The Forward Misnomer
It happens at least 10 times a game.
After thwarting an attack from the opposition, your backs win the ball and pick their heads up, looking to play forward. Perhaps an outside back carries the ball, or maybe he finds your playmaker in the midfield. The point is, the counter attack has begun.
What is it about the counter attack that gets everyone’s engines revving? It could be the opportunist in all of us, but for one reason or another, it feels like time is of the essence and that your team must go forward. With pace and urgency.
It’s at this point where we see forwards fail to do what they aught to.
Pushing onward, making straight or diagonal runs, forwards want to take the most direct approach to scoring off the counter. So the playmaker on your team sends the ball down the line or over the top, hoping to connect with a forward.
Here’s the unfortunate thing: more often than not, the ball into space onto the run of your forward leaves your forward stranded on the sideline with a defender closing him down and no vertical options. Your team has just turned a counter attack into a slowdown of play as your forward must collect on the wing and survey his options.
And that risky ball pinged in over the top? It becomes a 50-50, pitting your forward against a potentially bigger, stronger, faster center back or sweeper. You’ve just had the ball in your team’s possession, but now the opposition has a good chance to win it back.
Would you trust your striker in the air against Arsenal's 6'6" center back Per Mertesacker?
The fallacy in this approach is that it assumes the name of a player’s position directs (and limits) the direction of his movement- “forward”. Instead of making runs ahead, at least one forward should check back to the ball, in the space right in front of the back line of defenders. Look at the options for a forward when he checks back to the ball with his teammates surging forward.
Disclaimer – while every forward is capable of making the run back to the ball, not every forward has the strength and wherewithal to shield the ball from the defender on his back. It takes a physical player (though not necessarily a big player!) who knows how to use his body.
The next time your team wins the ball on defense or in the midfield and begins the counter attack, be sure at least one of your forwards are checking back to the ball. With a whole team coming forward in support, the plethora of options he has ensures the right decision can be made- one that keeps possession yet doesn’t slow down the counter attack.
For the good of the game, ‘forwards’ don’t always have to go forwards. Even on a counter attack.