The Role of the Center Forward

Me (DirectionalVector) and Rdzzl had a lengthy discussion today. The role of Center Forwards in United’s tactic. By the end of the discussion, I began to brush up on the whole technical phrase thing in Football.

A Center Forward or CF is a player who plays right below the striker. He holds up the ball, passed through the air or along the ground, and plays other players in (with through balls or over the top balls) or scores goals himself.

I got this definition from Wikipedia which is surely not trustworthy. I am sure that the above definition is a closed one and I’ll try to include the varied significance it has on United’s play-style.


united 4231

The above picture shows the 4-2-3-1 formation which we’ve employed quite often in matches. This formation is similar to the one used against Sunderland with Kagawa in the Center Forward role. Before going on about how CF is an important role in United’s playing style, we can check out the different types of CF we can have:

  • The first type is the burly, Fellaini-esque CF. These guys are going to be strong, bullying defenders off of the ball. These guys get the ball through the air (mostly) rather than the feet. 
  • The second type is the eel-like, Kagawa-esque CF. These guys are smallish, quick and athletic who glue themselves to the ball and slither through the tightest spaces. In the end, its either the player who goes into the box or the ball is threaded like a thread through a needle to the striker.

Shinji Kagawa vs Wayne Rooney

Kagawa has not been played regularly in his best position as CF due to injuries and the prolific form of Wayne Rooney in the same position. Comparing Rooney and Kagawa with respect to their CF position gives interesting insight. Kagawa is the second type of CF who slithers and moves. Rooney is a hybrid born from his start as striker and then adapting to a play emulating Paul Scholes.

On the ball, Rooney tries to drop deeper and push the balls into positions which will best suit the style of play. It is pretty much similar to the type of orchestration Paul Scholes does. This leads to some interesting options to our play style. Off the ball, again, Rooney drops deeper to receive the ball with his back to the goal and switches flanks; a proper target man.

Kagawa is a different breed of a player compared to Rooney. On the ball, he is quick, crisp and short. Its a pass and move type of game that he was used to in Dortmund. Off the ball, his positioning is always in the tight spaces where you need quick 1-2s and tricky movement. His play is very very similar to the type of combinations that Barcelona and Manchester City have up front with Messi, Silva, Tevez and the like.

Playing Kagawa and Rooney

Essentially, if you take a match, Rooney would be pulling the strings and making things happen. Kagawa on the other hand requires everyone to work together; he will be in the middle of all the things. This makes putting Rooney and Kagawa in the starting eleven a tough job.

  • Rooney in the middle, Kagawa in the wings: This setup fails on many levels as Kagawa is not a winger; he is not a crosser. He can’t cross for the good of it. Also, putting Kagawa wide requires the fullback to overlap him and try to cross which is not a safe proposition.
  • Kagawa in the middle, Rooney in the wings: Much more balanced and attacking. With Rooney in the wings, he gets the best of both worlds. Rooney can now drop deeper and get the ball to put in those mega-diagonals, push new positions and build up different plays. Additionally, any pull back to the center will make Kagawa dangerous as his positioning would enable through balls beyond him to the Striker or lay-offs for the midfield to have a blast at the goal. This setup was great when we played Tottenham early this season.

Team Composition

Looking back at the Sunderland match, Kagawa had a great game that day. It was not only the lethargy of Sunderland but also the top notch play down the left by Young and Buttner to support him.

Team composition takes an important place when we play this 4-2-3-1 more than any other formation. Looking at how we’ve been arranged there are different options.

