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Girona are top of La Liga due to Artem Dovbyk’s superb all-round attacking game

In an era of swirling tactical flexibility and intricate passing moves, there seems to be increasingly little room for a target man.

However, if a striker can blend their physicality with confidence and pace, link-up play with flicks and tricks, drop deep, burst in behind, press from the front and go shoulder-to-shoulder with the sturdiest of central defenders — much like Artem Dovbyk can — then they can still be categorised as a target man and, what’s more, can still blow the game wide open.

Dovbyk — Girona’s towering No 9 — is an intimidating central presence who plays at the top of a team that focuses heavily on stretching the pitch.

The 26-year-old Ukrainian is direct, destructive and in devastating form right now. He is La Liga’s top scorer (joint with Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham) after a six-minute hat-trick in a 5-1 win over Sevilla last weekend took his tally to 14 goals, and his side back to their unlikely perch at the top of the table.

Just over halfway through his maiden season in Spain, he is arguably already the most effective attacking force in the league.

Here, The Athletic analyses and explains how and why Dovbyk is having such a tremendous season.

Dovbyk’s arrival at the start of the campaign was typical of Girona’s recruitment under the guidance of City Football Group — understated, but statistically promising.

A fee of €7.75million (£6.6m; $8.4m) made him the 15th most-expensive acquisition in La Liga last summer, with the Ukrainian ushered in to replace the outgoing Taty Castellanos off the back of a 24-goal season in Spain’s top flight.

He settled quickly, scoring just eight minutes into his first Girona appearance with a flying header at the back post which was teed up by compatriot Viktor Tsygankov. Dovbyk’s close-range finish, as well as his connection with his talented countryman, would be a sign of things to come.

The numbers paint Dovbyk as a poacher 90.1 per cent of his open-play shots have come from inside the penalty area. On top of this, no player in Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues has taken a greater proportion of their touches in the box with the Ukrainian’s figure even topping that of Manchester City’s Erling Haaland (as the below graphic illustrates).

His aggressive approach to attacking space means that Dovbyk is excellent at crashing the penalty area possessing the speed and quick thinking to tie back-tracking defenders in knots.

Against Rayo Vallecano, as Tsygankov carries the ball down the right flank, Dovbyk positions himself between the two opposition centre-backs. He begins his journey into the box by looking to dart towards the back post.

Both Florian Lejeune and Abdul Mumin are looking towards the ball as the winger breaks into the penalty area. In the meantime, Dovbyk suddenly breaks stride to power in front of Mumin…

…before again putting on the brakes to peel in behind the centre-back, whose forward momentum takes him away.

All of this is done in the split second that Tsygankov is about to cross, but the Ukrainian is clearly on the same wavelength as his team-mate, cutting the ball back into Dovbyk’s path and finding him in acres of space to pull the trigger and score.

Notice Mumin too quite literally pulled apart by Dovbyk’s three movements at full pace.

Away from the more subtle elements of his game, Dovbyk’s sheer bulk and forward momentum makes him a frightening prospect on the counter-attack.

In Girona’s dramatic 4-3 win over Atletico Madrid on January 3 for example, he again fixes himself between the two central defenders as Savio is played through down the flank.

His running style is almost Haaland-esque — head down and arms powering him forward — as he thunders through the gap and into the penalty area, outpacing everybody across the back line. 

Flinging himself at the cross, he diverts the ball just wide.

Such physical attributes make him an obvious threat. He is 6ft 2in (188cm) and has already scored five headers this season in La Liga — which puts him level with Harry Kane for the most in Europe’s top five leagues.

Yet his ability to occupy defenders while Girona work on stretching the rest of the defence is another vital asset. Pinning centre-backs and pouncing on the loose scraps his presence is just as important tactically as it is from a goal-grabbing, game-winning perspective.

While not his primary function, Dovbyk mixes his prolific aerial game with neat touches on the ground and he is not afraid to drop deep and get involved in the build-up even as he concentrates so heavily on the box.

His role in Girona’s electric counter-attack goal away to Osasuna in November illustrated his good link-up play, as well as an ability to hold defenders off under pressure.

The move starts with his team in trouble towards their own corner flag in frame one, but Dovbyk moves out to the left to supply the out-ball for Daley Blind, who fires a pass into his feet.

Dovbyk traps the ball and holds off Alejandro Catena while he waits for reinforcements, before laying it off to Savio and instantly spinning around his man to attack the space in behind in frame three.

His pace then shines through again, stretching clear to provide the through-ball option before slipping a cross between David Garcia’s legs for team-mate Ivan Martin to score.

His physical stature means the ball seemingly sticks to him when he has his back to goal and he is able to bounce it into team-mates (as we saw with Savio above).

Against Rayo Vallecano, for example, see how deep the Ukrainian is able to back into the opposition box while protecting the ball, ultimately laying it off for Miguel Gutierrez to take the shot.

He is not the perfect modern striker — his link-up play is occasionally clunky and his defensive efforts are not always up to scratch — but his efficiency when it comes to carving out opportunities, both for himself and his team-mates, has taken Girona to the next level and to the top of La Liga.

Sometimes it is the simple things that help you win football matches and for Girona, adding a player who knows his way to goal to the sharp end of an expansive possession side has had the desired effect.

(Top photo: CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP via Getty Images)

Read the full article here

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