Unbelievably, it may not be the primary duty of the so-called "target man" to actually score goals. I'm sure there are those of you who may be a little surprised to read that, but it really makes sense.
There were a couple of examples of USA coach Bob Bradley's shocking naivete from this last summer (the type of un-insight-fulness which would lead someone like me to not renew his contract for another four years) and one of them was that he seemed to still think he needed two strikers, up high, on the same vertical axis. In a perfect world, Bradley would have been able to run out Charlie Davies along with Jozy Altidore and let them continue to develop their effective partnership, but Davies, quite unfortunately, was unavailable. Bradley seemed dead set to replace him with an attempt at a like-for-like replacement in Robbie Findley - a player who probably lacked the pedigree to even be included in the 23-man roster.
What was interesting to me was how much better Altidore suddenly seemed when he was rid of Findley (or Herculez Gomez) in the late stages of the Slovenia comeback, the Algeria dramatics, and the agonizing elimination to Ghana. When Bradley saw fit to switch to a 4-2-3-1 in each of those matches, bringing on Feilhaber as the left wing, switching Demspey to 2nd striker, and bringing Edu on for Clark (I would have fired Bradley simply for preferring Clark over Edu to begin with) the team was suddenly much better.
It is also entirely irrelevant that Altidore didn't manage to score, despite playing almost all the available minutes. A goal or two would have been nice but, at least in the 4-2-3-1, scoring wasn't his primary contribution. An ability to hold up the ball and occupy at least one center back, freeing things up for the attackers rushing in behind him, was a greater purpose.
When Blaise Nkufo failed to produce the truckloads of goals from the moment of his arrival in Seattle, the catcalls soon started. It was hardly as though his presence lead to a form drop for the team; in fact the play of the team after his arrival saw a noticeable upturn. The importance of a "target man" in the Sounders lineup is a well-documented lesson from the 2010 season. It wasn't very far into the year when it became apparent that Nate Jaqua - the object of rather astonishing derision from some quarters the previous offseason - was sorely missed by the team.
But why? When the last decade has taught us that center forwards don't need to be the big and burly stereotypes, the classic goal poacher is probably extinct, and false 9's are often de rigueur, it strike me as a little odd, maybe even quaint, that the Sounders are so dependent on a target man.
Recently I pointed out that players like Steve Zakuani remove the "#10" burden from 2nd striker/playmaker types like Fredy Montero. Therein lies the key, however. The Sounders are for more 4-4-2 than 4-3-3, and Fredy Montero is, at his best, a 2nd striker, which by definition means that someone else will need to be up there with him.
What's interesting is how often Nkufo or even Jaqua would "drop off" themselves (keeping in mind that I consider "dropping off" to be both a vertical and horizontal phenomenon). You have to remind yourself that these are just labels, and at some point labels do injustice, and such that it often is in soccer. Nkufo was actually quite good at dropping off, and working distribution. I even had a knowledgeable friend try to convince me he should be a central midfielder. Jaqua's exploits are well documented, to the point of becoming a "target right wing" in late 2009.
The point is, the role exists, and it isn't entirely to benefit Montero. Someone nominally needs to be at the top of the formation in the 4-2-3-1-esque shape the Sounders default to. It works out pretty well if this person has reliable "playmaking" skills themselves, as both Jaqua and Nkufo have demonstrated. Having the physical presence to knock in the occasional goal is important, but more so is the simple ability to win the ball and give it to someone wearing the same color shirt. The Sounders are fairly criticized for seemingly not shooting enough, as often it seems as though they would simply rather continue to pass the ball around the penalty area until they lose it than have someone get a shot off. But I always come back to the fact that if a team's greatest crime is too much possession deep in your attacking third, then that is a flaw I can live with.
Center Forward, Strikers, and Target Men
It's probably necessary to try to define these terms, which in itself can be quixotic when talking about soccer. If forced to do so, I would say "center forward" is a positional description, and striker and target man are more stylistic. Thierry Henry, at his prime for Arsenal, was certainly a striker, but not really a center forward (he loved roaming left, but wasn't a winger). David Villa is a striker, either at center forward or a wing. Messi has played as a center forward, but is certainly not a target man; he is in fact a false 9. Fernando Torres is certainly a center forward. The dying breed of "fox in the box" goal poachers - those players like Michael Owen and Ruud van Nistelrooy whose contribution was measured entirely in goals - were certainly center forwards. Center forwards may be one of many styles, but they will be positioned centrally and forward.
