Come in number nine, your time is up

Come in number nine, your time is up

There are many points of received wisdom in football that should be cast out with the rubbish in the 21st Century. One of them is that every team needs a 20 goal a season centre forward to flourish. Because at least at the elite level, a player that contributes nothing when he isn’t scoring, simply isn’t good enough.

None of the best teams in the era of Messi and Ronaldo are reliant on a classic number nine, a target man or a centre forward who patrols the width of the 18 yard box and sniffs out goals like a Klose or Inzaghi.

And it is an observation that has not been lost on the 19 year old Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford. In a Telegraph interview in April, Rashford confirmed himself to be a fan of wingers who have reimagined themselves as complete forwards, players like Gareth Bale, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo.

He says: “You look at all the strikers in the world now, I can only think of two, three who are number nines – Kane, Lewandowski, Suárez,”

Rashford said. “Agüero? You could play him deeper as a number 10. The qualities a striker needs now are different to what they used to be.”

Is Agüero now a number nine under Guardiola, having started his career as a second striker? Is Suárez really a centre forward? Having become the ultimate team man at Barcelona, Suárez clearly offers so much more than goals.

But while you might take issue with Marcus Rashford’s list of names, the broad point is well made. The number nine is an endangered species.

An endangered species

They love these centre forward types in England, in Italy and in Germany and indeed in Lewandowski, Bayern have retained their historic fondness for a penalty box terror. But it is telling that the Pole was on the losing side when push came to shove in the 2017 Champions League quarter final battle with Ronaldo’s Real Madrid. Bayern were undone as decisions went against them and they failed to make more of their possession.

And now we hear that another throwback player, the Belgian Romelu Lukaku is set for a sensational return to Chelsea. But it would strike a bum note for me if Everton’s main man were to end up back at Stamford Bridge in the summer.

Lukaku, 23, has scored 24 Premier League goals for Everton this season, whilst he has netted 86 times in all competitions since his last appearance for Chelsea, which came during the 2013-14 campaign.

But I think you only need to look at Lukaku’s body language to see why he isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

He scores goals but not consistently and usually in streaks. He also needs a lot of chances to find his form. And to use a classic football euphemism, when he’s not scoring he offers nothing to the team. He’s a star in a good team but not good enough for a top one where the standard is Messi, Ronaldo, Agüero, Zlatan Ibrahimovic – and even Lewandowski, after a fashion.

Lukaku just didn’t give enough for the team for Mourinho, I’d imagine. So it is a surprise to see him courted by Mourinho’s successor at Stamford Bridge, Antonio Conte. But then, Italian coaches love their classic nines. It is in their football DNA.

For my mind Lukaku is always condemned for what he can’t do rather than what he can. His play is old style number nine predictable, his decision-making is poor in respect of everything other than his own glory, and his first touch isn’t consistent enough for a really top rank player.

Lukaku is a big player in an average team that plays to his strengths but the last thing a team like Chelsea need is a man with ideas above his ability and a team ethic undone by an individualistic streak. He was sacrificed before at Chelsea – and that’s what happens in football when you can always upgrade, based on a massive budget. The comparison for Mourinho when it comes to Chelsea strikers, will likely always be with Didier Drogba.

Didier Drogba was Chelsea’s literal and figurative totem and the competitive embodiment of his irascible manager. I just can’t imagine Lukaku as a similar on-field lieutenant for Antonio Conte. He just doesn’t look or play like he cares enough.

And what would such a signing say about Chelsea’s Champions League ambitions? Does it suggest that Chelsea remain a work in progress or that the days of big marquee signings are gone for now?

But regardless, this is simply not an age for the indulgence for lazy number nine-style strikers. This is because coaches demand more of their players – from one to 11. Even the keeper has to join in the play as a sweeper and an instigator of attacks through his quick and accurate distribution.

Don’t believe me? Then let’s take Alan Shearer as an archetype of a wonderful specialist role? A typical number nine, a strong physical player, over six feet tall. Shearer incidentally scored 49 of his 283 league goals with his head.

He was obviously a prolific header of the ball but what team in the top rank now would really play to his strengths or those of Vieri or Suker, Inzaghi  or Batistuta, or Owen or Romario? Perhaps only Bayern Munich, maybe PSG.

