Gone are the days when the classic number nine would be there to nod - or prod - in the balls delivered from number eleven and number seven out wide left and right. Numbers ten and eight were also key members of the attacking play in a rigid 4-4-2 formation which also lent its name to a monthly football publication.
That 4-4-2 formation was then ditched in favour of a more adventurous 4-3-3, or an even more cut-throat 4-2-4. Teams started dabbling with three at the back, leading to the invention of wing-backs who would maraud down either flank, albeit without ignoring their defensive duties.
Current FC Bayern Munich coach Pep Guadiola brought about another tactical evolution in his successful four-year spell in charge of FC Barcelona. The Blaugrana missed out on just five out of a possible 19 trophies playing a 4-2-3-1 formation headed by Lionel Messi. Most of Europe’s top clubs followed suit, including Bayern, who swept the board last season with just that style.
Versatility the key
True to form, that innovative system is set to be consigned to the record books in favour of a new trend emanating from Spain. The World and European champions have succeeded without a nominal striker, or with a so-called ‘false nine’ - no targetman whose sole duty is to put the ball in the back of the net, but rather a player who gets more involved in the game, dropping deep to pick the ball up sooner.
Such a player is Borussia Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski. While he may still fit the classical number nine mould, he is rarely seen hanging around the goalmouth waiting for the ball. His 18 assists in the past two seasons support the notion that he works as much on creating goals as he does on scoring them.
Last season, he got heavily involved in the game with an average of 42 touches per game (compared to 37 for Bayern’s Mario Mandzukic or 29 for Mario Gomez) and he was involved in a tackle every three minutes (Gomez every five). He also covered an average of 10.2km per game, rarely standing still and waiting for a sniff of the ball.
Does that mean the Gerd Müller ilk is a dying breed? Probably not. While Guardiola may play with Franck Ribery, Thomas Müller and Arjen Robben in a dynamic front line, Mario Mandzukic and Claudio Pizarro are still likely to be required to resolve any sticky situations. Likewise, Bayer 04 Leverkusen are not going to drop last season’s Bundesliga top goalscorer Stefan Kießling just because he is too much of a striker.
Unpredictability is also an important element in football and while the shift towards a more team-based attacking player appears to be the latest trend, the one team who sticks to tradition may have the advantage that opposition defenders forget how to deal with just one or two strikers positioned right on their toes for 90 minutes. Sure, football is changing constantly, but while players run around with the number 99 on the back of their jersey nowadays, there will always be room for a number nine even in the modern game.