What Makes a Great Forward?

Our “Anatomy of a Successful Football Team” series continues with a look at what makes a great forward.

Different Roles of a Forward

Most people will believe the forward is in the team just to score goals, but there are several different roles which are used to bring different dimensions to a team.

Here, we look at some of the most popular roles used in modern day football, and what makes them different to others.

Centre Forward – The traditional “number 9” will be the focal point of the attack and their main aim, and expectation, will be to score goals. This role originated with Everton’s Dixie Dean, who wore the number 9 in the 1933 FA Cup Final, and has been played by some of the greatest goal scoring forwards in history. Centre forwards will also be required to hold up the ball, bring others into play, and then be in position to put the ball in the net.

Target Man – The physically strong, and towering target man will look to bully defences, push their weight around, and dominate aerial battles. They will obviously be required to score goals, but their main aim will be to hold up the ball and bring other attackers into play. This is a role often played by towering centre-forwards.

Striker – Although some people believe the striker and centre-forward are one and the same, they are wrong. Whilst the centre forward will be physically strong, the striker will usually be smaller, more agile, and pacier. They will use their quickness, and superior skill, to take on and dribble past defences, get in behind to meet through-balls, and score goals. The best strikers will perform best when alongside a good centre forward.

Second Striker – Often played by a “number 10”, this is an attacking role where the player is required to assist goals rather than score them. Can also be known as a deep-lying forward, shadow striker, or the “number 10” as already mentioned. The supporting act rather than the main character, but still an integral part of the attack for teams who utilise this role.

False 9 – This role is often mistaken, with many believing the term to mean a midfielder playing as a striker. It is, however, more to do with the position of the false 9 rather than the person playing the role. A false 9 is an unconventional lone-forward who sits in more of an attacking midfield position. The false 9 will look to draw the defence out into a more advanced position, leaving space in behind for other attackers or themselves to exploit.

Attributes Required to be a Great Forward

Obviously, different roles require different attributes. The target man must be good in the air, whilst a striker will need to be quick and fleet-footed. However, there are a few attributes that all great forwards will have regardless of their role.


The main attribute every great forward has is confidence. The confidence to score goals, the confidence to take on defenders, the confidence to win every aerial battle, and the confidence to be a match winner.

Without confidence, a forward will doubt their ability and that will negatively affect the impact they have on a game.

If a player is short of confidence, they will not take a chance of attempting a long-shot at a crucial time or risk trying to dribble past two defenders. Confident forwards will win their team matches by believing they are superior to the opposition and taking risks.

First Touch

Regardless of which role they play in the team, a great forward must have a brilliant first touch.

This will be to either bring the ball under control to hold up play, knock the ball past a defender as they dribble their way towards goal, or take a touch before firing a splendid shot into the top corner.

A poor first touch risks losing possession and breaking down an attack before troubling the goalkeeper.


Great forwards always tend to be in the right place at the right time, and that is due to fantastic positioning.

They will always know where they need to be, making themselves available for their teammates to pass to and constantly pressurising the defence.

Forwards caught out of position will leave a big empty space on the pitch that in turn makes it easier for the opposition to clear away any attacking threat.

Three of the Best Forwards of All-Time

Marco van Basten

I feel like I must explain my decision to include Marco van Basten here, when many people will say he is behind Johan Cruyff in the list of greatest Dutch forwards.

The reason I’m mentioning van Basten, and not Cruyff, is that I used to watch him as a child and was totally in awe of how great he was.

An intelligent, strong, technically gifted, and clinical striker, van Basten scored over 300 goals in a career which was unfortunately cut short due to several injuries. In my opinion, he may have overtaken Cruyff as the greatest ever Dutch forward had he been able to play on past 28-years-old.

A three-time Ballon d’Or winner, van Basten could play with both feet and could score goals from anywhere. These goals included some absolute stunners. He wasn’t just a goal scorer though, as he also provided several assists.

Van Basten would have broken several records if he had played on for longer and perhaps would be considered the best of all time.

Lionel Messi

It would be impossible to write an article about the greatest forward players in football history without including the best player in the world right now, Lionel Messi.

Still only 30-years-old, Messi is a record-breaking goal scorer and creative playmaker who overcame a childhood growth-hormone deficiency to become one of the best football players to ever walk this earth.

At the time of writing this, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner has netted a magnificent 534 goals in 632 games at club level, as well as 61 goals as a full international for Argentina. He has won four European golden shoes, and is the record goal scorer in La Liga history.

In 2012, Messi scored the most goals ever scored in a calendar year when he netted 91 in 69 matches. This overtook Gerd Muller’s 85 from 1972.

Messi has great ball control, is extremely agile, has quick reactions, accelerates superbly with a ball at his feet, and always seems to be in the right position at the right time. On top of that, he is known as a player who doesn’t dive or playact, which is rare today.


Brazilian great Pele is the reason football became known as “The Beautiful Game” and is arguably the greatest football player of all time.

Footballing intelligence, anticipation, and great vision combined with fantastic agility, amazing skill, speed, flair, and great balance to create the most unique forward in the history of the game. He also had power, technical ability, and stamina which lifted him head and shoulders above everyone else he ever played with and against.

Pele was a prolific goal scorer, netting almost 1,300 goals in his career. He was also a team player with fantastic passing ability and provided several assists for teammates, due to his intelligence and great link-up play.

Anyone who has never seen Pele play should look up as many videos as they can to see why he is simply the best football player to ever step foot on a pitch.

Great, and Not So Great, Forward Moments

Let’s start with the greatest and look at Pele. It would be wrong to mention how great he was without giving an example.

There are several videos looking at his skill, technique, and world-famous feinting. But, here is a video of him doing what forwards do best, scoring goals.


Now, here’s a magnificent strike from Marco van Basten for the Netherlands against the USSR in the 1988 European Championships Final.

From the sublime to the ridiculous now, as we look at some of the worst open-goal misses in football history.

First up is Ronny Rosenthal for Liverpool vs Aston Villa back in 1992.

Rosenthal had got on the end of a direct pass up the field, rounded the keeper and only had to touch the ball home.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go to plan and he somehow sent the ball crashing off the crossbar when it was easier to score.

Finally, a miss from Fernando Torres during Chelsea’s Premier League defeat to Manchester United in 2011.

Trailing 3-1 with less than eight minutes of the ninety remaining, Torres rounded the goalkeeper and looked certain to score and bring his team within one goal of levelling things up. Again, things didn’t go to plan and the Spaniard put his shot wide of the post.

Read the rest of the series

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