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Tactics Thursday: Evolution of the Striker

This weekend, as I watched the opening games of the EPL, I couldn’t help but notice the continuing evolution of the modern striker. We saw flashes of it last season with players like Rooney and Tevez tracking back to pressure the ball or to link the midfield to the attack, but as I watched Arsenal take on Liverpool and Tottenham play Manchester City it seems that this is no longer an exception but a change in the way a striker is tactically deployed.

My focus and reasoning for this post came from Arsenal’s newest goal scorer Maroune Chamakh. Many times yesterday he dropped to within meters of the center circle to receive the ball at his feet from wide midfielders turning to start the attack or lay it off to Nasri creating space in behind his marker. He didn't just come back to recieve the ball he came back to WIN the ball, off the feet of Mascherano and Carragher on more than one occasion. For Chamakh on Sunday his efforts were rewarded, and while many will argue Arsenal should have won, his work rate and continuous movement off the ball put him into excellent positions not only for himself and his goal, but for his teammates as well. His zigzagging run created acres of space for Tomas Rosicky whose sure goal effort was flicked away by Reina. A great debut in the Arsenal shirt, yes he did get his goal, but he reinforced the fact that a striker can no longer be a “part time” player as teams’ employ higher pressure leaving space to play at a premium.

In a more interesting scenario was Jermaine Defoe, playing in a two striker setup, against Manchester City on Saturday. He was paired with Peter Crouch who is the epitome of an immobile target man striker. Because his partner is a proverbial “stiff” Defoe almost orbited the scare crow collecting balls and pressuring defenders in Crouch’s vicinity and playing simple and immediately getting the ball off his feet to wide players Bale, Modric, and Lennon. While he was not as bullish on the tackles, his general movement forced the Manchester City defense to respect his movements both laterally and towards to the center circle opening acres of space for Tottenham to put on a clinic of attempts on net only to be thwarted by Joe Hart time and time again.

This actually bodes well for Allegri, Borriello, Pato and AC Milan. Last season Borriello showed signs of being an industrious forward willing to check back deep to the ball if need be, but in the 4-3-3 it created insurmountable holes in the formation and left the team disorganized in the attack. If done properly, as shown by Tottenham on the weekend, a striker checking back should be immediately surrounded with passing options allowing him to lay off or play wide so he can begin a run for himself or one that drags a defender out of position. If Borriello and Pato can master this one-two punch they will further develop their partnership from last season and prove that a striker can and should do more!

The ideal attacking stage play would see Borriello check hard to the ball with his back to goal, pulling a CB or CM with him, laying the ball off to a teammate, cutting hard to his left and all the while Pato goes charging into the space vacated by Borriello’s marker. So simple and effortless, yet so challenging for CB’s to account for because of the quickness of a player like Pato. Even more dynamic is the fact that Pato’s run can be a decoy creating space for the RM or CAM to get a clear shot on goal while the defense repositions. If the opposition is using zonal marking then you can even add an extra player to Pato’s run, say the RM, to force the defender to choose the most dangerous player!

While this is all still possible within the 4-3-3, it works best when two strikers are operating side by side and can move freely left to right in order to keep the defense off balance. This is Allegri’s preferred method of play and should suit Pato and Borriello nicely as they form a partnership at the top. Their balance of strength and speed will prove a problem for defenses, but also an asset when Milan is without the ball. Borriello has proved his willingness to do the dirty work and now if Pato can make good on his willingness to “die for Milan” then our attack may even prove an asset on defense.