The target man is synonymous with English football. The cliché of big man up front, thriving of balls lumped into the mixer, meeting crosses with power headers and towering above defenders with elbows flying is woven into the fabric of football in this country. However, with the rise of possession football and technical players, are the days of the target man numbered?
Before the formation of the Premier League, large parts of English football were relatively basic. It was dominated by long balls, 4-4-2 and bad pitches. Most sides played with pacey wingers, hard-tackling midfielders, and were fronted by a big man-little man combination. This was the blueprint of the English game, a product of the English football philosophy, that had been laid out since the 1950s.
Target men were an integral part of English football tactics thanks to the work of Charles Reep, and later Charles Hughes. Reep was a Wing Commander in the RAF, but became famous as the first man in England to ‘analyse’ football matches. He watched and analysed over 2,200 games, and his conclusions would shape the English game until the 2000s.
Reep was searching for the most effective way to win football matches. He believed his data showed him that seven out of nine goals were scored from moves that included three passes or fewer, with most goals being scored after the ball was won in the opposition’s third. He concluded that the most effective way to play football was long, direct play, getting the ball close to the opponent’s goal as quickly as possible.
His ideas were not universally accepted, but they had a clear lasting impact on English football. Charles Hughes, who was the FA Director of Coaching for most of the 1980s, was a big believer in Reep’s studies. He stated in his book ‘The Winning Formula’, that ‘85% of goals were scored from moves of five or fewer passes’.
Thus, began the English obsession with the ‘Position Of Maximum Opportunity.’ POMO football became the norm in England, largely due to Hughes’ influence in the FA.
This philosophy preached that teams should aim to get the ball to the opposition’s far post as quickly as possible, as this was the area from which the largest proportion of goals were scored. This meant crosses and long diagonals should be launched in as frequently as possible. And so, the perfect environment was created in which the target man could thrive.
And thrive they did. English football has always loved their big men up top. The likes of Dion Dublin, Chris Sutton, Alan Smith, Luther Blissett, Emile Heskey and countless others were famed and revered for their aerial ability.
Physical, 4-4-2 sides are a part of football folklore in England. Sunday league sides would never think of playing anything other than the classic template, while some of English football’s fondest stories are those of Dave Bassett’s Wimbledon and Graham Taylor’s Watford.
Both sides rose from the fourth to the first tier of English football in five seasons playing direct, physical, POMO football, with John Fashanu and Blissett leading the lines respectively. They captured the imaginations of football fans, while also receiving criticism for their playing styles, but both are positive proof of Reep and Hughes’ vision of football.
These sides have become part of English football history. Taylor eventually became England manager, disappointing at the Euros in ’92, failing to qualify for the World Cup in ’94 and eventually resigning under a shroud of abuse and anger from the public. Bassett led his ‘Crazy Gang’ to an FA Cup final against Liverpool’s ‘Culture Club’ in 1988, and their victory is now regarded as the biggest upset in FA Cup history (whether that is really the case is quite debatable).
And thus, the English mindset has been formed. The love of big tacklers, and big target men, was rooted in the very nature of football.
Only in England do crowds moan with disappointment when the ball is recycled rather than launched into the opponent’s box. No other fans greet the award of a corner with a mass uproar.
Jose Mourinho once laughed at this typically English reaction. But this reaction is a part of English football’s DNA, part of the desire to get the ball forward to the big man who can score that last-minute header or win the flick on for his strike partner.
Change, however, was inevitable.
Ironically, injury to one of the best target men of his day could well have opened the door for a different type of player. Dion Dublin had made his name spearheading John Beck’s Cambridge, who had risen from the fourth tier to within inches of the top flight in three seasons, losing in the Second Division playoffs in 1992 after finishing fifth.
Beck was an extremist of the POMO school. Stories of deliberately ruining pitches, muddying the channels so the ball would stick, and famously substituting Steve Claridge after he cut inside rather than getting a cross into the box made Beck a laughable character. But his style of football was effective for Cambridge, no doubt thanks to his excellent young striker.
Despite being a centre-back when he signing from Norwich in 1988, Beck turned Dublin into his star frontman. He went on to score some of the club’s most important goals, in playoffs, FA Cup runs and promotion campaigns.
Dublin would go on to score 111 Premier League goals, 45 of which (40.45%) were headers. At 6 feet 2 inches, he was one of the best target men of his day, if not of all time. But his injury, shortly after signing for Manchester United, resulted in a shift away from his kind.
After breaking his leg against Crystal Palace in September 1992, Dublin was ruled out for 6 months. Alex Ferguson, who had signed Dublin that summer for £1,000,000, needed a replacement.
That replacement was Eric Cantona.
Cantona was a new breed of forward- technical and deep-lying. He became an icon at the club and by the time he returned from injury, Dublin was out of the picture.
In his book The Mixer, Michael Cox believes United’s signing of Cantona, along with the signings of Gianfranco Zola and Dennis Bergkamp by Chelsea and Arsenal respectively, kickstarted the process that would see the Premier League become one of the most technical in the world.
The influx of European footballers, managers and ideas saw the classic English game rapidly displaced by a tactical and technical hotbed of talent. Fans were introduced to new systems, new styles and new concepts that stretched what was previously considered possible.