I have wondered if the term "2nd striker" isn't redundant of itself. I would say a "striker" is a player who uses running as a weapon more than positioning (although this is, of itself, a generalization). I suppose the term still has utility, mainly because it implies that the player being defined is not a "lone striker" and is going to play a bit deeper than his colleague.
What of "lone strikers?" This is tricky, because, for the most part, "lone striker" systems have come to dominate, whether it be 4-2-3-1 or any one of the 4-3-3 applications, it's worth remembering that wingers - who may be considered forwards in many cases - simply won't, or don't, play as high as the center forward. (I have mentioned previously that there is very little need for players to play very high AND wide). This is a perfect example of the mushy nomenclature of the game: the fact that "center forward" and "striker" are used almost interchangeably. The numerous 4-2-3-1 teams we saw at the last World Cup all used "lone strikers" who were in fact, center forwards - and they were either "strikers" or "target men". At Barca, where descriptions go to die, Messi is, by definition, the center forward in their 4-3-3 system, and yet David Villa is every bit as much of a "striker" as he is from his left forward (aka "wing") position. Messi is, in fact, a "2nd striker" playing without a "center forward" or "target man" partner (which is how i would define a "false 9). [although it is probably also for the best if I refrain from using Barca players as examples for defining positions...]
Confused? Good, because this is why most people (particularly the English) have abandoned tactical breakdowns of the game (and thusly retreated into insipidness in their manner of describing the very game they claim to have invented). If you are still with me, then lets proceed.
So what IS a "target man"
The 4-2-3-1 formation's coming out party was the 2006 World Cup. The problem is that many of us hadn't realized what was happening yet, and we didn't have that name, so it was just "4-5-1" and since everyone was playing with a "lone striker" that Clearly meant they were only interested in perpetuating the dour soccer which can come to dominate such tournaments (and we can thank the English for this naivete). We now know that's false, and recognize the 4-2-3-1 (or indeed 4-1-2-3, which is often more 4-5-1 than 4-3-3) as shapes which can launch some pretty creative attacks.
At the top of the USA's shape was one Brian McBride. The USA had a pretty miserable experience in Germany in '06 and it wasn't McBride's fault in the least. He played high and centrally, and as was the case throughout his career, needed proper service in order to do much.
The sports bar at Craven Cottage, the Home ground of Fulham - where McBride plied his trade for 4 productive English Premier League seasons - is named "McBride's". I do admit that I have been quick to criticize the English, but they do have an eye for a certain type of player, and McBride is that type of player. He could never be said to be lacking in resolve, and while he did score a fair number of goals for club and country, but more than that he was a player you could "target" and he would certainly do his part to win and keep the ball.
Target men are almost by definition going to be center forwards, which is why the two terms are so interchangeable. Fredy Montero played center forward much of the first half of 2010, but most of us accused him of laziness because he was most certainly NOT a target man.
So, having cleared that up, let's circle back and re-address the question. With what we see in Europe, where attacking players are almost always versatile, and specified roles are disappearing in the attack, why do the Sounders need a "target man" so much?
This Is the MLS
The answer is Structure. Let's not kid ourselves, here. In my previous posts I have written much about structure leading to fluidity and creativity, and this is especially true at the more modest levels of professional soccer, like the MLS.
Sigi's arrow is about partnerships:
The partnership at striker and at central mid are stacked, we graphically represent it this way to demonstrate the nature of those partnerships (remember that formations are a form of shorthand). The Central midfield pairs a ball-winning defender with a "regista"-type, looking to collect those balls and link to the attack, or join in himself when possible. The forward partnership pairs a "striker" with a "center forward." At the MLS level, with physicality all too often replacing technicality, it is better to have a "target man" fill that spot.
It is intriguing to ponder the possibilities which would be opened up with Montero as a false 9, but I just don't see this as feasible within the MLS, as things stand. As it is, The target man will continue to be a vital role in the Sounders' attack.