The Four Pillars of Football – Part Two: Center Forward

Liverpool’s team today would not have the success without the often misunderstood position of center forward. As see in many modern day teams, being tall is no longer a requirement for strikers, and long gone are the days where they only live in the opposition’s box, never tracking back. Still, it seems as though Jurgen Klopp’s requirements for the leader of his attacking line are markedly different to others. This is evident when hearing opposition supporters question the credentials of Roberto Firmino. Klopp had the tallest of orders when he was introduced as Liverpool’s manager in the Fall of 2015; at the top of the list was to solve our scoring funk.

When Klopp was appointed as boss that season, Liverpool were already in emergency mode. Liverpool fans were entranced with the unreal talent Luis Suarez displayed in his last season at the club. Once he was sold, his profits were invested into imperfect replacements. Square pegs were forced to fill the giant round hole that Suarez had left. Christian Benteke and Mario Balotelli, players brought in by the previous administration, were seen as a ‘sum-of-their-parts’ replacement for Suarez. When Roberto Firmino was acquired the summer before Klopp joined, Bobby’s talent was admitted without necessarily knowing where he best fit position-wise. More established players in the squad such as Daniel Sturridge and then-youngster Divock Origi were utilized in the forward roles. As Klopp unforgivingly established his specific style of play, players would either adapt to it or be shown the door.

After five seasons, Firmino is only three goals shy of the total Premier League goals Luis Suarez provided for the Reds, albeit after a little more time (two more seasons than Suarez). While the position of center forward means that some goal scoring responsibility is naturally shouldered by that player, the role of the center forward in Klopp’s team is far greater. Klopp’s requirements for the position of center forward, in terms of the pillars of football, effectively create an overall contribution to the dynamics of the play style which are unequivocal to other strikers in the league. Firmino has demonstrated his importance throughout the years, and Liverpool rely on his unique abilities to fulfill the role better than most. Now, Liverpool also possess Diogo Jota, a new face in the team and a player with important attributes in his own regard. As he continues his development under Klopp, Jota will begin receiving more play time in the central position.

Mental

A brief reminder of what the mental pillar entails. The mental aspect of all sports is the focus, determination, and desire an individual possesses that make that player rise to the occasion. Klopp requires his players to be constantly switched-on and focused, regardless of if it is on or off the pitch. Klopp has cycled through a myriad of attacking players to play center forward for his teams. He often used a single striker set up, which meant lots of heavy competition for few available minutes. This ended up being a blessing for Klopp – a man who believes in and encourages internal competition in order to bring the best out of his players. Technical ability alone was not nearly enough for Klopp to award a roster spot. The mentality to continue to drive and focus on growing, learning, and performing is always Klopp’s most appreciated value.

As I mentioned earlier, many forwards have been involved in Klopp’s lineups over the years. However, few have maintained a constant starting position in the team like Bobby Firmino has done. His perpetual motion on the field is not an automatic function: it is a conscious effort to always keep moving, a mental devotion to play beyond perhaps even physical barriers. The will to continuously move and be involved is not only important offensively, but defensively as well. As such, he breaks up plays before they happen an disrupts teams as they try to play out from the back. Firmino has been the only center forward to display such a two-way mentality through the entirety of Klopp’s tenure. (That is until Jota entered into the mix. All Liverpool fans hope that Jota continues to display this mentality for years to come.)

On the contrary, others have not been able to show the same mental toughness Klopp mandates. While seemingly fit enough and possessing the talent and technique to thrive at a top team, Divock Origi appears to never have brought his career to the next level. Behind the scenes, Origi has a relaxed demeanor to him. While this does not appear to disrupt the mentality of the rest of the squad, it does seem to have been noticed. In James Milner’s book Ask a Footballer he referred to this phenomenon as ‘Planet Origi.’ The relaxed nature is appreciated by Milner, but has obvious implications to play time. Milner described Origi as a polar opposite of himself. Milner, at his “experienced” age has consistently kept himself involved in an immensely talented midfield, while Origi has found himself struggling for minutes even when competition for attacking positions was not great. Even as others had their drought of goals throughout this past season (2020/21), the Belgian failed to establish himself as a viable option for Klopp. Origi appears to have rode his talent as far as it can go in the German manager’s team. This is solely because the mentality and drive have not been enough from Origi. He will always be remembered for his Champions League heroics and derby goals, but there will always be a sense of regret that these levels were seen all too inconsistently.

