World Football: The Comeback of the Inside Forward

GuidoAnalyst IApril 23, 2010

This season could very well mark the end of the traditional centre forward as the primary goal-scorer, to be replaced by the inside forward.

The winger is an inside forward, drifting into the penalty area from the wing to provide assists or score goals. It is a role that is becoming more popular in modern football.

Just look at some of the teams in the semi-finals of this year’s Champions League.

Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben are prime examples, whereas Cristiano Ronaldo holds a similar role at Madrid and used to hold this role for Man Utd.

Last season, Sir Alex Ferguson was quoted as saying: "When forwards attack from wide to inside, they are far more dangerous. It's funny when I see centre-forwards starting off in the middle against their markers and then going away from goal.

"Strikers going inside are far more dangerous... Trying to escape and create space by drifting from the centre to wide positions...actually makes them less dangerous." (Source: The Guardian )

Stereotypical strikers such as Gabriel Batistuta and Ronaldo are being replaced by a new breed of goal-scorers.

When we look at the last two World Footballers of the Year, we notice these have primarily been wide players who cut inside to score, exploiting the space made by the central forwards moving around to lure away defenders. 

Intelligent movement upfront has become the key to unlocking an opponent's defense.

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Intelligent movement implies position switching, which in turn means that players will often end up finishing an attacking move in a different position from which they started, in an effort to exploit the gaps in defense created.

These movements cause problems for the defense because the responsibility for marking the runner shifts between players.

When a winger drifts into the centre of the pitch, the wingback is forced to make a choice. If he leaves his position to follow his marker, then he leaves a lot of space on the wing.

This is the exact strategy Bayern used against Lyon.

With Robben and Ribéry initially drifting into the center, their opponents were forced to follow, leaving the Bayern wingbacks Contento and Lahm with plenty of space behind Lyon midfielders Delgado and Ederson.

Philipp Lahm especially excelled in this role, as Lyon chose to focus on Arjen Robben. This left Lahm with a lot of running space, which he frequently did.

Should the wingback decide to remain in his position, he creates a new problem, as the centre-backs run the risk of being out-numbered. In regards to the Bayern- Lyon game, here's a possible scenario.

If Cissokho and Reveillere had decided to remain stationary instead of following their markers, then Lyon centre-backs Cris and Toulalan would have to face not only Olic and Müller, but potentially one or two of the wingers as well. This would create a numerical advantage for the forwards.

Thus, if the defensive responsibilities for picking up on moving forwards are not managed properly, then the inside forward will find himself in acres of space, which leaves him more opportunity to assist the strikers or score himself.

In other words, when an inside forward (i.e. Robben, Messi) drifts inside, he creates confusion as the responsibility for marking him shifts from the full back or the side midfielder to the centre back.

Not only does this create space in the “hole,” but it also creates space in the “channel” between wing back and centre-back.

With much more communication needed in the opposition defense, a good inside forward on the wing can create valuable space for his teammates as he drags players out of position all over the field.

The inside forward often starts wide meaning that the opposing team's wingback assumes he is the player to guard. But as the winger starts drifting inside which usually causes the opposing wingback to track him into the center—space opens up for a deep-lying forward (i.e. Thomas Müller, Zlatan Ibrahimovic) on the flank to exploit with either a cross or a through ball.

In other variations, we have seen the deep-lying forward drop into the gap between defence and midfield to mislead his defender.

This then leaves a gap in the centre of defense. A well-placed through ball means either space for the second striker or for the inside forward drifting inside to pounce.

(Arsenal fans can probably remember when Vermaelen was lured out of position in such a play.)

It’s not just in the Champions League where these inside forwards are gaining in popularity and impact. In Italy, for example, Antonio di Natale is topping the goal-scoring chart. And in Holland, Bryan Ruiz and Luis Suarez are fighting for the top goal-scorer crown.

All these players are mostly forwards who start on the flank and drift inside.

It will be very interesting both to see if the World Cup this summer catches up with this trend from club football and if this trend continues into next season.

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