A tedious tactical review of 2012 (Part I) – Honing the inside forward

by James Nalton

Inside forward is often looked upon as an old fashioned and long defunct position in association football, and one which was only relevant in days gone by when teams played with five or more forwards. The position was used to describe the two forward positions on the outside of the centre forward and inside the wingers – namely inside left and inside right. Every now and again you’ll hear the phrase uttered by an old timer at the game, on some pretentious tactics blog (…), or by David Pleat on ITV, but in the main it’s still widely thought of as a long lost position.

Positional problems have arisen during recent years involving some of the best players in world football. Their managers wanted to find the perfect position for these players, and one which would make the most of their special talents. Guess which position it was?

Cristiano Ronaldo – Inside left

When Cristiano Ronaldo was approaching his peak at Manchester United his best position couldn’t be nailed down initially. He obviously had more to offer than a traditional winger such as Antonio Valencia, as he possessed the finishing prowess of a centre forward, as well as the usual winger attributes such as pace, balance, trickery, and crossing ability. He could be used as the centre forward looking to make runs off the back of defenders, but then this wouldn’t make best use of his winger skills, and neither would a more central attacking midfield position, though he has the prerequisite long shot and creative passing ability to play here too.

Offered a free role Cristiano Ronaldo would probably play up front, running into channels in between centre back and full back, and dropping deep to get the ball so he could have more influence on play, rather than just waiting for his team mates to play him in behind the defence. He’s a complete forward and a complete midfielder all rolled into one, such is his talent.

Playing the majority of his games as what can only be described as an inside left, Cristiano Ronaldo now has 169 goals in 170 games for Real Madrid. His average position on the pitch during most of his games for Real, is somewhere between the actual centre forward and where an imaginary left winger would be. Fabio Coentrao sometimes provides the true width in the team as the overlapping attacking full back, which is often vital to an inside forward’s success.

Neymar – Inside left

The latest wonderkid to come from the home of the beautiful game is the Santos and Brazil number 11, Neymar da Silva. Neymar’s shirt number would suggest an old fashioned left winger, but anyone who has had the pleasure of watching him will tell you that he’s much more than this.

As with Ronaldo he appears to be the complete goal getting package, and his 43 goals in 47 games in the 2012 Brazil and South American season back this up. It remains to be seen whether he can fulfil this promise in against stingier European defences, but at the moment Neymar is an inside left who can drive a team to victory singlehandedly from this position. The rumours of a move to Barcelona could see a complete return to the forward 5 of days gone by, if he links up with their inside right….

Lional Messi – Inside right

Lionel Messi makes Barcelona tick.. and tock, and tiki taka or whatever you want to call it. But Barcelona also help Messi be the player he is by playing him in a position where he can shine within the team.

With an overlapping Dani Alves as his right wing outlet, Messi has almost unlimited options every time he gets the ball in his position of inside right. He has the option to cut in a shoot on his stronger left foot; he could lay it off to Xavi for a quick one two; search out Iniesta, Alexis, or any of the other advanced forwards to play them in on goal; feed it wide to Alves; or simply dribble around the entire opposition defence before scoring himself. No wonder defenders are often flummoxed when coming up against the Argentinian.

As with our previous subjects, Messi is almost the complete attacking footballer and again he has found a position which resembles that of an inside forward. He drops deep when he wants to, gets in behind defences on other occasions, or runs wide into channels thus creating space for the more central players. But ultimately his position is somewhere between a right winger and a centre forward.

Other examples?

It’s important to note that an inside forward should be much more than a winger who likes to cut inside. Very often a winger playing on the opposite side to his orthodox position will avoid taking on a player on the outside, preferring to cut inside and shoot or set up a team mate.

Is Arjen Robben an inside forward or just a winger on the wrong side?

Who are the other examples of these players? There are plenty around and you can leave any thoughts you have in the comments section at the bottom.

7 Responses

  1. Myles says:

    Good piece, not tedious at all! Agree with your points on Messi and Ronaldo but I can’t help but think that Neymar plays best as a centre-forward, not an inside-forward. That being said, he appears to be very versatile and has clearly displayed his ability out wide, but for now I think he needs to stick to playing centrally.

    Could almost be a false nine…

  2. Dan says:

    Actually, the difference between a winger and an inside forward is not a large one at all and ultimately, it depends on the player’s characteristics and manager’s plans that determines their position. Inevitably, winger or inside forward traits will be seen throughout the match. There is no point in classifying them especially when they are playing as you said…. In a FREE role.
    What astounds me is your classification of messi as an inside right. He might have started off as a winger but he is obviously a False 9 now, which is a essentially a center forward.
    In the end, what is the purpose of this article, to highlight a position long gone? Maybe by changing your perspective you will realize that it has evolved, rather than disappeared.

    1. James Nalton James says:

      I’m glad you were astounded by the article.

      The purpose of the article was to show that inside forwards still exist in some way, as the title of the article indicates with the use of the word honing. Not to dissimilar to your use of evolution.

      Messi has evolved into something of a special case, but when there are other forwards on the pitch, or if they play Fabregas as the false nine, he roams both deep and in the channels.

      People like to talk about the vertical lines as well as the horizontal ones on the pitch, and if there’s a channel in either line to get into, Messi will be in it.

      False nine is too limited a role when defining him, as maybe is inside forward. But i don’t think he’s ever been just a winger, or just a centre forward.

  3. Giacomo Fracassi says:

    I always thought Robben was a winger, but not for a 4 midfield line, rather for a 3 up-front and/or a trio of supporting attacking midfielder, like he plays at Bayern. I think that’s one reason he and Ribery don’t play always together, as they are similar (although the Frenchman is even more a no-nonsense winger) and don’t provide the team a big variety of attacking play.

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