When we think of inside forwards, we might imagine Messi or Neymar showing off with their fancy tricks and blasting shots home from 30 yards out. Our players probably have boots made of bin bags, so what else is this role useful for?
Two of the advantages are directly listed. Inside forwards, playing in supporting and attacking roles, open space up for overlapping full-backs and overload retreating defenders.
You’re imagining an inside forward as a winger who plays inside. That’s not entirely accurate; they start out wide and are then inclined to run inside if there’s enough space. By running inside, space is created for an onrushing full-back to overlap them. This is especially true when you have ‘look for overlap’ as a team instruction. It also holds true when your full-back has an attacking role. In turn, your inside forward can give your full-back a plethora of attacking options ahead. Given the full-back’s options to cross, and to pass inside, the opposition may automatically retract into a narrow shape. You might have a free set piece when Mr. full-back’s cross is deflected!
The defenders squaring up to your inside forward might be overloaded because:
- The inside forward is running away from his position. Should his marker follow him and face losing his man?
- Running inside can open more space up and suck other opposition players into trying to stop the inside forward. More space for your other attackers!
- As established, the inside forward’s movement might attract your full-backs to come forward, giving you more attacking options.
- Centrally, there’s a whole football field to run into. Why are defenders more likely to retreat than challenge the inside forward? It’s too easy to skip past their challenge, isn’t it? In turn, this can shift your attacking line further forward.
On support, inside forwards will only finish attacks when a clear opportunity arises. What could that involve? Cross-field balls, which players can take in their stride. But only if they ignore that voice in their head telling them that they’re not Thierry Henry. A clear opportunity can also include tap ins at the far post, if your inside forward is indeed hungrier than their marker. If that fails, your inside forward could hope for their opposing full-back to be caught napping.
In truth, this is speculation. To work out how a supporting inside forward is more restrained than an attacking one, we need to analyse the latter!
Attacking inside forwards ‘get further forward’ more than supporting ones do. That’s the extent of their adventure. Attacking inside forwards are implied to move into the final third more than supporting inside forwards. They might have to cross more; in more advanced areas, there could be less space to run inside. Shooting isn’t restricted to long shots in the description. Attacking inside forwards have a closer resemblance to actual strikers than supporting ones. They create chances for themselves, as well as others.
Picture the central distinction between anyone playing on ‘support’ and ‘attack’ duties. The former duty instructs players to stay in their spaces and use their roles to orchestrate transitions from defence to attack, or vice versa. The latter makes the player more proactive in seeking opportunities; they make more forward runs and usually play more direct passes. They take more risks than usual… that’s the short way of saying it!
How does this fit into my team?
Inside forwards are hard to lock out of the game. That’s great! Where wingers might be frustrated when they’re denied room, and the crosses and dribbles just aren’t going their way, inside forwards can drop deep and act like playmakers. The inside forward can be borderline impossible to man-mark and hard to phase out of the game. That’s because play always starts centrally!
However, as inside forwards can act like playmakers, be careful with the roles you pick alongside them. Because they roam around so much, there’s a real risk of having central midfielders occupying the same spaces as them. Mezzalas, box-to-box midfielders and roaming playmakers prove to be problematic in combination with inside forwards, depending on your setup.
My current WBA side are using this setup. Strangely enough, it’s proved to work over quite a few months. I’m enjoying it while it lasts; the second I make any alterations, everything will irreparably fall apart.
Results have been a little inconsistent lately. However, one defeat in seven games, including Ajax twice, Liverpool and Manchester United, isn’t too bad.
The attacking central midfielders can help the inside forward with their aggression:
They can also help release the inside forward into space:
However, as these two clips demonstrate, there’s a conflict between the inside forwards and attacking central midfielders. It’s hard to stamp out. Remember, inside forwards can look one-dimensional when other players are taking their spaces. You want to avoid having other attackers moving out wide or in the #10 spot, if possible.
Sir Alex Ferguson once said: “It’s funny when I see centre-forwards starting off in the middle against their markers and then going away from goal. Strikers going inside are far more dangerous…” Indeed, the key to inside forward is that they start in an unmarked position and then run into the space centrally. Pay close attention to anyone who crosses their path!
One way to minimise this risk is defining the inside forward’s relationship with the other attackers. Once you manage that, the midfielders might not need to run in uncomfortable spaces so much. Indeed, one slight problem with my tactic is the similarity between the inside forward and false nine. They’re both playmakers and suppliers, when the inside forward is on support.
In my last game, I changed my tactic to this:
The aim was to use the central midfielders and false nine to rotate in the number 10 hole, while the inside forward provided more width. Beforehand, due to the role clashes, the inside forwards kept cutting in and producing low percentage shots. Observe the difference:
And watch the two goals to see the inside forwards combine in action:
Essentially, inside forwards can do a lot of things and are extremely dangerous players. However, they do so much work and appear in so many places that when your team aren’t firing on all cylinders, they can look selfish. Give them the room and support they need to do their jobs.
If you’re selecting an inside forward on support, have strikers running in behind and wing-backs overlapping them. On attack, they would combine excellently with playmaker roles like the false nine and trequartista around them. You could do what I’ve done before and try loads of combinations in a test match, played again, and again, and again. I couldn’t wait to get the games finished, but I was feeling brilliant about my level of analysis!
The players suited to an inside forward role are relatively self-evident. Using Jonathan Leko as an example, here are the key attributes:
They’re mostly the same for support and attack duties. However, vision is a preferable attribute for the support duty, but not the attack duty. Passing is an essential attribute for the support duty, but only a preferable one for the attack duty. Finishing is essential on the attacking duty, but only preferable for the supporting duty.
This all supports the finding that supporting inside forwards closely resemble playmakers with a tendency to run at defences and sometimes try long shots. On the other hand, attacking inside forwards closely resemble wide forwards who spend most of their time in and around the box. Staying so far forward is a fantastic asset when your role encourages you to occupy as much space in your line of play as possible!
The game almost begs you to pick natural centre forwards as inside forwards. If you do that, bear in mind that they might be far more comfortable on attack than support! To pick supporting inside forwards, I would look at natural playmakers who are comfortable out wide first.
If you have any thoughts on anything within this article, please don’t hesitate to start a conversation in the comments below! You can also do this via our social media channels. Alternatively, I can be found at @BenDewison on Twitter.
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