Paste Soccer Primer: What's the Difference Between a Striker and A Center Forward?

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Soccer can be a confusing sport. There are literally thousands of leagues spread across the face of the globe, and each country has its own understanding of and terminology for the beautiful game. With so many factors at play, there are always big questions to answer: which is the best league in the world? Who is the greatest player of all time? Why is Sepp Blatter not yet in chains? As a result, it’s the smaller, seemingly simpler questions that often don’t get answered: who decided on red and yellow as the colors for cards? Why do we call it a “nutmeg”? What exactly does a captain do? These are the types of questions we at Paste will seek to answer in our weekly Soccer Primer. With that in mind, let’s get to our first question.

What’s the difference between a striker and a center forward?

There are many possible answers for this one, but for a particularly noteworthy explanation, we’ll need to go all the way back to 2005 when Manchester United knocked off Charlton 3-1 in a Premier League match. The story of the day was Ruud van Nistelrooy’s stellar brace, but it was the Dutchman’s second goal that merits mentioning here.

United lined up in a standard 4-4-2 with 20-year-old Wayne Rooney partnering van Nistelrooy up top. The move begins when Rooney collects the ball on United’s side of the field, and continues as the youngster sprints 60 yards while beating three players (one three times). Throughout the move, van Nistelrooy holds his run to keep pace with Rooney and adjusts his positioning to keep his marker guessing. Once Rooney enters the penalty area, van Nistelrooy is hanging on the last defender’s shoulder, but then quickly shifts across to position himself in an ideal spot to chest and then volley home the lobbed assist. In this sequence, each player perfectly encapsulates the main differences between a center forward (Rooney) and a striker (van Nistelrooy).

The primary duty of a striker is to score goals. Plain and simple. Looking back at the above video, everything van Nistelrooy does is designed solely to put him in the best possible position to score when an opportunity presents itself. Gary Lineker, a textbook striker, echoed this motivation when he declared, “I was only interested in scoring goals. I wasn’t interested in anything else.”

In order to accomplish this task, the striker will generally be the player furthest up the pitch , usually in line with the last defender or, in Pippo Inzaghi’s case, just behind him. As play develops, the striker will adjust his positioning to keep himself in the most dangerous position possible and, when the time comes, will finish with whatever part of the body he can. Strikers are often extremely adept in terms of finishing (Diego Costa’s propensity to score inside the penalty area for Chelsea exemplifies the concept a striker sometimes being mischaracterized simply as a poacher).

In contrast, a center forward tends to be the focal point of the attack (specifically in regards to build-up play), and his role in this process can vary wildly. He can function as a target man (Zlatan Ibrahimovic), hold up play (Francesco Totti), drop deep to help facilitate play (Wayne Rooney), or pester defenses to create opportunities for teammates (Luis Suarez). Of course, all of these individuals (and center forwards in general) are more than capable of scoring a goal when given the opportunity. However, that isn’t necessarily their primary responsibility.

For example, in his final season at Liverpool, Luis Suarez was the club’s most potent threat and shouldered a big chunk of the goal scoring load (he managed 31 goals in that campaign). However, when he moved to Barcelona and partnered with equally adept players with names like “Messi” and “Neymar”, his responsibility shifted. Indeed, in his first season with the club, he notched 23 goals but managed a career-best 17 assists. Suarez has demonstrated an ability to adapt his game to the needs of his respective team and its preferred system of attack, making him a particularly notable center forward.

Some might argue that the differences between a striker and center forward are negligible. However, to sit and watch an attacking partnership with such clearly defined roles can be a beautiful sight to behold. If you disagree with that idea, then you can take it up with Ruud van Nistelrooy.