A number 9. If nothing else, that otherwise simple number is personified by generations of goalscorers, strikers, poachers.
There have been quite a few articles, recent discussions and opinions offered concerning the modern day absence of this type of player within top level football. There are examples around, Lewandowski of Bayern and Poland for example or Harry Kane of England and Spurs, possibly Icardi at Inter, Aguero at Man City or Simeone at Fiorentina as well. But more often than not we are finding a trend of the main forward players being creative, advanced “attackers” rather than pure goalscorers within the modern game. Examples like Mbappe, Rashford, Dembele, Mertins, Insigne roll off the tongue – all great players, scorers of goals but not poachers per se.
There are some alternatives – examples of Costa or Giroud are available but arguably play a subservient role in their sides, not expected to rattle in 40 a season, but play a team role in terms of linking play and assisting others in scoring.
The subservient role of a target man has become commonplace as the game and tactics have evolved in recent years. From the world-beating Barcelona side of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and introduction of Messi’s “false 9” to similar approaches from the Spanish National side when the powers of Torres and Villa began to wane and indeed through to recent German sides where a plethora of intelligent attacking midfielders take up a more holistic goalscoring responsibility within sides rather than the onus falling to a single individual.
This isn’t a criticism, more a commentary on the changing focus of football tactics where rounded “footballers” are bred and taught rather than relying on something as intangible and immeasurable like instinct or the ability to “sniff out a goal” – this can’t be measured on computers, stats or anything like that and so is perhaps “taught out” as teams strive for footballers who can “play” and offer tactical robustness first and foremost.
Football is often polarised into the teams who bring the ball down and pay, using all 11 players, starting from the keeper and progressing through the team to pass the ball towards the opposition’s goal with fluid movement and invention. The alternative, or variations thereof that we see are described as more “direct”. This could be simply pumping the ball up to a big man who then holds, flicks or indeed heads the ball into the goal himself . Or where he offers strength to again play a part in a more centralised passing side. In most teams now however, the team is set up in such a way that all players need to be able to play in a unit, there isn’t often room for a poacher, a pure goalscorer like Inzaghi, McCoist or Shearer, those who stay within the tramlines and wouldn’t dream of floating out to the right wing to offer support and help create chances for the rest of the team.
Even modern day goalscorers like Cristiano Ronaldo are adaptations of a modern footballer, while Ronaldo now spends a lot of time in the penalty box and doesn’t offer much going backwards, he did start life as a winger and has adapted his game with age and through necessity in terms of being of most value for great sites where there are others to do the creative work. He is also more than capable of pulling out wide and creating for others.
In little old Scotland we see a similar example to this type of thing. It has been far too long since we actually had a potent, dangerous goalscorer of any description but this struggle has offered a slightly more raw example of the need for a player to offer more to the team than simply goals. This hasn’t necessarily been lots of creative midfielders being produced, but more of workmanlike forwards being produced – Kenny Miller for example who would work and work and work for the team, ploughing the proverbial lone furrow up front and then occasionally scoring, but often bringing the most value through pressing and his work rate. There has been a trend of young Scottish forwards coming through and almost being “trained” out of poaching, numerous youngers shoved out wide to use their youthful legs and let the experienced “big man” be the one up top.
Again this isn’t a criticism but a commentary on how the game has evolved and changed and how the requirements of a modern football are just that – you need to be a modern footballer to succeed. Being able to operate in multiple positions, goalkeepers who can pass, right backs who can operate on the inside right attacking channels and strikers who can just as easily float out wide and deliver a pinpoint cross as the wide midfielder who meets it can find the top corner.
This evolution is not a bad thing in my opinion. It is progress, change, and adaptation – the survival of the fittest in football terms. There will be those who bemoan the loss of the “proper number 9”, but evolution happens and those who don’t adapt get left behind. Whether it be the progression from the “W-M” formation through to “4-4-2” or from there to “4-2-3-1” or “3-3-3-1”, or whether it is the adaption and loss of a goal poacher to a rounded attacking player, we as fans are left with the perpetual improvement of the game as teams and players strive for glory and success. Let us therefore keep looking forward and enjoying these advancements rather than moaning about the past.