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The Towering Rise of Target Men in India

Nerijus Valskis, Bart Ogbeche, Aridane Santana
Targeted: Nerijus Valskis, Bart Ogbeche and Aridane Santana | Source: ISL Media

Aside from viewership numbers, salaries and hype, one thing that has seen a steady increase in the ISL since 2018 is the number of target men. The 2018-19 season saw only 3 target men being given consistent minutes. However, this number shot up to 12 target men in 2019-20 and 10 in 2020-21.  

So what led to this sudden fascination with big, burly forces of nature? How do they help? Where is this trend going?

Before we begin answering these questions, let us dispel any correlations this has with success. There are teams that have finished at the bottom of the table despite playing with target men, and there have been extremely prolific strikers like Coro. So we know for sure that having a target man ≠ wins.

Unfortunately, football isn’t as simple as wins and losses. There are several things target men bring to the table, and I posit that quite a few of these services are highly effective in the Indian market. Here is how and why:

Tactical Fluidity

Up until now, we have seen clubs sign two players who can play as a striker thanks to the 7 foreigner rule. By signing two different types of strikers, coaches were able to switch their systems seamlessly in between games. Whether it is substitutions or in-game rotations, the idea of having forwards with different profiles helps teams in being less predictable and more dangerous in multiple areas of play.

It is also safer to have a secondary foreign goal-scorer seeing how only one Indian in the entire country is able to consistently find the net.

Even though the new rules limit the registration to 6 foreigners, clubs are signing wingers who can double up as 9s. Salient examples of the same are Joel Chianese, Cleiton Silva and Jorge Ortiz.

This implies that clubs are still going to opt for an out and out striker. Hence, it is highly likely that clubs will prefer a physical option up front given the pace they have otherwise.

Weak Defending on the Wings

Aside from the occasional Jacob Tratt or Ivan Gonzalez slotting in as a full-back, the wide defending is left to the Indians.

With the help of this visual, we can see the expected assists (xA) created for each zone.


ISL 2020-21 Overall xA HeatMap
ISL 2020-21 xA Heat Map (Overall)

The wings have the highest xA created, especially the right wing. This means that teams are creating primarily through the flanks. This could be due to two reasons – 

  1. The trend of attacking full-backs (especially left-backs) leaves a lot of space for wingers and opposition full-backs to attack and cross from
  2. The quality of defending out wide is inferior to that offered in the center, and attackers (both foreign and Indian) find it easier to take on a full-back

With these two points and data, we can assert that teams would find it easier to attack through the wings, and eventually cross the ball in. And which kind of strikers are best for attacking crosses? That’s right. Target men.

Emphasis on Set Pieces

In continuation with crosses from wide areas, a situation where we see this happening often is set-pieces. Time and again, we have seen teams using set pieces as a means to score goals irrespective of the run of play.


Year                  xG from set pieces% contribution of xG from set pieces compared to totalGoals from set pieces% contribution of goals from set pieces compared to total
2018-1946.7321%4517.7%
2019-2052.9118%6421.8%
2020-21100.5429.6%7926.5%


(Penalties not included in set pieces because I wanted to see the impact of trained routines from set play)

As we can see here, there is a huge leap in the influence of set pieces since the past 3 years. The set-piece xG has contributed more to the overall xG, which means that teams have put in a larger effort to capitalize from dead-ball situations. Although the finishing was poor in the 2020-21 season, over a fourth of total goals came from set pieces.

In case you aren’t a big believer in advanced metrics, look no further than SC East Bengal, Mumbai City FC and Bengaluru FC.

The Red and Golds signed a set-piece coach at the start of their campaign, and ended up with 11 goals from non-penalty set piece situations. Not only was this the highest in the league, but it was also a whopping 50% of their total goals. For a club that struggled to find the net from open play, long throw-ins and whipped corners came to their rescue.

But it isn’t only lower placed teams that set-pieces help. Both Mumbai City FC and Bengaluru FC owe a bit of their silverware to set-piece goals. Mourtada Fall netted crucial headers in the final league game and play-offs, and Rahul Bheke scored *that* header against FC Goa to win BFC their maiden ISL trophy.

Even when it comes to the national team, a significant amount of goals under Igor Stimac have come from trained routines. It is safe to say that the Indian players have become more accustomed to these strategies. The cherry on top would be a big man up front who can not only score from such situations, but also get back in the box and defend.

