In our latest blog, we are diving deep into the role of the striker in football. We will explore how the strikers role in football can be very different based on the strengths of the team and individual strikers.

“The most difficult thing in football is to score a goal” – Pep Guardiola

The sight of the great Brazilian Ronaldo bearing down on the goalkeeper, rounding him and passing the ball into an empty net. Lionel Messi weaving his way past a string of bamboozled defenders and stroking the ball beyond the keeper’s reach. Erling Haaland using his immense physical strength to hold off an outmuscled opponent and smashing a shot into the back of the net.

Watching and celebrating the best strikers throughout the course of history is without doubt one of the great joys of football as a global sport. Down the years, many footballers have tried to describe the feeling of scoring a winning goal in a crucial match, claiming it to be one of the most memorable moments of their lives. But what makes a great striker? What attributes are needed to excel in the modern game? How does the role of the striker differ? This blog aims to delve into the detail of the player that gets the most headlines, commands the highest transfer fee and can often be the difference between winning and losing matches – The Striker.

Key Attributes Of A Striker

“To win, you have to score one more goal than the opponent” – Johan Cruyff

Simple and obvious though it may seem, this quote encapsulates the vital need of all teams to have a striker who can, at crucial and pressure-filled times, put the ball in the back of the net. What are the main attributes required for a striker to possess? Here are some of the profile traits needed to be an effective striker:

Game Insight

The best strikers often have an innate ability to find space in tight compacted areas and possess a sixth sense of where the ball may end up, ready for them to pounce and finish past the goalkeeper. Some strikers may not be overly involved in the build-up leading to a goal, instead preferring to stretch the opponent’s back line and wait for the right moment to explode into life and exploit the space between defenders.

Ball Striking Ability

As scoring goals is the most important characteristic of any forward player, the ability to strike the ball cleanly is of the utmost importance. The striker must always strive to be a constant source of threat and danger to opposition defenders and therefore, when in effective areas to strike at goal, must do so with clean efficient technique. This may be in the form of a close-range tap-in, an instinctive shot inside the penalty area or a long-range power strike from distance.

Hold Up Ability

Receiving with their back to goal and usually with a high level of pressure is an integral part of a striker’s game. Strikers need to use their body to protect the ball and have the awareness to identify team-mate’s positions when linking the play in advanced areas. This may be in the form of a forward pass along the floor where the striker has to get side on, with their knees bent and arm out to fend off the pressure from their marker. Here, the striker may decide to secure the ball on their safe side (often with the sole of their foot furthest away from the defender) and then dependent upon the support around them, set the ball back for a midfield team-mate to pass and combine forwards. Or, if the defender decides to try and win the ball, spin away into the space behind and advance the ball forwards by passing or travelling with it themselves.

Movement And Forward Runs

As coaches and watchers of football, try to take your eye off the ball as much as possible and observe the movements from the best strikers in world football. So much clever movement takes place away from the ball to create space and exploit gaps between and behind defenders. These movements include running on the blind side of their opponent, delaying and timing runs to particular parts of the goal (e.g far, near post) and drifting out to wide areas to stretch full-backs out of position, creating opportunities for team-mates to make forward runs of their own.

Calmness, Confidence and Composure

It may be that in certain games, strikers only get one chance to score the decisive goal. Therefore, possessing a calm, confident and composed approach in these situations allows the striker to take advantage in these crucial game moments.

Defending From The Front

This has become a prominent focus in recent years with the popular concept of high-block pressing and counter-pressing in advanced areas to regain the ball back quickly after a loss of possession. Modern day strikers must possess a strong work ethic and defensive mind-set to press aggressively and hunt the ball down to win it back near to the opponent’s goal. This may look direct in its nature with the striker reading a defensive error (or ‘trigger’) from the opponent, such as a poor touch, misplaced inaccurate pass or receiving the ball facing their own goal or in a boxed off position near the side-line. Here the striker may decide to directly win the ball themselves or ‘deflect’ the opponent’s pass into the path of an supporting team-mate by curving their run and making play predictable by forcing them into an advantageous area for the team.

Types Of Finishes

The Close-Range Tap In

Here, the finish is usually executed from anything between a yard out to around the 6-yard box. Think of a winger or attacking full-back getting to the by-line and playing it across the goal or cutting it back for the on-running striker. The striker here, must try to time their run effectively so as not to break their stride pattern and calmly pass the ball into the goal past the goalkeeper. Their technique is controlled with head and upper body over the ball to ensure the ball is cleanly struck with accuracy and using the speed of the pass to simply re-direct it into the most open part of the goal.

