The Rise of Inside Forwards


How are inside forwards like Thomas Müller, Raheem Sterling and Pedro influencing the modern game? We examine the added dimension they bring to the attacking phase.

“Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative” H.G Wells

Modern football is all about evolution, adaptability and versatility. In an age where teams are judged by both media and fans on their style of play as opposed to results, it is no wonder that many teams are boycotting the more traditional player positions in exchange for slightly tweaked attacking variations.

Inside forwards: they’re all the rage. Whether they were once a traditional winger, a frustrated full-back or a number 10, many players are being utilised in this role. These wide players are no longer wide, nor are they required to do as much defensive work – that’s passed to the midfielders – which in turn allows them to concentrate more on influencing the game in the final third.

Teams are reaping the rewards of playing with this position filled. The likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Chelsea are all excelling within their leagues, and a key aspect of their success is down to their inside forwards. Gareth Bale and Ronaldo; Neymar and Pedro (soon to be replaced by the returning Luis Suárez); Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben, Mario Götze and Franck Ribéry can all occupy the positions for Bayern; Eden Hazard alongside André Schürrle or Willian do the same forChelsea. Many would prefer to see these players central, as a number 10, but centrally they’d need to do more defensive work which would negate their effect higher up.

The players listed above are all elite players, some considered world class, some not. Either way, many fans would jump to have them in their team. There are, however, telling similarities amongst those listed:

  • Pace is a key factor for the majority of them. The ability to burst between a full-back and a centre-back with a perfectly timed run is a trait of an inside forward.
  • All are fantastic dribblers with a superb first touch and great close control.
  • Footballing brain, very clever both on and off the ball.
  • Modern day footballers can all strike a ball – the players highlighted above are all known for having powerful and accurate shots. It’s gives them the option to shoot from distance so their game is varied.
  • Good finishers. These may not be world -class finishers but put through one-on-one and you’re more than likely to back these players to put the ball away.
  • Those not blessed with blistering pace use their movement to make crucial space. This ability is understated in the media. Thomas Müller is a genius at this. As mentioned above, a good footballing brain and tactical awareness is vital for the “slower” player

It’s No Fad

Inside forwards aren’t going anywhere. Not only does it increase your attacking threat, it also enables the manager to bulk up the midfield. The ability to field three midfielders is an incentive for many as it means they aren’t sacrificing one of the midfield positions for an attacking midfielder. It allows teams to field one, or even two, industrious midfielders alongside a deep-lying playmaker, meaning the midfield area isn’t flooded by the opposition.

Chelsea, for example, currently use Oscar as the 10 behind Costa. However, unlike stereotypical number 10s, he drops in alongside Matić and Fàbregas and gives some legs to that midfield. This balance in turn allows the full-backs to push on and fill the space that the inside forwards have vacated, offering the width needed against certain teams. The versatility, as noted earlier, is imperative to how this set up works.

In years gone by teams that adapted the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formations used a target man flanked by out and out wingers. Tottenham were the prime example of this when they used to field Crouch as a target man with Lennon and Bale providing his ammunition. They were tasked with getting to the by-line, getting the ball into the box and chipping in with the odd goal. Rafael van der Vaart played behind Crouch at the time and was expected to get in and around the area to support the beanpole striker.

For sometime this tactic worked, nevertheless teams found a way to counter the effectiveness of it. Stop the supply to the strikers, get to the knock downs in the area or simply ensure the wingers aren’t able to get crosses off – it was easy to counter.

Using inside forwards allow teams to have a minimum of three players in and around the box, with full-backs offering invaluable wide support. This causes chaos for the defending team; are the full-backs meant to track the inside forwards, is the spare centre-back meant to pick one up?

Luxury: A Necessity

You’ll note that the traits of an inside forward are ones that would suit a counter attacking team. Once considered lazy by fans and the media due to their lack of interest in defensive duties, these types of players are now being embraced by managers. Not only are they comfortable in possession, they also have the ability, and versatility, to counter teams, which makes them an important cog in the modern game. The ability to switch tactics during the game without making substitutions is one option many managers want.

Not only do they bring these in-game variations, they also offer an answer to the ‘Park The Bus’ tactic which is difficult to break down. Many managers claim “It’s not about the result, it’s about the performance” yet despite this, so many teams play in negative ways to get the result against better teams. Offering very little in attack, these teams sit deep and offer little space in behind; they flood the central area and crowd it out.

Number 10’s and wingers are wasted in these types of crowded-out and one dimensional types of games. A prime example of this is Liverpool vs. Chelsea in the 2013/2014 season. For all their creative players, the Reds couldn’t break down a defensively solid Chelsea side. However, inside forwards have the ability to drift around. They’re patient and have a knack for finding space when it’s not obvious. These are the types of players who can cause damage in front or behind the defensive line. One slice of luck and you’re in a goal scoring position with various players who all have the ability to tuck the ball away. It’s a bonus of having three forwards on the pitch at one time.

Three’s A Crowd?

So could inside forwards have a negative impact on the lone striker? The teams mentioned above are all so dominant that many of their players seem to chip in with goals. However if you look at it more closely, the lone forward loses some of his attacking threat when they drop deep, either to hold the ball up or to link the play. The space vacated by this action is filled by one, or both of the inside forwards, who then get in to goalscoring positions. A striker could have the best season of his life, having a positive effect on the team, yet be judged for lack of goals. At the end of the day, strikers are invariably judged on goals.

Could a disgruntled forward have a harmful effect on the style of play? It’s up to the manager to make the lone striker feel as much a part of the team as possible and, instead of being viewed as a lone striker, view himself as part of an attacking threesome. The manager has to convince a Benzema, a Lewandowski or a Diego Costa that he should drop deep, or drop wide and further away from the area for the good of the team.

Not only do you sacrifice the goals from the striker, the formation also restricts the amount of times the midfielders can make late runs into the area and chip in with a goal or two. That means for the formation to work to full effect, the three forwards have to score more goals than they’d score in a different formation which allows a greater threat from midfield and more emphasis on the striker.

What next?

What’s clear is that the better teams, the Bayerns and Madrids of the world, come up against defensive teams more often than not. They encounter managers with the primary objective to stop them scoring. Having as many goal threats within the team is crucial; dropped points due to not being able to break down an opposition is a poor reflection on the manager. Not many clubs favour playing with two upfront so this is currently the best option in the hunt for goals.

With an abundance of attacking talent showing up in many countries, there won’t be a lack of personnel available to fill the inside forward positions. Iturbe, Werner, Sterling, Fischer and Quintero to name but a few are players that many believe will be the next superstars. All of these can play the inside forward role.

Modern football is built around fluidity – could the next phase for more clubs be something Barcelonaimplemented during Pep’s reign? Fielding three, versatile forwards who can all interchange and do a job across the forward line could be the future in the ever-changing game. Not one out and out forward, but three that wouldn’t have been considered strikers ten years ago.

There are signs some clubs are thinking towards this already, if you glance towards Liverpool for a moment, their signings suggest this may be something they could look at in the future. Sturridge, Sterling, Origi and Marković are all capable of filling the roles. Arsenal, too, have the players to do this already with Walcott, Sánchez and Welbeck.

It certainly won’t be the extinction of the centre-forward, merely a time for this position to once again evolve.


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