Since the growth of European influence in English football, introducing a more technically centred playing style, the same European persuasion that has stimulated the use of the ‘false 9’ and 3-4-3 formations, the target man has become less popular than the diminutive, South American alternative.
Award winning football simulation series Football Manager aptly describes the abilities and role of a target man: “a target man can transform an average team into a good one by using his sheer physicality to disrupt the opposition’s defence and open space for his strike partner and supporting midfielders,” adding, “The target man uses his strength and aerial presence to bring team mates into play rather than relying on technical ability.”
Once the trademark of British sides; is the target man a dying breed in the Premier League, or is it simply adapting to new environments in the survival of football’s fittest?
Many are opposed to the whole concept of a target man, and, to their delight, there are early signs that there population could be falling. The current top eight in the Prem had, all together, 13 strikers that had started three games or more, in the respective season, who fit the description of ‘target man’ in the 2008-2009 campaign, as opposed to a mere eight this season, excluding Southampton.
Therefore, a startling five target men have departed without replacement at the peak of the Premier League, in only five years. Obviously, the judgment of whether they fit the mould of ‘target man’ is almost entirely subjective, yet the point remains, evidently they are unwanted and unneeded. Besides, I defy anyone to assess the squads of the aforesaid teams, in the aforementioned seasons, and compile figures in stark contrast to the data I have assembled.
Further support for the argument that target men are somewhat an endangered species is the compelling statistic that in the 2008-2009 campaign (again), the current top eight, apart from Southampton due to their absence from the league, teams’ strikers dispatched 29 chances with the head, whereas, last season, only 22 goals were scored by a striker’s head. This gulf in headed goals illustrates the lack of aerial prowess in the Prem, and conveys a miserable image of how target men have coped with the drastic continental pressures.
Many would argue target men are most compatible alongside a more skilful, less aerially dominant strike partner, but such strike-forces have been absent from England’s top flight for years. Additionally, last weekend, only one team fielded a side with two strikers, one recognised for his aerial presence and link up play, the other for his deft and nimble capabilities with the ball at his feet, and that team have only been in the Prem for a two years: discouraging reading.
On the other hand, there are many teams in the top flight of English football that utilise the expertise of a target man, namely overachievers Southampton, who have arguably three target men on their books currently. Similarly, the Swans have numerous target men in their squad, including their towering top goal scorer last season: Miguel Perez Cuesta, or, as he is more commonly known, ‘Michu’. In addition, there are an abundance of young target men emerging domestically and worldwide, explicitly, Callum Robinson of Aston Villa, Carlos Fierro of Chivas, Jean-Marie Dongou of Barcelona (so much for tiki-taka) and Arkadiusz Milik of Bayer Leverkusen.
Plus, of the 13 top scorers in the league this term, excluding midfielders, one in every 2.6 strikers is a target man. Interestingly, in contrast, of the 12 top scorers in the 2008-2009 season, excluding midfielders, one in every four forwards was a target man: undeniable evidence that target men are improving consistently; grasping the Premier League, if not in quantity, at least in quality.
Furthermore, evidently, demand for the sizable forward has not slumped; new signings Kozak, Osvaldo, Bony, Altidore and Carroll were all their clubs’ most expensive acquisition this summer, while clinical hit men Negredo, Anichebe and Cornelius were also princely summer purchases. The accumulated price of the abovementioned attackers is over £90 million, a stunning figure, and testament to the immense value of target men in the Premier League today.
Auxiliary evidence exists in the fact that there have been many successful target men in the Premier League in recent years; one such robust attacker is Belgian international Christian Benteke. Since his £7 million move to Villa, from Belgian outfit Genk, Benteke has been in scintillating form, disproving theories that the day of the target man is over. With 23 goals in 40 appearances for the Villains, Benteke has attracted interest from some of the Prem’s giants.
Spurs boss AVB, described Benteke as last season’s “surprise package”. On further analysis of this description, it appears that few anticipated Benteke’s success in the Prem, perhaps implying that target men were overlooked as ineffectual, previously. Yet, they are now enjoying much more success in the BPL. The word “surprise” typifies the impact target men had in this league hitherto, now prolific target men operate amongst most of England’s best clubs, including Giroud, Lambert and Lukaku, stimulating a new level of value and respect for the target man.
However, by the same token, there have been many unsuccessful target men in the Premier League in recent years. One player befitting that description is Kenwyne Jones. In three years, and almost 90 appearances for the Potters, Jones has a record of one goal in every 6.7 games he has featured in, a desperately low figure for any forward, but particularly for a target man deployed in a side that hinges on a tall front-man. He has not scored in 20 top flight encounters.
The idea that Jones, who Harry Redknapp once scathingly described as “laid-back to the point of semi-consciousness”, is still a regular for the midlands outfit, and the fact that his record for a club so focussed on supply for a lone target man is so dire, paints an accurate, if bleak, picture of the calibre and competence of target men in the current state of the Premier League.
Jones is not the sole case of a target man underachieving, underperforming and underwhelming. Almost every club in the BPL has had a failed target man in their squad in the last five years: Bendtner and Chamakh at Arsenal, Heskey (blasphemy) at Villa, Gestede and Parkin at Cardiff, it goes on.
In conclusion, I believe that target men, of the ilk of Andy Carroll or Christian Benteke, are not entirely outdated, contrary to popular belief. Although, their survival, even in the most radical seasons of philosophical change, has only occurred with the refining of their technical attributes. Rickie Lambert provides the model example of such modification to his game. He has become more adept with the ball at his feet, honed his vision and improved passing accuracy, a transformation that has seen him reach the most successful period in his career, a phase that has included a call up to the national team.
The necessity for such technical change is reflected by Paul Lambert’s eagerness to portray Benteke as more than his nickname, ‘beast’, would suggest: “he’s not just a strong player, his technique is terrific too.” Target men can no longer be one dimensional attackers.
To summarise, I opine that target men are not obsolete or unpopular, they are merely adapting to the contemporary footballing atmosphere. They could never become extinct as football could not survive if it lost this offensive aspect: as Martin Tyler recently remarked, there “is always place” for a striker who is good at heading the ball.