Physical

The physical pillar refers to the pace, power, and stamina a player possesses. Scoring goals is an innate talent one must possess as a striker – indeed, you are the closest person to the other goal. Thus, some teams allow their strikers to be rather one-dimensional: a player virtually invisible during the game, only expected to have a minimal number of touches close to the opposition’s goal. But for some teams this works – having less possession than average, the main goal scoring threat comes from the ‘big man’ up top, and teams will often take what they can get.

This is not true for Klopp’s teams. He expects each player to be physically dominant in several aspects of the game. This is true of all candidates for the central attacking role: Jota shares many of the attributes Firmino possesses. Defensively, they are able to sprint again and again, constantly looking to press the opposition and put them on the back foot. Klopp requires his attacking players to possess physical strength in the tackle and contesting 50/50 balls. Offensively, they must be able to have the ability to make runs of support in behind the defense, not receiving the ball most of the time. They must have the stamina and agility to be able to immediately turn and provide a recovery run backwards for further support (more in the tactical pillar). Finally, they also share immense abilities in aerial duels, providing the option for headed goals.

Liverpool have been blessed with many quality strikers throughout their history. In recent times, respect must be placed on the name of Daniel Sturridge. A striker that lit up the league during the 13/14 season, he was blessed with blistering pace and an eye for goal. However, injuries committed a larceny by stealing Sturridge’s quickness, and he was no longer the player he used to be. In the later months of his Liverpool career he looked fatigued after only minutes on the pitch. While Sturridge’s other three pillars of football appeared at levels Liverpool fans (and managers) would appreciate, his deficiencies in the physical pillar became too much of a liability to trust on the pitch. Sturridge could no longer be counted on to make the lung-bursting runs for both sides of the game, and he ended up an unfortunate casualty of Klopp’s expectations of physical fitness. At the time, he would have still been considered a Premier League quality striker for many other teams, but for Liverpool’s standards his physical abilities no longer were up to standard. Football can be a cruel game sometimes.

Tactical

Jurgen Klopp’s requirements for the tactical pillar for center forwards are likely some of the most intricate for any position on the field under the German. The center forward’s role is both unique and constantly tiresome for the player in this system, thus the elite physical capabilities being required. As opposing fans love to criticize, their jeers of Liverpool’s ‘defensive striker’ are an attempt to criticize the lack of pure goalscoring by our central attacker. In my opinion, it shows a lack of understanding of how our front man is used in Klopp’s tactics.

As Klopp demands, the first commandment for a Liverpool’s forward is ‘thou shall constantly pressure the opposition.’ The innate high-intensity pressure demanded by Klopp is the first line of tactics by Liverpool. What can be initially mistaken as a defensive move is really the initial attacking tactic. Gaining possession close to the opposing goal is far more efficient than it is to retrieve the ball closer to your own. What other team’s supporters do not fully understand is how the best players are capable of wearing more than just one hat. Klopp expects his multi-faceted players to be tactically astute on both sides of the ball. Often times we did not see enough of this from Origi at the beginning of his career. All credit where it is due – he has developed a bit over the years – but there is still much to be desired.

