Nick Blackman and Hal Robson-Kanu finding mixed success as utility forwards

Reading FC are currently flying high in the Championship, sitting third behind Brighton and Middlesborough, and boasting a squad that has hit some form since receiving a boost in talent towards the end of the transfer window. Two of their players have hit the ground running themselves this season, but while Nick Blackman’s form has come for his club, Hal Robson-Kanu is performing for his country.

The Welsh international has been in fine form as his country’s lone striker during recent fixtures, but for Reading he is filling the role he has filled for the past few seasons – that of ‘utility forward’.

A technically gifted player, Robson-Kanu is an all-around performer. Playing wide left, wide right, or through the middle, at his best he is a strong and direct runner with the ball, as well as a good passer and a fine striker of the ball. His size also makes him a threat in the air and a good target man for a side set for hold-up play. This central role is the one he has been playing for Wales, where he is a low profile but industrious presence in a team in the shadow of Gareth Bale and, to a far lesser extent, Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey.

It’s the cliched ‘thankless task’ of running the line, disrupting the defence and, if he can get hold of it, distributing the ball. But those cliches are beginning to be broken, as Robson-Kanu’s role in his country’s good form has begun to draw plaudits.

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Less so for his club, where he is a divisive figure among the fans. Frustration is the primary response, for a player who is undoubtedly talented but rarely at his best at club level, perhaps desiring a larger stage on which to strut.

But then similar could have been said of his club colleague Nick Blackman. Until this season, Blackman was another who divided fan opinion, and had showed his best only on rare occasions. Not coincidentally, until this season Blackman had also tended to be deployed as a ‘utility forward’, predominantly as a substitute down the right-hand side. This season he has found form, and goals, playing as a central striker – in front of a midfield that is now bursting with creative talent, including regulars Stephen Quinn and Oli Norwood, and Chelsea loanee Lucas Piazon.

Blackman is playing like a man whose realised he’s been wearing the wrong sized boots the whole time – suddenly, he has intent, and every time he picks the ball up he looks a threat. Players lacking confidence overthink, dwell on the ball, look afraid to shoot; Blackman is hitting the ball early, driving at defenders and carrying it with purpose.

The contrast with Robson-Kanu is interesting. Blackman is currently excelling for Reading in the role that his teammate has made his own for Wales. Robson-Kanu began last season with the number nine on the back of his club shirt, a pre-season conversation with the management had obviously occurred – along the lines of the classic school playground discussion: “I want to play up front, gaffer”, was the clear statement. Yet with injuries, and the team struggling for form, he found himself used again in a variety of roles. The big-earning Pavel Pogrebnyak – one of this summer’s departures – was the incumbent in the forward role, and the Welshman’s versatility was a limit to his ambitions.

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As he cruises over the line to become England’s top scorer, there have been many recent retrospectives on Wayne Rooney’s career-to-date. He too has been a victim of his versatility, both at club and international level. There can’t be many midfield or forward roles Rooney hasn’t filled for Manchester United and England in recent years, his abilities allowing him to fill in wherever the team needed – the robustness of a deep-lying midfielder, the creativity of a number ten, the eye of a number nine.

Rooney’s range is wider than either Blackman of Robson-Kanu, but they suffer from variants of the same problem. Without a dedicated role, and a clear place on the teamsheet, they sacrifice their personal progression and performance for the overall team performance. It’s a vital role, but one that often goes unthanked, and under-appreciated by the watching masses. For Rooney, once the wonderkid, now the reliable workhorse, the problem intensified as his career progressed. Blackman and Robson-Kanu will be hoping their performances for club and country respectively convince their managers of their best position, and that the best years of their careers are ahead of them.

Featured image: all rights reserved by Nick

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