Football has changed massively in recent years, with footballing positions perhaps the most adaptable part of the game. Goalkeepers have become outfield players, wing-backs are now attackers and managers are now olympic divers – just ask Louis van Gaal!
The one position most assumed would never be changed or tampered with though, is the classic striker. The figure of the No.9 was a player of power, skill and a fair amount of pace, they were the most deadly player on the pitch and that is where a team’s goals came from.
However, it seems as though this has changed drastically in recent years, something Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford agrees with:
You look at all the strikers in the world now, I can only think of two, three who are No.9s – Kane, (Robert) Lewandowski, (Luis) Suárez
They are instead men that are clinical finishers that thrive in the penalty area, finding space when needed or the perfect space to be in for when the ball is crossed in or takes a deflection from a save or defender. They also posses that ability to receive the ball with their back to goal, hold off the defender before pushing the ball into space and striking it. These are perhaps the best examples of what a classic striker can do:
Harry Kane 20 Goals:
Open Play: 16
Free Kicks: 0
0.83 – Goals Per Game
53% – Shot Accuracy pic.twitter.com/BkDCQXlcAt
— ㅤ (@TopFlightAnalys) 21 April 2017
In the modern game, it seems as though this classic No.9 is a rare breed. Instead, teams lean more towards more modern examples of the No.9 role; this has seen the role of the false nine become very prominent.
The best exponent of this role was Lionel Messi in Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side. Messi does not possess the power or aerial ability of say a Kane or Suarez, but the false nine role allowed him to thrive without these attributes.
In order to perfect the role of the false nine, the player must have a good range of short and long passing, a superb tactical awareness of where both his teammates and opponents are, an eye for goal, touch tight dribbling and the ability to thread a killer pass.
These are all attributes Messi has, and it made him one of the most potent attackers in the game. Tactically, it also wreaks havoc on the opposition defence. Without a recognised striker, the centre-halves do not know who to mark with the false nine dropping into midfield at every available opportunity.
This means that the defenders either drop off, giving the false striker more space to work with. Or, they get sucked into the midfield to mark him, meaning the defence loses it’s shape, allowing more space further up the pitch for the wingers to run into, which is where the false nine’s ability to pass comes into play.
This was reason alone for the role to become so popular, with space on the pitch so precious to both teams.
It is possible to play with a classic nine up top other than the way in which Kane, Suarez and Lewandowski do, and that is to play with two strikers. This variation sees the classic nine play beside a forward with more pace and skill, meaning the two prongs of the attack provide the centre-halves with very different problems.
However, this can breed problems, with the creative-midfielders unsure whether to play a ball over the top of the defence or into the forward’s feet. In turn, it can be confusing for the strikers too, with neither ever truly knowing whether they will receive the ball where they want it or not.
With modern defenders now becoming faster and stronger, it is no longer completely successful to play with an old school No.9. If they are unable to win the ball in the air and they are getting isolated, it means the player becomes all but useless, especially if they are not willing or able to drop in and link up play.
However, to say that classic strikers are no longer needed in the game would be incorrect. Harry Kane is one of the Premier League’s hottest properties, while Suarez is the second highest scorer in La Liga (25 goals) and Robert Lewandowski leads the way in the Bundesliga (28 goals).
Perhaps it is not the fact that the classic nine is now outdated, but instead that it has become such a difficult position to play, and the false nine lends itself to more creative but less physical players, which is the direction the modern game is moving in.
With so much more pressure put on every position of the pitch, it is not outrageous for a manager to want their striker to offer more. Instead of just being physical and able to score, they must now have a good range of passing, deft dribbling and a real tactical awareness that was not required from the strikers of old, whereas both Suarez and Kane can be see dropping in to provide and extra body and pick up the ball.
The role of the classic No.9 is not dead, but it is one that is dying.