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Some will say that the more important player in a soccer team is the goalkeeper; you can’t lose if rivals can’t score. The same kind of people may declare something similar about defenders.
Still, soccer is about scoring, and you need strikers to score; plus, there must be a reason why strikers receive the highest salaries in soccer teams. But, what is a striker in soccer anyway, and what does he do?
A striker is the one who plays nearest the opposing goal. His primary role is to score. It’s also known as forward, and according to specific functions in the field, it can be named false 9, target man, poacher, among others.
Soccer has changed a lot since people started playing the sport. In the past, teams used to line up six or even more forwards; it was all about scoring and having fun.
Modern soccer is more physical; it’s about pressing, suffocating the rival, occupying the field’s width, and much more.
Still, something never changed; to be successful, a soccer team needs a good striker.
What are the qualities of a good striker?
The world of soccer saw hundreds of brilliant strikers, all with different and even opposite characteristics.
Skillful and explosive like Romário, strong and opportunist like Klose, super-athletic like Cristiano, fast and technical like Ronaldo, and the list goes on.
It’s not possible to determine what kind of striker is the best striker. However, it’s possible to know what qualities must have a player to be a good striker.
- Ball control – Inside the box, where strikers usually receive the ball, there’s no time; they must act fast. Ideally, a striker should make an oriented control of the ball and then shoot to the goal—two movements, control, and shoot.
- Precision – In a soccer game, teams usually have only a few chances of scoring. A striker might have only three or four real opportunities to score; that’s why precision is vital for shooting to goal and assisting a better-positioned teammate.
- Positioning – A good striker must read the game correctly and sense where the ball might go. For instance, if a teammate performs a long-distance shoot, the striker must run towards the goal and catch the goalkeeper’s rebound.
- Strength and balance – A striker shouldn’t necessarily have a big size, but they must bear with defenders’ tricks. Shoves, casual shirt grabbing, and stomps shouldn’t stop a good striker from controlling the ball and scoring.
- Creativity – In some matches where the mark is too tight or squads have an even level, a team might struggle to create chances of scoring. That’s when a striker’s creativity must flourish; he needs to create opportunities for himself.
Honorable mentions of speed, technique, and heading. A good striker can lack these attributes and still score lots of goals; of course, having them is a plus.
For instance, the Bosnian Dzeko is slow, the Spanish Morata is not very technical, and Mo. Salah has no heading skills, and still, they score a lot for their teams.
Each team has a style of playing, and the right striker is the one that fits better into that style. There is an old argument about the position in the field and the player’s qualities in soccer.
Is it the player’s qualities that determine what’s their role in the team, or the player must adapt to the designated position? It is perhaps, a little bit of both?
Regardless of that argument, every squad chooses which type of striker is the better option for them.
Types of striker
1. Target man
The target man, also known as “number 9,” is the reference for their teammates in the opposing box. Target men are usually muscular, robust, tall, perhaps not very fast, and with a good aerial game.
These players rely on their physicality to beat defenders. A team with a solid target man will launch long passes to the striker, and after the heading, their teammates will get the rebound, in a technique called “second ball.”
Target man, with some exceptions, usually plays in small teams nowadays. A team with fewer resources than its rival, accepting its inferiority, will pack midfielders and defenders in its own half, leaving forward only one man to hold the ball and work a miracle, get fouled, or at least hold the ball for a few seconds.
Duvan Zapata from Atalanta or Romelo Lukaku illustrates this role quite perfectly.
2. Shadow striker
A shadow striker is mainly used in teams with two forwards. It’s also called “second striker” because it plays a little behind the other forward.
Shadow strikers are generally fast and light, and they attack from outside the box into it. They also tend to start the team’s pressing on rival defenders when out of possession.
Shadow strikers, coming from behind, can assist the other forward or score themselves. These forwards are incredibly hard for full-backs because they “can’t find it.”
As the second striker plays mostly outside of the box, defenders have no reference, and they must do zonal marking, which is dangerous against a quick, sneaky forward.