Offensively, Klopp requires his center forwards to be a constantly available outlet for a ball. Firmino is frequently conducting runs across, behind, and around defenders to be a ever-constant option for his teammates. Moreover, his much-publicized ability to drop deep through the middle to pick up the ball adds an additional player in midfield while also dragging the defender out of position to create space in behind. There is also the rounded run into the wing position, which allows the ball to either be played into the feet of the forward or out in front to run on to. Another incredibly underrated movement is the route to the side of the opposition’s penalty area while in the final third. A ball is played to the feet of the center forward, which immediately gets reversed. Subtly, this run also creates panic in the area from the center backs who suddenly have the responsibility to follow, which opens space for other attackers.

These are clearly not an exclusive list of they type of runs that we see from Firmino or other players deployed in the center forward position. However, to see such intricate runs at such frequency, efficiency, and ruthlessness that Liverpool conduct them seem to be representative of markedly more movement in the front than that of other teams. Other teams rely heavily on the output of goals from the central striker: they need the player in front of goal to score. This can often create a static, one-dimensional style of play; it is reasonable to expect less success as a result. Liverpool’s dynamic movement, on the other hand, keeps defenders guessing and off balance. And it all begins with the calculated movement from the front man.

Technical

Traditionally, center forwards have always been some of most impressive on the pitch when it comes to the technical abilities of players. This remains the same in the Liverpool team as few in the team can compete with Firmino’s dribbling ability. His elegance and grace on the ball compliment his willingness and ambition to try the drags-and-flicks or no-look strikes that have become almost expected from the Brazilian striker. Indeed, many are aware of his incredible abilities on the ball. As such it seems that Firmino satisfies Klopp’s technical requirements, right?

Well, Klopp’s expectations for the technical pillar reach beyond just one on one dribbling abilities. Klopp requires his striker’s to possess astute control for hold-up play as often the center forward will retrieve the ball with their back to goal. The player must then either have the ability to turn on the ball or have the vision and technique to make the pass. The center forward’s passing execution must be constantly close to perfect in order to maintain possession and a smooth transition further up the pitch. Unfortunately some players were not capable of this. As the years went on, Sturridge showed inefficiencies when it came to his hold up play and passing. Far too often, balls were played to his feet with minimal space to turn or carry, and he would lose possession. While his strongest attribute technically was his shooting, Sturridge often got into those positions with his lightning speed and dribbling. Once injuries affected his physical ability to run in behind, his deficiency in certain technical abilities could not make up enough to save his position on the team.

Speaking of which, goal scoring ability is obviously an incredibly important part of the technical pillar. This is a skill that Firmino has shown he is fully capable of, but may have failed to consistently perform the attribute over the last season. Meanwhile, Klopp’s newest recruit in the position – Diogo Jota – has shown he is something of a serial goal scorer when given the opportunity. Jota had the highest goals-per-ninety-minutes ratio of any Liverpool player last season of 0.73 goals/90min. In comparison, Mohamed Salah’s ratio was .64g/90 last season!

What’s Next

An interesting argument can be established for next season regarding the position of center forward for Liverpool. At Liverpool’s disposal, they have their distinguished and trusted #9 in Firmino that has been the epicenter of a striking force that brought glory back to Anfield. At the other end of the ring is Diogo Jota; the young buck with clear talent and an eye for goal. He is a player who, with distinguished greats around to mold him, can grow to be one of the prime strikers in the world. Klopp has wonder problems to try and get the best out of both.

Credit Deni Denot (https://dribbble.com/dedebaba)

Fans can only assume some of the questions are the same talking points we share. Will Firmino, at the age of 29, still work in the same capacity he has shown for years now or will his required position change to something further back in the midfield?

Will Jota be given the amount of games he requires at center forward to be able to create the same impact Firmino has shown in the past?

Will Klopp lean to a more fluent and new-age type of 4-4-2 that can allow both to be through the center while displaying intense movement throughout the field?

So many answers remain to be seen. One thing for certain is that Klopp has created a new prototype for the center forward position; one that requires different and arguably greater attributes from the four pillars than has been seen in the past. And as he continues his reign on the team, the position will continue to be tweaked and revised so center forwards will always be the machine at the center of Klopp’s heavy metal football.

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