Defensive forwards a common trait among Europe's elite
Ask an Arsenal supporter about their memories of the "Invincibles" season of 2003-04, and they'll probably mention Thierry Henry's goal return, Dennis Bergkamp's creative genius or Robert Pires' tricky wing play. But one of the most exhilarating parts of Arsenal's play was, somewhat surprisingly, when their star man conceded possession.
Henry's poor touches were few and far between, but when a misplaced pass went to an opponent rather than a teammate, the Frenchman made it his own personal mission to regain possession. Immediately -- usually in the first half at Highbury, when Arsenal were attacking the old Clock End -- he'd sprint to the relevant defender to quickly put in a tackle, and then do the same if the opposition managed to start a passing move in their right-back zone. He charged back and forth between defenders until the ball was Arsenal's once again. It was, in its own way, truly spectacular.
At the time, that felt somewhat unique. Since then, top-class forwards at other major, groundbreaking sides have followed suit and played crucial roles in trying to regain the ball. In fact, almost every innovative side in recent years has been notable for the work rate of their centre-forward.
Hard-working centre-forwards can broadly be separated into two categories, according to whether the centre-forward is playing in a proactive, pressing side attempting to regain the ball in advanced positions, or as part of a deeper defensive block that looks to soak up pressure before counter-attacking. Either way, it's no longer enough for teams to defend with two banks of four -- the forwards must play a significant part in the defensive phase of play, too.
Barcelona were the team which helped re-popularise the concept of pressing. In Pep Guardiola's 2008-09 side, the forwards were hardworking, but by 2010-11 they'd taken it to another level, especially with Lionel Messi as a permanent central forward. Samuel Eto'o in 2008-09 and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2009-10 weren't so keen to waste energy when the opposition had the ball.
Over in Dortmund, meanwhile, Jurgen Klopp's side were also enjoying great success with their heavy pressure. Lucas Barrios, whose part in their rise has been somewhat forgotten because of Robert Lewandowski's development, was crucial in setting an example to the rest of the side. Barrios was always on the move to shut down a defender, forcing his opponent onto his weak side, or denying a pass into the midfield zone.
Luis Suarez is another example. While he didn't win the Premier League title with Liverpool in 2013-14, the club came astonishingly close, largely because of the Uruguayan's effort. And "effort" is exactly the word, with Suarez displaying the same tenacity without the ball as when bundling his way past defenders. Liverpool, without the demands of European football that season, simply looked so much fresher than their major rivals, epitomised by the 5-1 victory over Arsenal when the tempo of the two sides was hugely contrasting. Suarez was always crucial, his energy and mobility almost as memorable as his long-range strikes.
Alternatively, however, forwards can play a crucial part in the defensive phase of play by doing the opposite: rather than sprinting up the pitch to pressure defenders, they drop deep and keep the side compact in a lower block. That way, the opposition defenders -- and sometimes holding midfielders -- have time on the ball, but playing a pass into the midfield zone becomes very difficult.
The classic example is the roles played by Diego Costa and David Villa during Atletico's La Liga-winning campaign of 2013-14. While both would prefer to be stationed in the opposition penalty box, they usually took up positions goal-side of the opposition's holding midfielders, meaning Atletico's midfielders had a smaller zone to cover.
The defensive transitions were excellent: As soon as Atletico lost the ball, one player would press the man in possession but everyone, including Costa and Villa, would drop back into position immediately. Costa had the explosive power to burst forward into attack too, but Villa lacked that acceleration by this point. He barely scored towards the end of the season, yet his place was assured because his discipline and work rate was consistently outstanding, and therefore he was playing his role perfectly.
The replacement for those two, Mario Mandzukic, was signed partly because he had shown he was capable of tremendous work rate, too, in the previous season's Champions League. His performance for Bayern Munich in a 2-0 win over Juventus was quite outstanding. He managed to blend the two different styles of centre-forward discipline: he pressed energetically when Juventus were trying to play out from the back, but then when they bypassed that press, he dropped back into his own half, meaning that if Juve played the ball back into defence, Bayern now had 10 men behind the ball.
Mandzukic lacked the explosive pace to make a slightly different approach work with Atletico -- his limitations hadn't been so obvious at Bayern, when Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery led the counter-attacking. It's interesting that Mandzukic has now signed for Juve, which experienced his stunning work rate in the aforementioned game two years ago, and then regularly took up a very Atletico-esque shape in this year's Champions League knockout stage, with Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata dropping back deep.
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In one sense, this is just another example of universality, with every player expected to be capable of both defending and attacking. Yet it also represents something deeper; it symbolises a team's approach -- to the players themselves. The other 10 players are looking forward up the pitch, ready to take their cue from the man spearheading the side, and his attitude is absolutely crucial in their approach. If you see your primary attacker, and often your star player, working his socks off to regain possession, you're inevitably more likely to follow suit and be positive with your defensive play.
While this approach has become widely popular among European sides, particularly at club level, the Copa America has been fascinating because the majority of teams have a much less rigorous approach to defending from the front. With the notable exception of Chile, which have played a heavy pressing style for over half a decade, the majority of teams' defensive transitions are poor, with the wingers ambling back into position and the forwards barely bothering. In this sense, South America seems a decade behind Europe in a purely tactical sense.
Forwards working hard was once considered an obvious sign they didn't boast individual talent. But the likes of Henry, Messi and Suarez have proved that even the world's best performers are capable of leading the defensive pressure. And, if they do it, how can anyone else refuse?
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.