To play as a Lone Striker, or a true “#9”, is one of the most difficult tasks to perform on the soccer field. First off, there are four defenders, and one striker, so you are constantly in a 1v4 scenario. Secondly, when you are on the attack, you are the highest player forward and all the focus is on you to be the target…Lastly, the first line of the defense is the forward, so when the other team are in possession of the ball on the back line, you are 4v1 in 25 yard by 70 yard width area…Very tall task!
Here are a few ideas to help you find success playing in this role.
Characterizations of the #9 (To Play as a Lone Striker)
1. Excellent Touch
2. Ability to Play with Back to Goal as a Target Forward (hold it up, find supporting cast)
3. Excellent vision (pick out the runners on the width to get you service to score)
4. Crafty and Tough…not only are they slippery with their runs and tantalizing on the ball, their mean. Diego Costa is a mad man, you got Suarez chomping at the bit if there is a 50/50 around the penalty area…you want to play 90 minutes again that type of character? That’s a #9.
5. Intelligent. Make smart runs, conserves energy, explosive when opportunity arises.
As of 2016, the best #9 in the world for me is Luis Suarez. He really checks all the boxes and including one I didn't include...he is a pure finisher. He only needs a sniff of the goal to be ripping it into the back of the net. He also has the innate ability to assess in real time, the highest percentage goal scoring opportunity in tight, difficult situations such as the penalty area. For example, if he is on a tough angle to score a goal, you will often see him baiting the Goalkeeper and the defender to the near post in order to set up a teammate for a tap in to a largely open, undefended goal. Those are great facets to his game, but the most important aspect is that he knows how to make runs and get himself into dangerous areas where he has a scoring opportunity...he watches the play unfold and puts himself right in the middle of where the action is going to be. On top of that, he's a menace to mark as he's shifting all over, changing his speed, and constantly giving defenders the slip. As of January 2016, Luis Suarez is the most dangerous man to play as a lone striker. And this isn't just me saying it, Messi said the same to ESPN FC. Let's have a look at a few of his characteristics and let's make a few our own.
How a #9 Should Make Runs?
A #9 has to follow the flow of play and always position themselves as an outlet. Diagonal runs are always good, when there is space behind the defense to cause problems. Smart forwards know to make runs that split defenders. This adds confusion to the defense. Diagonal runs or runs along the line that split defenses can cause quite a bit of problems. Defenders don't like turning to face their own goal...but that's what we are forcing them to do.
If the defense is setting deep, a good #9 will recognize to drop into the space behind midfield and back line to find opportunity to get on the ball and run at back line. A smart #9 knows that if he does this 2 or 3 times, then eventually a central defender is going to follow him and leave the other defender alone for an over/underlapping midfield run.
How a #9 holds the ball up and what to look for next?
A #9 is often called the target player or the target forward. The #9's goals is to stretch the back line as high as he can, opening up the field for his team. As a target forward, you have to be good at playing with your back to goal, using your body to shield the ball and then linking up play with your supporting players. A good strategy is to be side on to your defender (think having one shoulder facing the defender versus having your back to the defender). This will open your periphery to the field, create more space between the defender and YOUR ball...and make for an easier/faster transition when you get going forward.
Be keenly aware as the target forward of opportunities to play a one time pass to wingers/mids making runs in behind. This type of pass is sometimes referred to as skinning it...meaning you only really put a half touch on the ball, barely skinning the outside of the ball but enough to change the direction so it finds some joyful space for the running player.
As a target player, once you link up with your midfielder, your job is not close to done...now it's time to get towards the goal and start to identify a run, space, or idea to give yourself the best scoring opportunity. Channel your inner Suarez!
How/When Should a #9 go to Goal to try and score?
The #9's main objective is to score goals for their team. A big question many players face is when to try and goal to goal and score versus distributing and getting your supporting players in advanced positions up the field.
I train my strikers to go 1v1 and try to take touches/chances to beat an opponent when they are around the penalty area. Meaning, they have a purpose for taking the extra touches and it is to create space for a scoring opportunity. It's also a good practice that when you are facing toward your opponents goal (i.e. not playing with your back to goal) that you look to take chances going forward. Mind here that if it is 1v4 and you are 60 yards from goal, probably best to wait for help. But if it's 1v1 or even 1v2, then charge it and be confident help is on the way!
When strikers are in the middle or defensive third of the field and playing with their backs to goal, what should they do then? I.e. when building from the back, what role does the front runner play? In this scenario you want to track the movement of the ball and be a target up top...hold the ball up for a few seconds and allow your supporting players to advance up the field, then find a midfielder/defender facing the field. Then look to make a run off the ball while getting yourself higher up the field.
How Does a #9 Defend?
How does a #9 defend, especially when it is typically 1v4 when the opponent is in possession of the ball. This is a hard task as well. First, you have to identify whether your team is in high press or not. What this means is are your wingers and wingbacks pushed on in a high position on the opponents wingers and wingbacks? Is the midfield organized and in advanced positions to avoid penetration through the middle. If all of the these boxes are check, then you are in high press.
When defending in a high press, split the #4 and #5 and try to force play to one side of the field. Try to always position yourself so the #4 and the #5 cannot easily play each other by placing yourself in the middle of their passing channel. By doing this you make play predictable by going to one side, or by forcing a dangerous switch of play or a ball back to the keeper. So split the difference between the 2 centerbacks, and force play to one side of the field then look to give chase and using the path of your run in closing down to eliminate outlet options.
If your team is set back, and the field is big, there isn't much anyone is going to do in a 1v4 situation over a large patch of field. So try to make play predictable and force play to one side using the same tactics as before. Your defenders and midfielders will love you for making play predictable and helping limit their excessive running. On the same note, your defenders/mids/goalkeeper should all be in communication with the striker to identify whether we are in press mode or not. Press mode requires a much higher work rate because we are trying to get even numbers in the defending teams half. Setting back is a lower work rate, but we are channeling play and creating predictability. If your back lines can communicate this to the #9 who has to expel a lot of energy, they will be better served to know when to work and when to conserve stamina.
Use these 5 Principles to understand how to play as a lone striker (#9) in the attacking, middle, and defensive third of the field to enhance your tactical awareness of the position. It is one of the most difficult positions to play in sports requiring, speed, strength, skill, craft, and an innate ability to finish.
Writer's Note: You will notice I don't spend a great deal of time talking about finishing ability. All players, including my 2 year old daughter, can kick the soccer ball. The key is getting them in positions to successfully play as a lone striker. Scoring goals is one of the best feelings in sports, so once you catch onto that feeling, the brain functions to replicate it as often as possible. My focus is on getting you in the right areas that are high converting so you can experience that joy...then we can start to talk about training the finishing touches.