In the current day, the requirement from front six players especially, is that they can do a bit of everything.
Only a few elite level managers such as Jose Mourinho, are still reliant on a team of notable specialists. That is players that earn their places through filling very prescriptive roles such as the big physical centre forward, a head it, clear it central defender or a pure ball-winner in midfield.
Nowadays even the keeper is charged with additional responsibilities as a ‘sweeper keeper’, as the last line of defence and the first line of attack, starting the play. And it is increasingly the same from 1 to 11 on the team-sheet.
And, as the lines between defensive, midfield and attacking play becoming increasingly blurred, this emphasis on all-round ability – tactically, technically, physically, mentally – will likely in time kill off a number of cherished football stereotypes. And also perhaps a number of the roles described in this feature.
In any case, some of these terms, the Second Striker, the number nine and a half, a Deep Lying Forward or a Support Striker are largely products of football analysis, of football journalism, rather than football reality in the present day.
Often the reality of how the game is played is a world away from the way it is described on chalkboards, media graphics and on coaching courses. And for all the information overload at our disposal there is often a clear lack of genuine insight or clarity as to how the game is really played.
If you look specifically at the breadth of roles available to front six (attacking) players the most romantic role, and shirt number, likely belongs to the number 10.
It is the one front six role that really deserves to stand on its own as a ‘distinct job’. And as a result, it is no surprise to see, that it is also the front six role that, in its pure form, is most in danger of extinction at the Champions League and most elite levels of the game.
We’ll get to the classic number 10 in a bit but, as for the other front six positions, it can be hard see meaningful distinctions in real terms between a raft of fashionable and often broadly interchangeable terms.
To all intents and purposes, you’d have to consider that a second striker, a support striker and a so-called nine ½ are pretty much one and the same.
The False Nine
A False Nine is a decoy centre forward in a side deliberately set up without a dedicated striker.
Instead of playing as the furthest man forward in his team’s set-up, the False Nine is a lone forward employed to drop deeper, back into midfield at every opportunity. He does this to evade defensive markers and link play, generally with his back to goal or on the half-turn. The theory is that the central defenders don’t know who to mark or how to mark him and as the nine drops off and into midfield the opponents’ back four is drawn out of shape allowing runners to flood into the gaps.
Lionel Messi has been a prime exponent of the False Nine role in Pep Guardiola’s greatest Barcelona team that won the Champions League at Wembley in 2011. Cesc Fabregas has played there for Spain and Francesco Totti for Roma from time to time in the past.
The Second Striker or Nine and a half or Deep Lying Forward or Support Striker or Inside Forward
Whatever name you use, whatever era or country you hail from, this role is similar to that of the attacking midfielder but different too, in one crucial respect.
The difference is that these players play higher up the field than a number eight or 10 (the traditional inside forwards of yore) and their playing instructions will also places more emphasis on an additional goalscoring responsibility as a partner to one or two forwards. Really, these role names all underline that distinction and place an emphasis on actions that lead to goals.
Typically these players will not especially track back nor will they overly press the ball as part of a unit close to the opponent’s goal as many attacking midfielders do. Paradoxically though, some of the best, most revered players in these roles historically have bucked this trend and were especially adept as all-round footballers who excelled at the defensive side of the game whether tackling, chasing down or closing off space for opposition players looking to play out from the back.
You can expressly see this lineage as it stretches through Di Stefano at Real Madrid, to Cruyff and ‘Total Football’, and to Ruud Gullit at Milan.
The first duty of the second striker ‘type’ is that he can establish a playing rapport with his strike partners. This may mean that they take on the role of a creator (like a Maradona or Zola) and it can also mean working combinations with a centre-forward on the half turn or with his back to goal so that the second striker can pass and move into space before receiving a return ball to score. In this way the second striker can even be the primary goal scorer in the team.
And you only have to think of Real Madrid and Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas, with a career haul of 84 goals in 85 caps for Hungary, and a further 514 goals in 529 matches in Hungarian and Spanish league football, to get a sense of that potential.
But however they play, wherever they play, the prerequisites are excellent ball control, the ability to take the ball beyond back-tracking defenders, creativity and deadly short, sharp passing and finishing.
It is no surprise that these players, like Cruyff, like Maradona, Puskas, Di Stefano, Zola all list among the most talented footballers of all-time. They are players that fans, committed and neutral alike, would gladly pay money to watch in their prime. And they are players that define the fundamental appeal of a game that is most exciting when played with pace, incision and dynamic flair.
The modern Inside Forward is typically an inverted winger type (a right footed player on the left and vice versa) who cuts in off the line to shoot and score, work combinations around the box, play in teammates or join in with attacks high up the field. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben, David Silva, Franck Ribery, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Angel Di Maria are among the names to savour in this role. These types of players are reliant on flying attacking, overlapping fullbacks to maintain their side’s width and balance when these Inside Forwards come off the line to influence the play in the central areas.
The Number 10
The Number 10 or playmaker is the ‘enganche’, the hook, the ‘trequartista’ sometimes too, sometimes the second striker dependent on perception. Really, what he’s called depends on the context and also the country we’re in.
Whatever the scenario, the Number 10 operates behind the front two in the 4-3-1-2 or in the 3-4-1-2 in Argentina (that around half the teams there still favour).
In England he might occur in a 4–4–2 as the playmaking midfielder or in a 4–2–3–1 or 4–4–1–1 (playing off the front). Generally speaking the Number 10 faces and plays towards the opponent’s goal looking to play teammates in with slide rule passes, chipping in with set-piece goals and shots from distance and sometimes adding mazy runs and prodigious skills to the mix.
“He was dancing the tango in a team grooving to the rhythms of a different tune.”
The Number 10 is there to run the game. The False Nine, in contrast, is an expedient solution – especially for teams packed with quick passing Lilliputian front six players.
I was privileged to see the archetypal Argentinian Number 10 Juan Román Riquelme play for Barcelona at Newcastle United in the Champions League.
He was lovely to watch, a sublime touch, eyes in the back of his head. The problem was he looked like an Argentinian Number 10 transplanted into a European team. And guess what, that’s exactly what he was. He was dancing the tango in a team grooving to the rhythms of a different tune.
Riquelme’s play was like a period piece – like a classic cameo from the 70s or from a much slower era Italian Serie A. It was all truth and beauty but in a team sense he was far less effective than a player with half his ability but an innate sense of when to move the ball on quickly and when to take that extra touch.
At Barcelona, in that one game, I was mesmerised but I was mesmerised watching a player who was dancing to his own mood music, operating on a different frequency to the rest of his teammates.
Largely unloved by Louis Van Gaal at the Nou Camp (where he was described as a ‘political signing’) Riquelme made far more sense at Villareal, in a side where he benefited from a more South American influence, specifically with Diego Forlán up front.