Steve Davis: Talking Tactics

Target Men That Only a Coach Could Love

The night belonged
to Sébastien Le Toux. The industrious French attacker nailed his name
in Philly sports history with a hat trick in the Philadelphia Union’s
home debut, and the giddy supporters there will always show him
brotherly love for it.

But will they remember Alejandro Moreno’s contributions?

Moreno
spent the evening doing what a good target forward does: providing an
outlet for his defenders and midfielders, holding up play while others
join the attack, connecting with other attackers, taking some
punishment in the process and, generally, just being a stinker for
defenders to deal with.

Of course, a target forward can only
be as good as what’s going on around him.  That’s why the night at
Lincoln Financial Field unfolded as such as great example of effective
play off a target presence. Le Toux did more than supply the finishing
highlights for the local news reels.

By maintaining close
proximity to Moreno all night, “staying connected” in soccer parlance,
Le Toux made Moreno’s job easier, constantly providing a handy option.
Moreno could hold the ball momentarily or work something quickly with
Le Toux.

Generally, if Le Toux hangs too close to Moreno, the
target man’s job is more difficult because too many defenders are
involved in the sequence too early. But Le Toux’s timing was
impeccable: He prowled the periphery and then worked into the action at
just the right moment.

On Le Toux’s second goal, Moreno’s play was classic stuff. (WATCH HERE.)
The Venezuelan international sees that teammate Roger Torres needs an
outlet coming out of defense under pressure. So he hustles back into
Philadelphia’s half, holds off Brandon Barklage’s challenge, then
supplies the best pass of the MLS weekend—a pinpoint ball in behind the
D.C. defense.

In this case, Le Toux wasn’t so close to Moreno.
But he recognized the space available and let his teammate know.
Moreno’s wonderful, early pass tore through a back line still trying to
organize.

Later, Moreno had a body on United center back Dejan
Jakovic as a ball was flung out by the Philly defense. The pair got
tangled, and Moreno might have been guilty of the first foul, but
Jakovic sinned enough to earn a red card. Le Toux hit a free kick past
a feeble wall and history was made.

The fact is, many target men
like contact. Moreno sure does. He frequently initiates it, in fact.
Instead of going directly toward a pass, they angle toward the defender
and use their body to hold off their marker.

Other target
forwards, like Seattle’s Fredy Montero, can be effective through less
brawn but more technical proficiency. Montero is not a big body, but
he’s got so much skill in those feet that he’s effective at hold-up
play.

So Montero tries to ghost away from defenders. Several
times Saturday against Real Salt Lake he separated from RSL center back
Jámison Olave at the precise moment, then nimbly gained his balance to
control the ball. The effectiveness of a target man like Montero is
often attuned to the late-arriving pressure from the defender. Montero
gets flak because he spends a lot of time on the ground. Does he
embellish sometimes? Maybe. But no one can deny that he gets whacked a
lot from behind. In other words, players are often on the ground for a
good reason.

When’s Seattle’s offense doesn’t work, it’s
sometimes because Montero’s relationship with Freddie Ljungberg is like
a lot of families: It’s complicated.

When Ljungberg partners
with Montero at forward he likes to float into the available space. But
that means he’s roaming, often wandering out to the wings. Without
Ljungberg close by, Montero has one less option. That’s why supporters
in bars along 1st Ave. near Qwest Field always argue over Ljungberg’s
best position—second striker behind Montero or out wide in midfield, as
he played Saturday.

Moreno and Montero both want the ball at
their feet. Others, not so much. Colorado’s Conor Casey is a bigger
body, so he’s OK with balls delivered in the air. He’s also a different
sort of target man in that he’s frequently looking to flick on those
balls, directing them immediately somewhere else. (He does have Omar
Cummings as a running partner, after all, which is a fine “somewhere
else.”)

A guy like Montero usually wants to “absorb” the ball
and then work with it, sometimes turning to take on defenders or
finding Steve Zakuani darting into spaces on Seattle’s left side.

Casey
has Colin Clark off his right shoulder (the Rapids’ left side) and now
perhaps a healing Jamie Smith off his left shoulder as he works with
his back to goal. So he has other options for redirecting those passes
into him, spreading the play to two guys effective at working the
flanks who can then serve balls back into the penalty area—which,
presumably, is where Casey will be.

(Interestingly, Colorado’s
opponent on Saturday plays a 4-3-3. Usually, an effective target man is
a 4-3-3 staple. But Kansas City doesn’t really play that way. Kei
Kamara can do the job but he’s often out on the right. Regardless, what
the 2-0 Wizards are is doing is working.)

One to observe going
forward is RSL’s Alvaro Saborio, who hasn’t established his place just
yet at Rio Tinto but wears the look of a classy target player. He’s
composed as he works back for the ball and has a good sense of what’s
around him. The target man with a “snapshot” of his options as he moves
to receive passes has half the work done.

Of course, in RSL’s late-show draw with Seattle, Saborio supplied the other element expected of any good target man: a goal.

Steve
Davis writes about soccer for MLSSoccer.com, SI.com and his own blog,
DailySoccerFix.com. His "Talking Tactics" column appears on
MLSsoccer.com every Tuesday. He can be reached at
BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.