  • The Midfield: Taking the normal 4-2-3-1 formation, the 2-man midfield in front of the defense can have various roles. The major role we tend to have is the box-to-box midfielder paired with a deep-lying playmaker. We have a superb deep-lying playmaker in Carrick but not a replacement for the future. As for the box-to-box midfielder, we have two choices in Anderson and Cleverley. I prefer Cleverley in this formation because he is a much better player if you compare him with Anderson in short passing, agility and overall energy. If we had Fletcher in good nick, he would’ve been an amazing anchor man who can bully people off of the ball in front of the defense and pass it on to Cleverley or Anderson; setting off superb counters. Sadly, he is injured.
  • The Wings: On the wings, we have many options. Valencia/Young/Nani who can put in a stint on the wings. In my version of the 4-2-3-1 there can 3 different combinations which I see as effective. The first one is the Young-Nani combo. This gives a lot of pace and trickery on both sides of the pitch. It also includes some threat from the distance. I don’t want Valencia as having Young and Nani would actually enable beautiful switching of the players causing all sorts of mayhem. The second combo is completely different Rooney-Nani on the wings.  I really want to see this with Kagawa in the middle as it creates all sorts of interesting combinations thanks to the creative genius that all of them have. The movement of the trio up front will be sure to cause great problems. The other combination that I see as viable is Welbeck-Rooney on the wings. Having the raw energy of Welbeck on the wing with the creative acumen of Rooney in the other can be a strong attacking formation. Another great point would be the strong combining potential between Kagawa, Cleverley and Welbeck to cause further problems.
  • The Striker: The striker is the last part of the puzzle. For me Robin van Persie and Hernandez can be strong players in this formation. My first preference is Robin van Persie because of his strong crossing qualities and creative vision. Having the ability to cross would definitely help in rotating among the above said wingers. That said, having Hernandez enables us to have a strong foil who can just run beyond the defense after strong build up play from Kagawa and the others. Also said, both of them provide strong threat in the box from crosses too.

Alternatives in CF at United

The above team composition shows only the players who can be a compliment to each other. A cohesion that Rdzzl gave me an idea about. Their movement and play would actually provide additional threat to the opposition when none can exist. As of now Kagawa and Rooney are the main CFs we’ve played and the players who have actually proven a lot in there.

Nick Powell: This guy is brilliant. He is fearless with a mean shot. From the little I’ve seen, playing him as a CF would be great because of his quickness, long shot and composed play. He is not the tricky and slimy Kagawa but he provides something different. Even though we see him as a great replacement for Carrick in the future, we can try him out right in that hole. 

Ashley Young: Young is a mixed bag; a bag of tricks which can either blow up in your face or just blow off the opponent’s face. His pace and agility would gladly make him CF material and as a lone striker when defending to unleash a quick counter. Beyond that I don’t see him as a CF. But he can be played in that position.

Robin van Persie: RvP is not fast but he has excellent ball holding skills with good passing and positioning. His close to the body ball skills may not be awesome but he can gladly take on the CF role. He has enough technique, finesse and vision to work that role. The only problem is that he requires pacy support all around him as he is definitely not the fastest.

Danny Welbeck: I have strongly polarized opinions about this guy. He can run all over the pitch but suffers from low finishing confidence and first touch. Either way, seeing him combine with Kagawa shows his strong positioning and attacking insight. He can play those strong 1-2s, quick one-touch passes that can beautifully set things up.


The centre forward role is going to be play a huge role in the next season as I suspect a transfer of play-style to use both the wings and the middle. One of the strengths in having a hybrid CF based formation will be the difficulty in parking the bus against this tactic. You’ll have multiple threat points throughout the attack. The wings, the center, midfield, one-twos will prove to be strong threats to the opposition. The only downside is the requirement for a very strong midfield that can hold the ball under pressure. That is something we don’t have. Instead we’ve adapted this formation in our own way to add the counter attacking aspect we’ve always been famous for. Down the road, I see strong potential to add different perspectives of attack to this strong formation by transfers. Hopefully, we’ll see more of Kagawa in this formation in the future.


  1. How do you feel about the role of CF in our team?
  2. What about the alternatives for the CF role from our youth team?
  3. Team composition; do you think what I’ve suggested for the wing players to be a great alternative to what we play now?
  4. Any other ideas on what to write in the future?




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