One of the more amazing things about football is how it is both cyclical and yet ever evolving. Trends and tactics go in and out of style, but they never come back the same. There’s always a tweak here or there improving on what used to be.
In the 90s and early 00s nearly everyone played the same way. You set up in a 4-4-2 with a big target man, the ‘number 9’ with the ‘second striker’ or ‘center forward’ playing just behind him. Think Manchester United’s Ruud van Nistelrooy with Wayne Rooney underneath him.
The number 9’s job was simple. Act as a target man for long balls and either flick them on to your second striker running into space behind you or occupy the center backs to give your wingers, midfielders, and second striker more space to launch an attack. Once the ball went out wide, you got into the box to be on the receiving end of a cross. And when that ball was in the box… you scored.
With the rise of tactics coming into football in the 00s, change was inevitable. Arsene Wenger challenged the status quo with his hybrid 4-4-2/4-3-3. Jose Mourinho brought about rigidly defensive football with Chelsea and Inter. Pep Guardiola got the world caught on ‘tiki taka’ football while Jurgen Klopp taught us all the values of ‘gegenpressing.’
It was Mourinho’s style that would eventually become the “base” formation of the Premier League. His defensive setup dropped the ‘second striker’ in favor of a more attacking midfielder with more defensive responsibilities. Essentially changing the 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1. The number 9’s job became very simple, be a target on long balls, hold up play, and get in the box to receive crosses.
The tactic caught on for many reasons: Its defensive rigidness was great for managers of smaller clubs who were trying not to lose to avoid relegation. Additionally, strikers are both hard to come by and are expensive. So by only playing with one striker, a team could reduce the amount they had on their books. Lastly, it allowed teams to play their more creative midfielders centrally, while still having two defensive midfielders covering behind them, a win for everyone!
Perhaps the biggest and most important reason it became so widespread though is this. Pep’s tiki taka requires very skilled players. Klopp’s gegenpressing requires players to have a relentless engine. Most teams don’t have access to those kind of players and therefore your best hope is to stay organize and be hard to breakdown.
The biggest drawback to this style is obvious, if you don’t have the right personnel, goals can be very hard to come by. Remember that part about football always evolving? That plays a huge factor too.
One of the biggest impacts that Pep Guardiola has had on the game is the idea that all 11 players on the field need to be able to play football. This is nothing new, it’s an idea that goes all the way back to Johan Cruyff’s ‘Total Football’ philosophy. Cyclical.
Think back to the start of last season. Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United all threw down big money to sign Alvaro Morata, Alexander Lacazette, and Romelu Lukaku, three quintessential big ‘number 9’s.’ It started great, the three were duking it out at the top of the scoring charts for the first few months. But by December, the goals dried up and those teams had to act. Chelsea signed Olivier Giroud, Arsenal signed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, while United both momentarily brought back Zlatan Ibrahimovic and have since had their manager complain about signing another striker.
Teams have figured out how to defend a lone striker. You can mark a striker out of a game, leaving the attack up to all the creative players who aren’t necessarily the best finishers. Not only do you need a second forward on the field, but your number 9 has to be able to play like a number 10 or 11 as well.
Now think of who the best center forwards in the world are. Messi, Ronaldo, Lewandowski, Kane, Aguero, Firmino, Suarez, Griezmann, Mbappe.
We’ll get to Lewandowski and Kane in a moment but what do the rest of these players have in common? None of them are built like your traditional ‘number 9.’ You can argue that Ronaldo is but he spent most of his career on the wing. When he does play in the middle, it’s always with another striker whether that be Karim Benzema (last year), Paulo Dybala, or Mario Mandzukic.
As for the others? Everyone knows how small Messi is. He was a wide player who was moved to the middle because he was so good that his size wasn’t a detriment. Luis Suarez and Roberto Firmino were both wingers when they arrived at Liverpool only to be moved into a central role. Antoine Griezmann plays as a traditional second striker behind Diego Costa and Kylian Mbappe is part of a front three that PSG can get away with because they’re so much better than everyone else in France.
With their development as wingers, Firmino and Suarez are the whole package but they have something else going for them, a second forward. Both Firmino and Suarez play in very similar systems. Firmino has Mohamed Salah, a wide forward operating to his right. On his left, he has Sadio Mane who plays a hybrid role between being the third forward and fourth midfielder. Suarez has Messi to one side, and either Coutinho or Ousmane Dembele playing the same role as Mane. At Manchester City, the 5’8″ Sergio Aguero benefits from having Raheem Sterling next to him, along with about 100 creative midfielders.
As mentioned before, Lewandowski and Kane are the exceptions to the rule, sort of. Both are of your old school ‘number 9’ build but they both offer so much more. Lewandowski came up through Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing school, playing with both Aubameyang and Marco Reus on his wings. He developed his game far more completely then just “get in the box and finish this cross.” It also helps that he plays next to Thomas Muller, a second forward coming from out wide.
On the surface, Kane’s situation looks a bit more complicated. When Tottenham line up, it looks like they’re only playing with one striker and five midfielders but Kane makes it so much more than that. This season, he’s also flanked by Son Hueng-Min, a player who can be a striker, and Lucas Moura, a wide forward. More than that, he can drop into the hole and act as the creative midfielder allowing players like Christian Eriksen or Dele Alli to power forward. That’s why Tottenham works with Kane and not Fernando Llorente, a traditional number 9.
This phenomenon goes beyond and extends into the international game as well. Both Spain and Germany won the World Cup with strikers who were mainly providers for their wide forwards. Both teams struggled in later years when they tried to shoehorn a real striker into their team. This past World Cup, France put in traditional ‘number 9’ Olivier Giroud for the sole purpose of creating space for Griezmann and Mbappe.
For Morata, Lacazette, and Lukaku, their struggles were all understandable. While they are all good hold up players, they weren’t involved in much else on the field making them entirely dependent on the service they received. It’s not a coincidence that Morata and Lacazette have had mini revivals this season playing alongside another forward while United’s goal leader is Anthony Martial, a wide forward.
In 2018, if you’re still playing with just one forward on your team you’re behind the eight ball. The game has simply evolved beyond that.
A second forward, who would have thought? Cyclical.