Why the legitimacy of a defensive striker should not be questioned


We often hear that, in war, “Attack is the first line of defence.

However, the minute the same ideology is used in football, which is a tactical war in itself, the critics come rushing in.

A defensive striker is one who leads the team’s defensive pressure, giving very little time and space to the opposition.

The most relevant examples of defensive strikers we see in modern-day football are Roberto Firmino, Jaime Mata, and Florian Niederlechner. The three have different strengths and perform unique roles for their respective clubs, but the common aspect to their game is the constant closing down of opposition players.

The managers of the three players have different expectations from them, yet the instruction that unifies the players is to lead the transition from attack to defence and vice versa.

Roberto Firmino

Roberto Firmino has been the target of multiple critics for his “lack” of goals. However, in response to those critics, he has also received plenty of praise from colleagues, managers, pundits, and ex-footballers.

Firmino is Liverpool’s key facilitator, and he serves as the perfect medium for the transition from attack to defence and vice versa. The team rely on him when they need to establish a quicker tempo as well as when they require someone to lead the hound against their opponents, showing how multi-faceted his style of play is.

Liverpool’s main goal-scoring threat comes from their wingers, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane. Although the duo’s success is largely owing to their incredible individual abilities, Firmino’s role in space and chance creation should not be neglected.

The Brazilian’s willingness to drop back into midfield generally draws at least one member of the backline with him. Some strikers are selfish in play, and that often helps them perform at a higher level. On the other hand, Firmino’s selflessness helps his team grow, a rare quality in a number nine.

Liverpool’s left-back Andy Robertson said on Firmino, “He can do it all. He’s our first line of defence, and I’ve not seen anybody better at doing that. He presses the defenders and doesn’t give them a minute. He comes back and nicks the ball in midfield for us.

Jaime Mata

Jaime Mata is often hailed as the Spanish Jamie Vardy because of their common experience in non-league football. Their similarities go far beyond that though, as the pair of strikers have dogged determined traits, which stems from their defensive intelligence.

Mata joined Getafe in the summer transfer window of 2018 and has been a revelation since. Getafe’s system relies on coordination in duos, and the strike partnership between Mata and Jorge Molina form one of the many important pairs in the team.

Getafe are widely recognised as the most intense team in the La Liga, with their style of play based on negating the build-up play of opposition teams. The manager Jose Bordalas expects a close understanding between teammates so that while defending they can create 2v1 situations.

Mata’s understanding with his striking partner helps them create tricky situations for the opposition’s backline. This often results in defenders being forced to clear the ball into an area which another duo of Getafe will occupy.

Mata is the key proponent of Bordalas’ ideology of pressing at the right time, through which he helps his team win the ball back a lot quicker than most other teams do. The narrow pressing system which Getafe employ has helped them finish fifth in the 2018/19 season and look likely to achieve the same position if not higher this season.

Florian Niederlechner

It’s rather uncommon to see a striker rank high in the distance covered statistics for a season. Augsburg’s Florian Niederlechner though is an exception to this norm as he has covered just over 313 kilometres, making him the second-highest in the Bundesliga’s distance covered statistics so far this season.

The German’s goals are generally from close range, which makes it look like he’s merely a “right place at the right time”/ “poacher” type of player. Although there’s nothing wrong with the ability to make the right offensive runs, Niederlechner offers a lot more to his team.

He is constantly on the move, giving no space or time on the ball to the opposition’s defenders. Niederlechner’s work rate is truly impressive, even more so for a striker, and it’s a shame that the rest of his team haven’t been able to perform at the same level as him.

Unnecessary Criticism

Players like the three mentioned above get needless flak for their “lack” of attacking contribution. However, a simple look into their statistics would disprove all the sceptics. It is essential to note that the attacking output in numbers which these players create, is in addition to all the running and transitionary play that they spearhead.

Roberto Firmino:

In the Premier League:

Goals: 8 (The club’s third-highest)

Assists: 7 (The club’s joint second-highest)

Jaime Mata:

In La Liga:

Goals: 8 (The club’s second-highest)

Assists: 3 (The club’s joint second-highest)

Florian Niederlechner

In the Bundesliga:

Goals: 11 (The club’s highest)

Assists: 6 (The club’s highest)


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