVE IQ + CONTRIBUTION

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As previously mentioned, ‘Target’s must not only be capable of leading the attack, but leading the defense from the front. This includes both the ‘IQ’ and ‘Contribution’ scores combined together, as opposed to more defensive roles where they separate.

  • 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.

5. ABNORMALITIES

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All players may also be given additional bumps and boosts 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 ‘Targets’ in the world of men’s football as of 2022.

TOP 20 CREATIVE LINKS (MEN)

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When assessing ‘Targets’, we’re scanning for strikers who dominate their physical battles, bounce around nicely in possession, and spike highest in movement through the middle of the pitch.

With this information in mind, we assessed statistics across the 2022 calendar year, and used the evaluation system detailed in the previous section to come up with our list of the Top 20 ‘Targets’ in the world of men’s football at the time. We’re using Wyscout data in our assessment, as a more comprehensive method for assessing several players at once. The top two are fairly obvious, but be sure to join the debate within your assessment!

Rank #Player TeamxG + xAAPTPass Rec.
1Erling HaalandManchester City0.85 + 0.182.0812.0
2Robert LewandowskiBayern Munich0.75 + 0.132.3317.0
3Aleksandar Mitrović Fulham0.72 + 0.061.7615.4
4Olivier GiroudAC Milan0.65 + 0.081.1612.0
5Tammy AbrahamAS Roma0.48 + 0.081.6210.7
6Cristiano RonaldoManchester United0.56 + 0.111.7723.3
7Patrik SchickBayer Leverkusen0.55 + 0.061.0413.6
8Ivan ToneyBrentford0.58 + 0.142.8213.0
9Andre SilvaRB Leipzig0.52 + 0.102.5017.9
10Sebastien HallerAjax/Dortmund0.54 + 0.082.0813.6
11Dušan VlahovićJuventus0.49 + 0.081.6412.4
12Alvaro MorataAtletico Madrid0.39 + 0.071.9416.0
13Gonçalo RamosBenfica0.55 + 0.051.3116.0
14Niclas FüllkrugWerder Bremen0.54 + 0.163.0818.7
15Duvan ZapataAtalanta0.55 + 0.112.9817.3
16Edin DžekoInter Milan0.52 + 0.102.4417.9
17Jordan SiebatcheuUnion Berlin0.47 + 0.102.399.7
18Sasa KalajdžićStuttgart/Wolves0.39 + 0.101.7613.9
19Moussa DembéléLyon0.69 + 0.051.5311.3
20Dominic Calvert-LewinEverton0.20 + 0.141.438.0

If you’re still not convinced of the ‘Target’s’ overall capabilities, just look at the depth of quality listed above. This is one of the most stacked player roles in our series, including two of the world’s best.

As part of the evaluation, some of the metrics assessed included xG + xA, passes received, and our ‘Advanced Playmaking Threat’ score. Of particular note, forwards operating in a front two generally scored higher on that ‘APT’ score, such as Niclas Füllkrug and Ivan Toney. This makes sense given the quick attacking style of play in both cases, with another striker available for forward passes. It would be nice if Wyscout allowed for adjustments in possession for attacking/passing metrics like ‘Passes Received’ in the future, as it would help to paint a better picture as to how much a player was used as that outlet.

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Missing out on our list included the likes of Luuk de Jong, Yussuf Poulsen, Andrea Belotti and Anthony Modeste. There was simply too much quality to include all the top-tier ‘Targets’ available.

Now while all of these players fit the role, there are some who do the dirty work better than others, and frequently exhibit those ‘Target’-like strengths to a greater degree.

PERFECT PROTOTYPES

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Since we want our ‘Targets’ to be physical specimens capable of holding off anyone, we’ve chosen to assess three of the best statistics for evaluating physicality. It’s worth noting that any players with fewer than 1.9 aerial duels per 90, or a lower than 35% aerial win rate, were re-assessed into other roles during the screening process. So we’re already dealing with the cream of the crop here!

Among our database of fifty ‘Targets’ in the world of men’s football, these are the ten that not only perfectly exemplify the role, but perform its key tasks to the highest quality.

Rank #Player TeamAerial %Def. Duel %Att. Duel %
1Olivier GiroudAC Milan55.450.630.5
2Luuk de JongPSV Eindhoven49.756.127.3
3Aleksandar Mitrović Fulham42.458.729.1
4Sasa KalajdžićStuttgart/Wolves54.555.332.7
5Niclas FüllkrugWerder Bremen48.749.334.6
6Christian KouaméFiorentina58.950.633.5
7Sebastien HallerAjax/Dortmund49.159.622.3
8Michael GregoritschSC Freiburg50.854.239.2
9PaulinhoSporting CP47.855.143.5
10Edin DžekoInter Milan50.048.433.5

In excluding players from the previous section, we’ve taken some of those that occasionally act as ‘Channel Runners’ like Erling Haaland and Alvaro Morata out of the equation. It’s worth noting that Cristiano Ronaldo was incredibly close to making this list, showcasing his ability to dominate physical battles even late into his thirties, even when the whole world seems against him at times.

There’s a few new names on this list including Freiburg’s Michael Gregoritsch, Sporting’s Paulinho and Fiorentina’s Christian Kouamé. While these players don’t always stand out for what they accomplish on the ball, they most certainly make their presence felt on the pitch.

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But it’s hard to top Olivier Giroud as the quintessential ‘Target’ and the man to look up to for any youngster looking to fulfill the role. His overall play at the 2022 World Cup perfectly illustrated his talent even at the age of 36, and why he’s still one of the best around at playing the part.

CONCLUSION

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While they are often thought of as limited players who can’t do much beyond their physicality and goal-scoring, this article provides evidence throughout that the typical ‘Target’ is far more influential. The likes of Olivier Giroud and Ellen White are incredibly capable of using their feet for magic, not only their heads, and create chances for fun beyond just putting them in the back of the net. We were slightly surprised to see Cristiano Ronaldo hitting so many high notes in 2022 as a ‘Target’, although his form in the first half of the year was quite positive. It was less surprising to see Erling Haaland and Robert Lewandowski battling it out at the front of the pack like they used to do in the Bundesliga, both featuring prominently as two of the best ‘Targets’ around.


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So there it is! Explaining the ‘Target’ within our Role Continuity Evaluation System. Be sure to check out more from this series as we detail all twenty-two 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
-> Explaining the Channel Runner – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Creative Link – Player Role Analysis

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