Helps in Build-up

With the 4 foreigner rule coming into place, many teams will play with an Indian centre-back. They may not do so throughout the campaign, but they will have to by virtue of rotation or injuries. In this case, progression of the ball through midfield will become difficult (unless you’re Hyderabad FC).

Thus, it would really help having somebody you can lump the ball forward to and bypass the opposition’s high press. This could lead to the ball being won closer to the final third, and teams could create play from there directly. To better understand this, lets use some photos:



Situation 1: The team in possession sets up in a 4-2-3-1, and the defending team is in a 4-4-2 (most common possessions). The #3 for the white team is an Indian center-back in possession. Here, the opposition would orient themselves in such a way that they mark out all the nearest options (full-backs, second CB and CDMs), and also increase the pressure on the Indian CB



Situation 2: Seeing no directly available option, and being unable to beat the press, the center-back passes the ball back to the keeper. The opposition shifts its shape, and again, the nearest passing options are blocked. There is only one player higher up the pitch who is relatively free, but will still face a duel from a CB stepping out. If the keeper wants to retain possession, they have to be very accurate with their passing.



Situation 3: The keeper goes long, trying to find #11, who is the target man. The white team attempts to win the second ball, therefore tucking in its wingers. As a result, the full-backs are in a conundrum of whether they should hold their place or leave it. Should they leave, they opening space for the opposition full-back. If they hold their place, the white team has an advantage with second balls

Even though this is a very specific scenario which is simplified, it is one of many ways in which target men can help alleviate the problem of progression.

If the team in possession wishes to go through the midfield, they would need technically sound and press resistant midfielders. This is a luxury some clubs do not possess, given their pool of Indians and finances. And even if clubs do have the right resources and personnel, having an extra way of moving the ball ahead would keep things fresh.

Good at Pressing

Speaking of 4 foreigners and bypassing the press, target men could be of great use off the ball as well. Having a big man up front who is willing to run at defenders could disrupt play very well and force errors. Players like Nerijus Valskis and Aridane Santana have been monumental in their team’s press, and have found themselves scoring quite a few times after inciting a defensive blunder.

Sure, forwards like Roy Krishna and Jordan Murray are also great at pressing, but in this case, if you’re getting a hardworking hit-man, the bigger the better. Statistics suggest the same as well.

2019-20


ISL 2019-20: Aerial Duels, Ball Recoveries, Defensive Challenges, Interceptions, Tackles
ISL 2019-20: Aerial Duels, Ball Recoveries, Defensive Challenges, Interceptions, Tackles

The blue is the average for all strikers in the ISL 2019-20 season, orange is average for all target men.

Obviously, there is a clear dominance in aerial duels. Both sides are more or less at par when it comes to ball recoveries, and defensive challenges attempted. But the defensive challenge won % speaks volumes. This means that target men attempt an average amount of defensive duels, but win more often the average. They may not be up to par for interceptions and tackles, but the difference isn’t very stark.

2020-21


ISL 2020-21: Aerial Duels, Ball Recoveries, Defensive Challenges, Interceptions, Tackles
ISL 2020-21: Aerial Duels, Ball Recoveries, Defensive Challenges, Interceptions, Tackles

The blue is the average for all strikers in the ISL 20-21 season, orange is average for all target men.

In the latest season, not much has changed. Interceptions and ball recoveries numbers have become better for target men, but their defensive challenges won % has dropped a speck below average. Nevertheless, they make up for it by over-performing in tackles won %.

With these visuals, we can say that target men generally defend better than the average striker, at least in India.

Conclusion

In the current scenario, clubs are primarily looking at value for money and versatility in their foreigners. By having a hard-working target man, clubs obtain a multi-faceted forward that can aid them in multiple aspects. Generally, the disadvantage would be a lack of pace, but in a country like India, intelligent movement trumps all. This is why we can still see strikers such as Bart Ogbeche, Nerijus Valskis and Aridane Santana being chased by clubs despite being on the other side of 30. 

To clarify, this does not mean that other types of forwards won’t work. At the end of the day, it boils down to systems, philosophy and recruitment, which are all very open ended. The purpose of this article was solely to identify the prevailing questions coaches in India face, and what could be a common solution to them, ergo leading to a trend. 

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