Examples of excellent shadow strikers could be Michael Owen playing with Alan Shearer in England’s national team, or Javier Saviola sharing the attack with Patrick Kluivert in Barcelona.
3. Deep Lying Forward
This kind of striker likes going outside the box to exchange passes with the advanced midfielders and create chances for itself and its teammates.
Deep-lying forwards plays a lot backward the opposing goal; once they receive the ball, they can choose between turning around and facing the goalkeeper or looking for a free teammate.
When a team needs to change the attack’s side, this striker usually goes out of the box to receive and turn the game into the opposite side.
They’re typically technical strikers with reasonable ball control and excellent long-distance shooting ability. Players that excelled at this position were Roberto Baggio playing for Juventus and Rivaldo for Barcelona.
4. Advanced Forward
The advanced forward is the player that stalks the last defensive line, trying to find the breach and receive a pass between lines, face to face with the goalkeeper.
It helps to press the rivals and often leaves the box looking to create space. One of such a striker’s disadvantages is that it spends so much time and energy trying to find the breach into the defensive lines that its participation in the creation is low or null.
When the team suffers from creating chances, this kind of striker is the one that most feel it. The advanced forward needs to be fed by their teammates; if the ball never arrives, they starve.
This role’s soulmate is the deep-lying forward because they make space for each other—the advanced looking for a pass through the defensive line and the other getting out of the box to create chances.
Gonzalo Higuaín in Napoli playing with Insigne or Callejón at Napoli would be a good example.
This type of striker is a constant threat for defenders. The poacher will not help defensively to their teammates, nor will be involved in creating chances for them.
This forward only thinks about scoring, and it’s there where puts all the energy. Poachers are usually explosive and highly intelligent when it comes to reading the game.
They’re almost always well placed in the field, ready to push the ball into the net. They might be considered selfish players (and usually are), but the good ones can score a lot for their teams.
Examples of successful poachers are Romário, Mauro Icardi, and Jamie Vardy.
6. Defensive forward
Its name might sound contradictory, but it exists. Defensive forwards’ role is annoying rival defenders. They run like headless chickens in his zone of marking and won’t leave alone any defender to handle the ball in peace.
They are not too worried about scoring (although, of course, they want to), and they keep themselves busy blocking, stopping, being a pain in the foot.
These strikers habitually play next to an older, experienced, and talented but out-of-shape striker.
It would be fair to say that the defensive forward runs for him and his attacking partner. This striker tends to have, as we can imagine, a low goal rate.
Lars Stindl of Borussia Mönchengladbach plays this role, and Franco Soldano of Boca Juniors as well, both with low goal rates. Another example could be Roberto Firmino in Liverpool; still, the Brazillian has a high goal rate.
7. Pressing forward
As its names indicate, the pressing forward primary role is to pursue and put pressure on the opposite defensive line. Its team tactics determine the line where this player starts pressing.
When a team uses pressing forwards, it prevents the opposition’s defenders from making a clean pass to midfielders and forcing them to play long balls.
They cause their rivals’ errors by leaving the less talented defender with the ball and covering the ones that handle the pressure better and have better quality passing.
After the epic final in the 2009 FIFA Club World Cup between Barcelona and Estudiantes de la Plata, the Argentinians’ manager explained their focus on closing down every possible pass, except Puyol.
The Spanish defender was the less talented with the ball, and by forcing him to start the plays, Barcelona’s normal flow was disadvantaged.
This kind of striker became popular recently since most of the world’s teams choose to start their plays with short passes from the goalkeeper.
The attacking duo of the Argentinian River Plate, Rafael Santos Borré and Matías Suarez, is an excellent example of relentless pressing forwards.
8. Complete Forward
This player is, as its name indicates, every coach’s dream. It reunites the deep-lying forward’s technical qualities, the poacher’s opportunism and intelligence, and the target man’s power and physical attributes.