Mourinho brought 4-3-3, Klopp brought gegenpressing, Guardiola brought tika-taka.
Suddenly, Hughes’ POMO 4-4-2 seemed laughable and rudimentary. Possession was king, long ball was for the weak and the untalented, those who couldn’t cope with the new world order.
Target men became the weapon of the underdog.
Those who couldn’t match the elite simply had to try their best with their outdated style. The last bastions of such play, Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis, became laughing stocks, footballing dinosaurs in a world of football philosophers. This was the beginning of the ‘proper football men’ vs the modern analytics intellectuals.
Mourinho bemoaned West Ham’s ’19th century tactics’ during their 0-0 draw between his Chelsea side and Sam Allardyce’s Hammers in 2014. His comments were belly-laughed off by the future England manager.
Teams even started crossing less. Alistair Tweedale, writing in the Telegraph, noted how the average number of crosses has dropped from 50 to just 35 per game between 2009 and 2019. Inverted wingers have played their part, but teams rarely have someone who can compete in crowded boxes anymore.
And so, target men fell further and further out of fashion at the top of the game.
They played their part lower down the leagues and in relegation battles. Andy Carroll scored 17 goals for Newcastle in 2009-10, helping them regain their Premier League place. Christian Benteke scored 42 goals in 89 games for Aston Villa between 2012 and 2015, helping them avoid relegation in three consecutive seasons.
Both failed to make the step up at Liverpool. Neither fitting the side’s passing style, frustrated by a lack of balls into the box. It seems that target men just didn’t fit in at big clubs.
It seemed as though the top sides are embarrassed by having to resort to such rudimentary options.
Marouane Fellaini was sensational at Everton in 2012-13 under David Moyes. Playing off of the striker, he scored 11 goals, an unstoppable battering ram, who had a bit of flair too.
However, upon joining Manchester United in 2013-14, under the same manager, he was seen as beneath a club of such stature. He was deployed as a holding midfielder and lacked the mobility or passing range.
Despite his lack of popularity, he scored big goals for United, under both van Gaal and later Mourinho, often being used as the last resort. The last resort, but an undoubtedly effective one.
Another overlooked player, perhaps the most overlooked by modern football, is Olivier Giroud. A wonderfully technical footballer, with the height and heading ability of the classic target man. Of his 80 Premier League goals, 30 of them have been headers.
He was never fully trusted by Wenger or loved by the Arsenal fans. Now at Chelsea, Frank Lampard’s reluctance to use him is unfathomable. How could young Frank possibly turn to an ageing target man? Surely that betrays all that modern football stands for.
Didier Deschamps had no such reservations. His belief in Giroud as a frontman led him and his side to a World Cup in 2018.
With that 2018 campaign, perhaps Deschamps showed that there is still a place for the target man in this day and age.
Sebastian Haller, signed this summer by West Ham for around £45,000,000, has failed to light up the Premier League like he lit up the Bundesliga last season. Is it his fault? Is he struggling to adapt to England? Or is it perhaps the reluctance of his managers to play to his strengths?
Haller scored 20 and assisted 10 for Eintracht Frankfurt last season, in a team that played direct, attacking football. He played with a strike partner in Luka Jović and attacking winger Ante Rebić, who scored 17 and 9 goals respectively.
Haller showed what a modern target man could be. Both powerful and technical, a goal threat and creator.
Rebić enjoyed similar success in the 2018 World Cup, playing alongside Mario Mandžukić for eventual runners up Croatia. Rebić’s fruitful season with Haller was greatly beneficial to him when playing with Mandžukić.
Mandžukić himself is perhaps one of the greatest modern target men. After replacing Edin Džeko, another modern great of the genre at Wolfsburg, the Croatian went on to play for Bayern Munich, Atlético Madrid and Juventus.
His technical capabilities, work rate and aerial prowess made him a valuable asset at each of those clubs. His success and goal rate proved that there is still pace in the game for a 6-foot 3 focal point.
With bigger teams playing with higher lines against their underdog rivals, perhaps the target man is on the way out. Small clubs themselves, want to emulate big clubs. They now play out from the back rather than hit the big man.
However, there could be a renaissance for the target man at the top of the game. Teams are defending deeper and narrower as the disparity between the top and bottom increases. Could the dominate sides be forced to look for someone who can dominate the penalty area?
In 2019-20, there has been a rise in the number of crosses from the top teams. Manchester City and Liverpool lead the way with 21.92 and 19.64 per game respectively. With players such as Kevin De Bruyne and Trent-Alexander Arnold capable of delivering some unbelievable pinpoint crosses, perhaps a target man could once again thrive?
Dominic Calvert-Lewin has already shown drastic improvement playing in Carlo Ancelotti’s 4-4-2, reminiscent of his early Parma days and the influence of his mentor Arrigo Sacchi. Calvert-Lewin has led Everton’s line fantastically, linking up well with Richarlison. A modern take on the classic big man-little man combination.
Is it any wonder he is becoming such a dominate forward, when his mentor is Duncan ‘Big Dunc’ Ferguson, one of the Premier League’s foremost headers of a football?
Fashions change. Old styles come back into vogue. Trends move on and develop in unpredictable ways.
Just when their place in the game looks under threat, maybe there is a new dawn on the horizon for the target man.