Talking Tactics: A target man only a coach could love

Moreno, Montero and Casey do the thankless dirty work

Alejandro Moreno, Philadelphia Union

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

The night belonged to Sébastien Le Toux. The industrious
French attacker nailed his name in Philly sports history with a hat trick in
the Philadelphia Union’s home debut, and the giddy supporters there will always
show him brotherly love for it.

But will they remember Alejandro Moreno’s contributions?

Moreno spent the evening doing what a good target forward
does: providing an outlet for his defenders and midfielders, holding up play
while others join the attack, connecting with other attackers, taking some
punishment in the process and, generally, just being a stinker for defenders to
deal with.

Of course, a target forward can only be as good as what’s
going on around him.  That’s why
the night at Lincoln Financial Field unfolded as such as great example of
effective play off a target presence. Le Toux did more than supply the
finishing highlights for the local news reels.

By maintaining close proximity to Moreno all night, “staying
connected” in soccer parlance, Le Toux made Moreno’s job easier, constantly
providing a handy option. Moreno could hold the ball momentarily or work
something quickly with Le Toux.

Generally, if Le Toux hangs too close to Moreno, the target
man’s job is more difficult because too many defenders are involved in the
sequence too early. But Le Toux’s timing was impeccable: He prowled the
periphery and then worked into the action at just the right moment.

On Le Toux’s second goal, Moreno’s play was classic stuff.
(WATCH HERE.) The Venezuelan international sees that teammate Roger Torres
needs an outlet coming out of defense under pressure. So he hustles back into
Philadelphia’s half, holds off Brandon Barklage’s challenge, then supplies the
best pass of the MLS weekend—a pinpoint ball in behind the D.C. defense.

In this case, Le Toux wasn’t so close to Moreno. But he
recognized the space available and let his teammate know. Moreno’s wonderful,
early pass tore through a back line still trying to organize.

Later, Moreno had a body on United center back Dejan Jakovic
as a ball was flung out by the Philly defense. The pair got tangled, and Moreno
might have been guilty of the first foul, but Jakovic sinned enough to earn a
red card. Le Toux hit a free kick past a feeble wall and history was made.

The fact is, many target men like contact. Moreno sure does.
He frequently initiates it, in fact. Instead of going directly toward a pass,
they angle toward the defender and use their body to hold off their marker.

Other target forwards, like Seattle’s Fredy Montero, can be
effective through less brawn but more technical proficiency. Montero is not a
big body, but he’s got so much skill in those feet that he’s effective at
hold-up play.

So Montero tries to ghost away from defenders. Several times
Saturday against Real Salt Lake he separated from RSL center back Jámison Olave
at the precise moment, then nimbly gained his balance to control the ball. The
effectiveness of a target man like Montero is often attuned to the
late-arriving pressure from the defender. Montero gets flak because he spends a
lot of time on the ground. Does he embellish sometimes? Maybe. But no one can
deny that he gets whacked a lot from behind. In other words, players are often
on the ground for a good reason.

When’s Seattle’s offense doesn’t work, it’s sometimes
because Montero’s relationship with Freddie Ljungberg is like a lot of
families: It’s complicated.

When Ljungberg partners with Montero at forward he likes to
float into the available space. But that means he’s roaming, often wandering
out to the wings. Without Ljungberg close by, Montero has one less option.
That’s why supporters in bars along 1st Ave. near Qwest Field always argue over
Ljungberg’s best position—second striker behind Montero or out wide in
midfield, as he played Saturday.

Moreno and Montero both want the ball at their feet. Others,
not so much. Colorado’s Conor Casey is a bigger body, so he’s OK with balls
delivered in the air. He’s also a different sort of target man in that he’s
frequently looking to flick on those balls, directing them immediately
somewhere else. (He does have Omar Cummings as a running partner, after all,
which is a fine “somewhere else.”)

A guy like Montero usually wants to “absorb” the ball and
then work with it, sometimes turning to take on defenders or finding Steve
Zakuani darting into spaces on Seattle’s left side.

Casey has Colin Clark off his right shoulder (the Rapids’
left side) and now perhaps a healing Jamie Smith off his left shoulder as he
works with his back to goal. So he has other options for redirecting those
passes into him, spreading the play to two guys effective at working the flanks
who can then serve balls back into the penalty area—which, presumably, is where
Casey will be.

(Interestingly, Colorado’s opponent on Saturday plays a
4-3-3. Usually, an effective target man is a 4-3-3 staple. But Kansas City
doesn’t really play that way. Kei Kamara can do the job but he’s often out on
the right. Regardless, what the 2-0 Wizards are is doing is working.)

One to observe going forward is RSL’s Alvaro Saborio, who
hasn’t established his place just yet at Rio Tinto but wears the look of a
classy target player. He’s composed as he works back for the ball and has a
good sense of what’s around him. The target man with a “snapshot” of his
options as he moves to receive passes has half the work done.

Of course, in RSL’s late-show draw with Seattle, Saborio
supplied the other element expected of any good target man: a goal.

Steve Davis writes about soccer for MLSSoccer.com, SI.com and his own blog, DailySoccerFix.com. His "Talking Tactics" column appears on MLSsoccer.com every Tuesday. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.