Roughly half a year ago, I started participating in a succession save over at FM Now. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept; a group of managers takes turns in managing the same club in the same save-game. You play six months in-game and pass the save along to the next manager in line. Ideally, managers agree on a course and on the major decisions but it can be very interesting to see how different managers interpret and execute the course everyone agreed on.
Along the way, we transformed Deportivo la Coruña from a recently-relegated, struggling side into a major European powerhouse, capable of winning European silverware. Two most excellent forwards played a major part in the quick ascension of Depor; Internazionale’s Sebastiano Esposito and a Brazilian newgen forward called Ruan.
While both forwards were formidable forces on their own, our tactical tendency had quickly shifted to a single-forward setup. I know, strikerless played with a forward… If anything, it made the game easier because I could use the full array of options the game offered. Anyway, the aim of this post is not to compose a treaty on why strikerless is easier or more difficult compared to any other style. The fact remains that while Ruan and Esposito are brilliant forwards, neither player was undisputed for all the managers.
Some found Esposito offered more energy and movement to the cause, while others preferred the clinical prowess of the Brazilian Ruan. The fact remained that as a group, we were unable to make either player perform consistently for a full season. Esposito failed to score as much as his South American counterpart, whereas the Brazilian seemed to vanish from games entirely.
The last few seasons were strange, frustrating affairs as the forward who was on fire for one’s predecessor simply stopped performing after the managerial switch. This ongoing mystery plagued the minds of the entire managerial pool. How can two obviously world-class players vacillate between quietly mediocre performances and stellar form within the course of a season?
I decided to dive deeper into the mystery, instead of just playing my turn. I started with a head-to-head comparison between Ruan and Esposito.
Ruan is a tad more aggressive but also less likely to work hard. Compared to Esposito, Ruan is also a fair bit faster. In terms of his style of play, Ruan often needs someone to feed him balls as he’s less likely to fashion his own opportunities by moving around in and around the penalty area.
Ruan’s greatest asset is also his speed and blistering acceleration, another reason as to why he should receive ample through-balls or crosses to run onto. Esposito, on the other hand, is far more likely to create his own chances by working hard(er) and finding pockets of space. Both are fine Advanced Forwards, fully developed in their roles, but with a different style of play because they have slightly different skill-sets.
Looking back on the performances so far that season (I took over at Christmas), the facts back up this theory. In terms of goals and assists, there’s not much between the two. Ruan has scored one goal more compared to his Italian compatriot and he has better numbers in goals and assists per 90 minutes. Esposito, on the other hand, is far more of a team player, doing more of the nitty-gritty dirty work for the team. He brings a form of chaotic energy to the game, like the Tasmanian Devil after a couple of Red Bulls.
In Dutch, we use the phrase “dirty meters” for the efforts an offensive player makes without the ball or to win the ball back. Well, Esposito excels in this department. More passes, more tackles and more distance covered per 90 minutes. It’s fair to say he’s an entirely different breed of player, despite playing in the same position.
This partially explains why we’ve seen complaints of Ruan disappearing in some games. Those complaints are entirely valid as Ruan thrives on goals. Feed him and he will score, quite often too. His goal-scoring record speaks volumes, as do his multiple Pichichi trophies for being the best goalscorer in Spain.
But, if an opposing team succeeds in shutting down the passing-lanes towards Ruan, the Brazilians ratings dwindle as he is not contributing much else to the team. Esposito, on the other hand, will keep a defence on its toes because he’s more mobile and willing to get stuck in during transitions and the defensive phase as well.
In part, I think the expectations of both Ruan and Esposito are not entirely realistic. We expect both of them to be a lethal marksman as well as contribute defensively. Neither can fill both roles effectively. Esposito needs far more shots to score, making him a less effective finisher but he contributes more in other areas, which means far more consistent ratings. Ruan is a lethal goal-scorer but lacks the skill-set to be an effective force in the build-up phases or when pressing. Who-ever is managing the team needs to manage their expectations of what either brings as well.
Is one style of play better or preferable to the other? That’s a subjective question and one I find difficult to answer. As mentioned before, Ruan is a pacey, ruthless killer in the mould of former Deportivo legend Roy Makaay, a player who ghosts through the game but is clinically effective when given half a chance. Esposito is an energetic, nitty-gritty forward, constantly moving around and harassing defenders with his powerful physique. In my eyes, neither is better or worse than the other, they’re just different. Each has a role to play in our setup, depending on the circumstances of the match.
Now as to why the setup we played in the first half of the season was not beneficial to the talents of Ruan but worked wonders for Esposito. The old Grade A tactic we used was set up to include Inside Forwards on the wing and a Shadow Striker in attacking midfield, with bombing full-backs providing a measure of width in going forward. Effectively, you got these movement patterns.
In my eyes, Ruan is a player who thrives on space and players feeding him the ball. Our tactic was geared to getting players central, clustering them in and around the box. Think about it; the Inside Forwards cut inside towards the penalty area to try a through-ball or take a shot on goal, while the Shadow Striker is always looking for pockets of space to penetrate.
Essentially, we have three forward compatriots who limit the space available in and around the penalty area, which does not suit Ruan. It will suit a more industrious forward like Esposito, who looks to link up and who is also more adept in the air. The width we have in this formation comes from the full-backs moving forward but most of their crosses are coming in from relatively deep positions, as in not at the height of the penalty area.
Ideally, and this goes for any formation, a formation tends to look toward expanding the pitch when in possession, while contracting when the ball is lost again. Effectively, these are the very basic, very rough outlines of how any formation tries to beat the opposition through the manipulation of space. You try to stretch the opposition when you have the ball, trying to find holes in their defence while denying the opposition time and space on the ball when your team is on the defensive. The way you achieve this time and space on the ball should also suit the players you have. In this case, our setup works well for one forward, while the other is apparently achieving somewhat underwhelming.
With a few adaptations, you generate a different movement pattern. Instead of using Inside Forwards, I have opted for traditional wingers. They will provide the width in our offensive game-plan, either stretching the defence by luring defenders wide or getting a lot of time on the ball in positions close to the box, which makes their crosses more effective. With the wingers providing width, there is no need for the full-backs to stay wide as well. Instead, as you have seen in my previous stints, I am a huge fan of Inverted Wingbacks cutting inside and underlapping. Either the defenders move towards the Inverted Wingback to contain them (leaving the winger in space) or the defenders stay wide with the winger, leaving the Inverted Wingback in a position near the box to play through-balls, recycle possession and rifle in a rebounds. It looks a bit like this.
In this instance, there is far more space for the Shadow Striker and Advanced Forward to maneuver, with the Wingers and IWB’s turning into providers. Another nice touch, when the ball is on the left side, the right-sided Winger will tuck inside and move towards the far post and vice versa when the ball is out on the right flank. This gives us width where we need it, without sacrificing the amount of bodies in and around the penalty area.
Is this the way to play? Nope. It’s my way, which is not better or worse than anyone else’s. It just happens to be an approach that gets the best out of Ruan. For the record, I do believe we should maintain training both approaches, because different opponents call for different approaches.