As thankless jobs go in football, “lone striker” may just take the tactical biscuit.
Whether the team setup is a 4-2-3-1, a 4-1-4-1 or some variation that leaves the frontrunner slightly less stranded, he’s on an island up front, isolated, without much nearby support. Just watch how many times a solitary figure assigned to such a role wanders and struggles with little impact.
But every now and then a lone striker shows us how it’s done.
How do you make a system work when the top third is, essentially, one against four? — hardly a fair fight by any measure. Frequently isolated, this lone figure is frequently marked by two or even three defenders.
Three things are critical in this unbalanced fight: tireless running, studied timing in his movement and ruthless efficiency near goal.
Defensively, a lone striker must prudently pick his spots. He simply cannot chase the ball across 70 yards of width, an errand that would quickly exhaust even the fittest, strongest athlete.
Instead, the lone striker wants to guide opposition possession to one side, hoping for coordination with one or two of his midfielders. At the right moment, he can squeeze the play into a little corner of two or three man pressure, hoping for a turnover that will spring the counter going the other way. This way he won’t exhaust himself too early.
Second, when his team has possession, a lone striker can turn this numerical disadvantage in his favor through cunning and through precisely timed movement. When he isn’t checking back toward the play to act as a target presence, he wants to drift actively between the two center backs, hoping to create little moments of indecision of miscommunication on which center back will mark and which will support.
Even when he isn’t about to receive possession, the lone striker plays a critical role while his team has the ball. He must have the discipline to remain high up the field, and central. That keeps one or two central defenders occupied, and even keeps the fullbacks on alert. Straying out too wide is not best for the team.
A lone striker hopes to create yawning gaps by dragging his marker into wider areas nearer the touchline.
Third, ruthless efficiency, goals from first touches. Runs toward goal being precise and launched with authority.
Obviously, the striker isn’t doing it all himself, another area where the lone striker can work seamlessly is the three behind him wearing their roles well, needing a ball-winner and quick distributor to the pair around him.
When the lone striker makes those critical runs into wide areas, or makes checking runs toward midfield, the tracking center back often leaves a gaping hole behind him leaving one of the three to exploit and fill that vulnerable hole.
So its not all about goals but also creating the space for others to exploit.
Even though he is no winger or has not played in a striking role, Cristhian Stuani has led Boro’s goalscoring charts over the last two seasons but has also been a scapegoat as the weak link (no pace, out of position etc.), however he is the ideal player to exploit those gaps created by the lone striker and to recieve the passes from the ball winning distributor in the number 10 role.
Aitor Karanka has nearly always sought to shore up his midfield with an extra man, even if it meant his popularity on the terraces takes a knock.
Karanka has, from time to time, come in for criticism from all angles during his tenure.
Amidst the soft goals and possession conceded, chances missed and mistakes made, the fact he has been playing one recognised striker up front – something that has been criticised for a some time on the terraces – has rather been missed.
Middlesbrough are masters of the clean sheet.
A case of…
‘you have a couple (of chances), we’ll have a couple’
Is not the way Karanka looks to play.
He seems generally happy for there to be one chance, and Boro win 1-0.
Fans see this as being overly negative, but Karanka is quite content that his side can be “boring” in victory.
He has built a squad of hard workers but one that sometimes has a worrying habit of failing to defend a lead.
Given time to think over the international break, Karanka may well be contemplating more unpopular selection decisions, but this is how Boro set up now. He has shown in recent weeks he does have the ability to shake up the formation a little, just dont expect it too often.Going one up front at home could easily be construed as a negative move, but Karanka is not concerned about handing out free sticks to fans to beat him with at present, but after getting themselves into some handy positions early on in games, Middlesbrough have got to start re-learning how to shut up shop at a higher level.
Their predicament is summed up by the fact they are ranked 92nd in the four English Football Leagues for goals scored in the second half (3).
Most of the fruits of their attacking labour have been harvested inside the first 45 minutes in the Premier League.
It seems the longer that Boro have to think about it, the less steady they become, It may even be time for Karanka to bite the bullet and sacrifice a little of his midfield stability for another attacking option.
Quite how he would do that is a different matter altogether.
Many fans would love to see Jordan Rhodes back in a front two, free of transfer windows and speculation weighing him down.
However Boro have got to learn how to hang in there longer and sacrificing that defensive stability for an extra striker could be leaving things open.
..Perhaps sticking to what he knows best is the best way for AK?