A complete forward do almost everything well. It sticks to opposing defenders to put pressure and force an error, creating space for itself and its teammates getting out of the box.
They are usually fast, strong, and have a decent aerial game. This type of striker can dribble, score, shoot, pass.
There are rare examples of complete forwards; Ronaldo Fenômeno, Samuel Eto’o, or even Cristiano could be some.
Wingers are strikers playing in wide positions. They need to be explosive and fast, and they must know how to dribble.
Wingers disappeared from teams after the ’70s, where teams used to play with four forwards, two inside the box, and a winger per side.
After the four-forward era, squads decided to employ more people in the middle of the pitch. Nowadays, the winger striker came back with a slight difference.
In the past, wingers’ tasks were purely offensive; today, on the other hand, wingers must help midfielders to recover possession.
A winger’s central role is to get to the end of the pitch and cross to the striker inside the box. The ideal winger is that who takes advantage of every one on one duel with a defender.
Wingers can also act as inverted wingers; this is a left-handed player on the right, and vice versa.
Playing as an inverted winger, the player can cut through the middle from the side and shoot to the goal.
The Brazilian Mané Garrincha, probably the best winger ever, and the British George Best are traditional wingers examples. Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben from Bayern Munich are good examples of inverted winger roles.
10. False Nine
This role became worldwide famous after Lionel Messi, and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona destroyed Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final. Still, the false nine roles has quite a long story.
The teams that choose this type of striker usually attack with wingers in the so-called “positional game.”
The false nine starts the offensive play inside the box as a reference for rival defenders but then gets out of it and joins the midfield to create number superiority.
When this player joins the midfield, it creates a vast space inside the box that wingers take advantage of, and defenders face a fatal dilemma.
If they advance to close the false nine, they leave a huge gap; if they stay put, the false nine has an immense free space in front of them.
And when the striker has Lionel Messi’s accuracy, the defenders’ dilemma turns into a fatal trap.
The great Hungary of Ferenc Puskás that lost the World Cup final in 1954 against Germany used Nándor Hidegkuti as a false nine. Rinus Mitchell used this tactic in the Netherland national team, where Johan Cruyff itself would play as false nine.
Scoring a goal in soccer is the hardest part of the game. That’s why strikers earn more money than the rest of their teammates and why teams pay astronomical amounts to have their services.
Apart from the right tactics, positioning, skills, attributes, and role in the pitch, it involves a pinch of luck in the process.
If you look closely at every goal scored, only a few of them go directly from the striker’s foot to the end of the net. Chris Andersen, in his book “The numbers of the game,” explains this perfectly.
He says that the percentage of “clean goals” is astonishingly low, so he concludes that the vast majority of goals scored are in a significant portion, the product of a balanced set of coincidences.
And if all this is true then, what does it take to be a good striker?
How to be a striker in soccer
It might sound repetitive, but to be a striker, a player needs to score often, create lots of chances or assist their teammates. A striker who can’t do any of that should consider a different position.
They should be alert and assume that the defenders will miss and be ready to act, just like drivers on a highway believe that the guy in front will do something stupid.
Self-confidence is also crucial. A striker must trust in its abilities and be optimistic about its chances of scoring.
I saw an interview with Gabriel Batistuta once; he was giving some tips for forwards. He said that a manager gave him lots of tricks he used and was of immense help.
A striker should play on tiptoes, he said, because, like that, you are half a second ahead of the defender who needs to get on his tiptoes to start running.
It makes sense; any fraction of a second of advantage is good to get first to the ball and score.
A striker’s mindset must be bulletproof, too; defenders will do anything to make a forward lose its focus.
The ball might take time to get back to the striker’s zone of action, and that time, with the referee on the other side of the pitch, a defender’s company might turn into mental warfare.
Strikers need to be tricky. Good defenders study the forwards they’re facing. A defender needs to read strikers and anticipate their next steps.
That’s why a forward must be deceiving, look scared when they’re not, or tired. Any trick will do the job.