Looking back to the past, I think the ‘Brazilian’ Ronaldo is a different case to his contemporaries. That is because Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima was a precursor of the current thinking. He could have fitted in perfectly in almost any of the front six positions. He was ahead of his time, and like other ‘originals’ say Platini, Pele, Maradona,  Zidane, Cruyff  and their ilk, he would have little trouble adapting were he playing now, or indeed at any point in history.

None of the big players in world football today or from the recent past – Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to the likes of Ibrahimovic, Mueller, Robben, Ribery, James, Isco, Neymar, Suárez, Henry or Rooney are centre-forwards, or number nines, or even defined by their starting position in their team’s formation notation.

Even Luis Suárez, despite his hunger for goals, started out in a wide role in Holland and his exemplary team ethic makes him a player of a different stripe.

The star footballers of this age are players that come from behind, can drop deep, or drift wide. They attack defences and play from space between the lines or where they can exploit a numerical advantage such as on a counter attack.

Unlike a fixed focal point centre forward, or like that aforementioned Inzaghi-type playing across the dimensions of the 18 yard box, these post-modern players are very difficult to dispossess or for defenders to manipulate. This is because they are always on the move, taking possession between the lines of midfield and attack or at the end of short sprints. They are fit, mobile team players and they are running at top pace and they arrive in the box to score from all sorts of angles. They find their openings easily, precisely because defenders don’t know how or who to mark at the moment when a chance emerges. Their movement and ability, their faculty for reading the play gets their goals rather than brute force, bravery or the ability to win a war of attrition.

Not only do these ‘new’ players score goals, they also assist their team-mates.

And this is the key: an old style number nine is relatively easy to mark.

In the traditional scenario, a strong defender is facing a 90 minute one on one duel with a player who does a limited amount of things.

He works the width of the 18 yard box, he takes the ball in with his back to goal or on the half-turn and he is the focal point of his teams attacks and crosses. He is one of the primary targets at corners or free kicks alongside two brute centre halves. Control that at source or in terms of supply, and you have nullified maybe as much as 70% of his team’s potency.

If you have the budget, or the patience, to do it then creating a busy, swarming front four and dynamic full-backs (six attackers) gives you a style of play where players and goal scorers/assist providers are always running into space, creating mayhem and if all of them can score (or at least shoot) and provide assists then how do you cut off the supply of goals? You can’t just sit on the number nine or push him wide/fight with him. You can’t just cut off crosses into the box at source.

If you have a big number nine (or a whippet-quick Michael Owen type) you have a largely predictable style of play and that is why these centre forward players are out of fashion. They contribute nothing when they are not scoring, they present the same problems game after game, they are selfish and lazy out of possession as a rule. Because they lack athleticism and look to conserve energy for scoring their goals they are no good if you want to press high up the field (as good teams want to do), and work fast transitions from turnovers of possession. Technically, athletically, in terms of mentality and discipline they tend not to be good enough.

Invisible men

Also, classic centre forwards are just not visible any more as archetypes. Young kids can’t aspire to being number nines without visible heroes in that role. They literally don’t see them in the Champions League or La Liga. They are the invisible men at the top of the game and big fish in small ponds at a lesser level.

In the short term, I think the future of this kind of player lies in poor quality football and with teams where the lack of finance dictates that they need to gamble the majority of their budget upon finding a 20 goals a season striker.

But of course, everything is recycled in football and someone, probably soon enough, will recycle the number nine concept in a new guise and a new style. Perhaps it will be Chelsea if they sign Lukaku.

For now, we are simply in a phase of fashion where there’s no need for a Terry Butcher/Tony Adams or a Gary Lineker/Alan Shearer model of duelling defender and forwards.

As you can tell, I unapologetically prefer the modern way. Lots of very, very good players as opposed to a few stars per team sprinkled amongst a lot of  limited, mentally and physically slow brutes performing basic functions. It maybe doesn’t create a Hollywood star system (below the gilded cage lives of Messi and Ronaldo et al) but it is far higher in quality as an aggregate top to bottom. The side-lining of the traditional number nine, at least to my mind, makes for a far more compelling spectacle. And that, above all, is the name of the game.