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FIVE DEFENSIVE FORWARDS TO LOOK OUT FOR IN 2021
Modern football has been evolving faster than the speed of light. While the 20th century and late 2000s saw the dominance of specific roles for footballers, the last decade has been booming with the rise of versatility on the pitch. Dutch Legend Johan Cruyff, being ‘The Godfather Of Modern Football’, once said that “The Goalkeeper is the first attacker of the team.” If we use Cruyff’s words as an underlying principle, The Wingers could also be treated as ‘First Defenders of the team in the front’. This concept has become mainstream ever since the rise of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund. Today we take a look at the top five forwards playing in Europe’s top five leagues, who have had the most defensive contribution in the final third for their sides. For fair assessment, while writing this article, only players with at least 20 appearances this season have been taken into consideration.
1. Richarlison (Everton)
The 23-year-old versatile forward from the blue half of Merseyside has been a revelation in the Premier League. Directly involved in 19 goals/assists last season, there is no whisker of a doubt why European giants like Barcelona have shown interest in Richarlison. It is not just about the goal creation abilities for the Brazilian though. Richarlison averages 2.35 tackles or interceptions every 90 minutes in the Premier League. These are some serious figures by the free-roaming forward who plays in the 4-4-2 setup for Carlo Ancelotti alongside Dominic Calvert-Lewin. He made 14 tackles in the attacking third last season, which was the highest by any forward in the English top flight. There have been rumours about him leaving Merseyside despite Carlo Ancelotti’s reported plea for the young attacker to stay at Goodison Park.
2. Riyad Mahrez (Manchester City)
The Algerian right-winger who also plays in an advanced forward role for Manchester City averaged 2.36 tackles & interceptions every game in last year’s edition of the English first division. According to his statistics, Mahrez manages to dispossess the opposition player 28% of times whenever he is pressing the opposition defence. This comes down to the Algerian winning the ball every one out of his four pressing runs towards the opposition back-line – Incredible. Manchester City’s manager Pep Guardiola has been stressing on building an attacking lineup that can provide defensive support to the team for the better part of the decade now. With the 29-year-old attacker, Guardiola seems to have found the perfect man on the right flank now.
3. Lucas Ocampos (Sevilla)
The 26-year-old Argentine Right Winger played a key role in helping Sevilla to win their 4th Europa League trophy in the last 7 years making Sevilla ‘the most successful club in Europa League history’. He can literally play in any position in the attacking third, scoring 15 goals this season in all competitions. But the secret to him being one of the first names on the team-sheet lies in his defensive work-rate. Ocampos averaged 2.43 tackles and interceptions for Sevilla in the 2019-20 season. The Argentine made 54 blocks last season, which is the most by any attacker in the Spanish top-flight. In fact, Deportivo Alaves forward Joselu who is second on the list, managed only 39 blocks all season.
4. Domenico Berardi (Sassuolo)
There is an old saying, “The view from the top is lonely...” Not in literal terms, but Sassuolo’s Domenico Berardi surely has some statistics which separates him from all the other forwards from the Serie A. The 24-year-old Italian winger averaged 2.60 tackles and interceptions every game in the Italian top-flight last season. There are two big reasons why Berardi’s achievement is something more than commendable by the Italian. First and foremost, Serie A is a league which puts a lot of emphasis on creating a low block impenetrable rearguard, stretching back from the Catenaccio era to Juve of the 2010s. The league has, with the exception of Napoli under Sarri, still not particularly evolved with regards to establishing high-pressing defensive roles for the attackers. Secondly, the difference between Berardi’s statistics and the second-most tackles and interceptions rate is huge. Cagliari’s Giovanni Simeone averaged 1.29 tackles and interceptions every 90 minutes last season – which is a pitiful effort when compared to Berardi’s figure of 2.60.
5. Opa Nguette (Metz)
A surprising name on the list and something which could raise the scouts’ eyebrows is the inclusion of Metz striker Opa Nguette. The Senegalese International who plays usually in the attacking midfield role or as a striker for the Ligue 1 club, averages 2.76 tackles and interceptions every 90 minutes. Nguette started his International career with French youth squads but switched to his Senegalese roots after turning professional. This was his first season playing in the top-flight, having played most of his football in the French Ligue 2. Though the 26-year-old did not top the goal-scoring charts, he had a decent tally of 5 goals and 2 assists last season. It was a pity that the Ligue 1 ended prematurely as the Metz striker found great form at the beginning of this year in front of the goal. Nguette averages 21 pressing runs every 90 minutes in the Ligue 1 which is an incredible statistic for the striker as it is the highest in the French first division for an attacker. Only Lille’s Victor Osimhein came close with 17.3 pressing runs. If the forward keeps his head down and works more on his finishing, he might prove a bargain purchase for the European mid-tier clubs.
What separates these individuals is a shared ability to utilise their natural athleticism not just for attacking means but for the greater good of their respective team’s defensive shape and ball-winning ability. They are all perceptive and able to read where passes are going to go and which movements the opposition are going to make with the ball at their feet. What also helps them is playing within setups which encourage a collective press and knowing they are not wasting their energy performing a solitary press but part of an effective wave of pressure.