If you listened to the Massive Report Podcast this week (and if you didn't what's wrong with you?), you will have heard the hosts clamoring for Columbus Crew SC to pay two forwards with the addition Jack McInerney in the transfer window. The guys didn't have the time to break down the tactical reasons for the desire to see a second forward, so this article explains the advantages and disadvantages of playing a system with two forwards. The written word also gives us the advantage of pictures (!) to help show what can be difficult to explain.
Advantages: Two hearts are better than one
The major advantages to playing with two strikers are bountiful. Perhaps the four most important are: 1) the target forward has a partner relieving his burden to carry the attack, 2) Defenders must split their attention between two men rather than one, thus creating greater strain and confusion on the defense, 3) the second striker (often a player who was previously playing in a midfield role) can shuck his defensive responsibilities and focus solely on attacking, and 4) allows additional dimensions to be added to the attack
In the 4-2-3-1 Berhalter (and most other top coaches) uses, the brunt of the attacking work is done by the sole target forward. It is his duty to receive the ball from the midfield with his back to the goal and "hold it up" while the other attacking midfield positions come up to assist in the attack. When he receives the ball he is often alone against both central defenders and often a defensive midfielder.
He often takes a beating from playing one-on-three all game. He also takes a mental beating as he is left with most of the attacking decision making. After he holds the ball up he can create his own shot or pass it off and get back into position to make a play for a ball in the air or to his feet.
In a two forward system this work isn't quite cut in half, but it is lessened. The target forward still plays his role, but he now has a partner who, rather than being tucked into the midfield, will be up top with him playing either level or slightly behind. This gives the target forward an immediate outlet to play the ball off to and draw attention of one of the two center backs. This allows the target forward to take less of a beating as he will be in more one on one or one on two situations.
The benefit of an additional forward makes mathematical sense. Rather than having both centerbacks focus on one man, they now must focus their attention to two. While it is true central defenders also must watch out for wingers in the midfield, a second forward does not need to run up the pitch to meet the target man, and therefore the defenders must spread out more and the target forward is able to play much quicker. The quick play does not allows the defensive midfielders and fullbacks time to "get set" or fall back into position and creates a friendly numbers game for the offense.
As a result of faster play in the attacking third and a spread defense, "channels" are opened. These are areas the forwards can run through without the ball to get behind a defender while still being onside.
This means defenders must now watch the player in front and a player running behind. This creates confusion which leads to goals.
The third advantage above is a two sided coin. The attacker, for examples sake lets say Ethan Finlay, now only has to focus on running behind defenders, getting open when Kei Kamara (target forward) has the ball, and finishing. He no longer has to think about those things (all of which Berhalter asks of him) as well as covering defensively on the right side of the field. This allows him to see things he may not otherwise have seen, or be in a more advanced position allowing him to take advantage of defenders out of position before they have a chance to reset. The downside to this, however, is now the defensive responsibilities of the other players increases while the overall midfield numbers decrease. This well be explored next.
There are two major disadvantages to playing a two striker system. 1) The creative midfielder, or the "number 10 role" is often lost and 2) either width or defensive stability in the midfield is sacrificed.
When it comes to dealing with a narrowing field, teams often combat this by adapting a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 formation. This allows managers to utilize wingers as in the 4-2-3-1 as well as have the second striker. In the 3-5-2, the wing players are essentially in charge of the entire left or the right third of the field.
The diagram also shows the defensive risks of playing in such a formation. With only 3 dedicated defenders, the 3-5-2 can be susceptible to the counter attack, especially in wide areas if the wingers are caught too far forward. Managers who prefer the defensive stability will employ the 4-4-2 with either a flat midfield or a diamond. The flat 4-4-2 provides defensive stability but lacking the width or playmaker position.
If managers decide they do want to have a "No. 10" and two strikers (a reemerging philosophy) the 4-4-2 diamond will be deployed. The downside to this formation is the left and right midfielders are tucked in to help cover the center of the park (since the attacking mid likely won't play much defense) and the fullbacks are relied on for width.
This sacrifice is deemed worthy by many managers as fullbacks are more athletic and a dedicated central defensive midfielder can often cover for them. It also allowed the creative attacking midfielder freedom to receive the ball from the midfield (thus freeing up the "target" forward) and allows two forwards to find space in the defense.
The disadvantages to playing two forwards are able to be masked by playing any of the formations above, or variations of them. It is of the belief of this author that the reward of playing two forwards greatly outweighs the risk. I would like the see the Crew SC line up in this formation:
Which accentuates a creative attacking midfielder, two forwards, and width. With the new signings on defense I believe playing 3 centerbacks with Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani dropping back to cover for the wingers (as shown with cool dotted arrows) will scratch Berhalter's attacking itch and provide defensive stability.