The Instinctive Finish From Mid-Range

This finish is often referred to as a ‘snap-shot’ and is sometimes seen with the ball loose in the penalty area after panic and confusion from the defensive team to clear the ball away from their goal. The ball may ‘land’ near the striker, often with their body not necessarily facing the goal, forcing them to turn and whip the ball with power towards goal. The technique used may be the inside of their foot to guarantee accuracy or perhaps their instep (laces) to generate a higher amount of power and speed to try and exploit the most available part of the goal away from the goalkeeper’s reach.

The Long-Range Shot From Distance

Modern day strikers often have to possess a proficient ability to strike the ball from distance as well as score goals from close range. Think of strikers who take free-kicks (e.g Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo) and are able to get the ball ‘up and over’ the defensive wall by imparting dip onto the ball. Ronaldo in particular (and Didier Drogba before him) has perfected the ‘knuckle-ball’ technique where he lines the ball up with the valve facing him before striking it with his lace and toe pointed down which seems to produce speed, swerve and dip on the ball causing huge confusion and problems for the goalkeeper when attempting to read the flight and trajectory of the shot.

For a range of finishing practices click here

The Different Types Of Striker

Despite all strikers being judged on their goal return, there are a variety of different types of striker. What are these main differences and how do they all fulfil the requirement of converting goal-scoring opportunities on a consistent basis?

The ‘proper’ number 9 (e.g Robert Lewandowski, Erling Haaland, Alan Shearer)

The qualities associated with this type of striker often begin with the physical presence they offer the team. It is the usually the case that they are tall, strong and athletic in nature, providing an excellent focal point for the defenders and midfielders to play towards. The ‘proper’ number 9 is also effective aerially and is a threat to defenders with crosses into the penalty area. Despite usually operating centrally and within the width of the area, this type of striker also makes positive runs into the channels for more direct play and through balls. In Harry Kane’s case, he has developed his game in recent years and now drops deeper like a ‘false’ 9 (see below) to link the play and connect with his team-mates, creating space in behind for other attacking players to make forward runs into advanced areas.

The ‘false’ 9 (e.g Roberto Baggio, Wayne Rooney, Roberto Firmino)

Some would say that Pep Guardiola was one of the original architects of the ‘false’ 9 with Lionel Messi sometimes deployed in this role during his time at Barcelona. There are examples of players before this being thought of in similar terms though. Roberto Baggio is a prime example of a striker who roamed across the whole of the attacking third and also dropped into midfield areas to collect the ball and run at opponents, in turn enticing pressure and creating space to provide opportunities for his teammates. The ‘false’ 9 also possesses a great sense of timing and has the game insight to identify and recognise when and where to arrive in terms of movement in the penalty area to finish off attacks. Wayne Rooney and Roberto Firmino are 2 recent components of this ability and have raked up many goals between them for both club and country.

The inverted (wide) forward (e.g Marcus Rashford, Kylian Mbappé, Thierry Henry)

This is perhaps the most ‘on trend’ of the different types of striker operating in the modern day game. Attributes of the wide forward include pace and athleticism with players often being deployed on the opposite wing to their dominant foot. This results in cutting inside from a wide position and driving infield to combine with team-mates or get shots at goal. The wide forward can essentially operate as a winger but from a more advanced attacking third position. They have to be able to manage the ball effectively under pressure and to ensure unpredictability, be able to go both ways when running at their opponent to either as mentioned, drive infield or get to the by-line and produce crosses or cut-backs.

The ‘fox in the box’ (e.g Michael Owen, Andy Cole, Gary Lineker)

This striker is another who perhaps existed more in a previous era of football. The classic commentary line would be that this player is not seen for large periods of games but provides the critical touch in the penalty area to score a decisive goal. The ‘fox in the box’ striker seems to have an innate ability to position themself where the ball ultimately ends up, and they do so to with a natural instinct to be in the right place at the right time. Most of their goals are from close range and their positional sense is without doubt their most valuable asset.

Summary

The role of the striker has certainly evolved over time. Despite these players offering differing skill-sets and playing characteristics, they are all judged and relied upon for 1 simple outcome – their goal return. Physicality and athleticism are certainly becoming more prevalent traits in strikers who, in the modern game, need to withstand a huge amount of defensive pressure, often in outnumbered situations particularly when teams play with a single attacker.

Being able to offer more than just goals is something that has demanded by some managers, particularly in the case of Pep Guardiola who, when taking over at Manchester City, transformed the game of top scorer Sergio Aguero from a ‘fox in the box’ striker to more of a false 9 who would not only drop deep but also offer greater energy and contribution from a defensive perspective in terms of pressing.Strikers will generally continue to demand the biggest transfer fees as the top clubs compete for trophies every season and therefore rely upon someone who can be a regular source of goals, particularly decisive ones in the tightest and most competitive games in the football calendar.