Friday, 28 February 2014

The Target Man

In my weekly Huddersfield Town column for the Reporter series I argued that the Terriers need a new striker. My rationale could be distilled into one sentence: we need a like-for-like replacement for James Vaughan.

The only problem about the column is only having a couple of hundred words with which to explain my position. I want to go into detail, explain not only how a change can effect something, but why. I want to talk about the games I've seen and seasons I've experienced which have informed my opinions. Up to now, it hasn't been necessary to go any further and write a supplementary blog, but I feel I should explain my opinion in this week's Reporter. I doubt everyone will agree with it.

James Vaughan is Huddersfield Town's talisman. He's a powerful striker with a physical approach to the game. He gets in defenders' faces and unsettles them. He gets involved in battles to win the ball. He chases lost causes. He holds the ball up for team-mates. His power and pace allied with his team ethic and eye for goal make him a nightmare for defenders.

He's also injured for a significant period every season. One of his biggest failings is his fitness record - or lack of it. I doubt you'd find many people who would disagree with the statement that he's a Premier League quality striker playing in the Championship. Ultimately, he's playing at this level not because he isn't good enough, but because no one in the top flight is prepared to take a gamble on his fitness when they can sign a player of similar quality with a much better record of actually getting onto the pitch.

The Premier League's loss is someone in the Championship's gain, so long as that side in the Championship is equipped to handle the inevitable long absences. And this is where Huddersfield Town have problems. With Vaughan in the side, the side are play-off contenders. Without him, it's a struggle to maintain an overall record of earning an average of a point a game.

Vaughan's attributes make him the ideal modern target man. This is where I may need to explain what I mean. The phrase 'target man' conjures images of the old-fashioned English number 9, a burly front man knocking central defenders out of the way as he bullies his way past the opposition. And that still holds true to a certain extent, but the modern target man has a little more to his game than his less refined forerunners.

James Vaughan isn't 6'3". He's good in the air, but he's not got the ability to hang there like an Andy Booth, the archetypal target man of the last century. But he is direct, quick, and intelligent. He alone of all Town's strikers can pull the defence this way and that with his movement and win a physical battle. Defenders are scared of him because he has all the above attributes, and it means someone will go with him at all times, creating space elsewhere.

This is the true role of the target man: to create space. Often it will be for his strike partner. Alan Lee fulfilled this role superbly when playing alongside Jordan Rhodes. Wayne Allison's introduction to the team in the Great Escape of 1998 gave Marcus Stewart the space he needed to destroy Division One defences almost at will. Andy Booth was first allowed to flourish when Ronnie Jepson arrived in 1993, and ten years later Booth provided the foil for a young Jon Stead.

But it's a necessity in English football that the target man be a physically strong player. Pavel Pogrebnyak at Reading has little to his game other than strength, but he's a player defences struggle with because of that attribute. Even Atdhe Nuhiu - an absolute clogger of a footballer by any standard - managed to play the role on Saturday, holding the ball up tirelessly for his Sheffield Wednesday team-mates. And it seems to be a necessity for the weaker sides in any given division to have a target man who can pull defences one way and another - even if he isn't a prolofic goalscorer - to cover for the technical shortcomings in the team.

Having said that, most of the top teams in the Championship do have a target man of some description in their side. The exception to that rule are table-topping Leicester, although you'd still argue that between them David Nugent and Jamie Vardy have the qualities of the modern target man.

Without James Vaughan Huddersfield Town do not have a target man. The players available currently are Nahki Wells, Martin Paterson, Danny Ward, Sean Scannell, and Cristian Lopez. Two are goalscorers, another two are primarily wingers, and the one left over is unlikely to ever be good enough for Championship football. Elsewhere, Jon Stead - perhaps the only player in the squad who can play the role of the target man other then Vaughan - has endured a torrid season and has been loaned out to Oldham after scoring just once and making a handful of starts.

Against those strikers and without the sheer presence of Vaughan, Championship defences can maintain their shape. Defenders who would find themselves drawn out of the back line or leaving gaps between themselves for strikers to exploit have a comfortable time. Sheffield Wednesday - organised, well-drilled, solid, call them what you will - and their two deep lines of four were never likely to be troubled overly by a Vaughan-less front-line.

So what are the options? The loan market could yield a striker who can play the target man role. Or another change could be made, in the system Town are playing. Maybe the response should be to encourage more runners from deep - even if the best man to do that has been loaned to Yeovil - who can break beyond the front man who, as a part of the defence dropping deep to combat those runners would have more room.

Football is, of course, a game of opinions. My opinion might be misguided, incomplete, or just plain wrong when put into practice. What is for certain is that Huddersfield Town with James Vaughan are a much more complete side than the team without him.

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