When Manchester United realized they would miss out on signing Darwin Nunez, they didn’t immediately move on to the next target. They couldn’t. There aren’t many similar players available right now, so the current feeling is that it’s best to wait. RB Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku will be on the market next summer, and most of football is waiting to see what Reims’ Hugo Ekitike decides.
The problem for anyone interested in both, though, is that there will be massive competition. This is how No 9s became precious.
It was already a theme this summer, sparked by Liverpool’s signing of Nunez and Manchester City buying Erling Haaland. Nearly everyone from City and Arsenal to Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona has entered this window looking for a central leader. Tottenham Hotspur are among the few clubs that have not done so because they have a rare commodity in Harry Kane.
It also gives England an edge in this World Cup, because the international football scene is inevitably similar. Many top teams would like a number 9 but have to improvise. Spain persists with the erratic Alvaro Morata. Holland is using Wout Weghorst. Hansi Flick is considering a wild card pick in Simon Terodde, a 34-year-old who has spent most of his career in Germany’s second division. It was also where he made most of his scoring, to get Schalke’s promotion.
It’s a summer theme, then, but also a contradiction in modern football. Everyone wants a number 9, as there’s still nothing like just being able to get the ball into the back of the net, but few of the gyms are actually producing.
There is a growing argument that academies do not know how to produce them, because of the specialization of the position. Most now arise by “natural talent” or “accident”.
“There are very few strikers in football,” says one figure who works at the top of the game, “and they are decreasing yearly.”
Even Nunez became an £85m signing after just one goalscoring season in Portugal.
Many in football attribute this to the “post-Pep era”. That’s not to blame Guardiola or even to say that most managers are trying to follow him by playing more midfielders. It is an unintended consequence of the immense influence that the Catalan has had on the sport, particularly with regard to ball possession and pressure.
It has created a world of coaches, spreading far beyond Europe, where there is a conveyor belt of technically proficient players. The vast majority of young graduates have mastered the basics of technique and positioning, which in turn means that the majority of the players produced are midfielders and – depending on athleticism – forwards and inverted wingers.
This had the added effect of underage games, where more of the playing time is spent outside the area, the ball being circled and rolled.
Some compare it to “perfect lab conditions”, but these are not the conditions necessary to create No 9s. This is because the position remains so distinct, arguably even more so as the forwards have been asked to do more in the game in general.
His most needed attributes remain “instinct, movement and finishing” and all are more dependent on the game for development than any other position. Quite simply, 9s need to get the balls off the defenders’ backs, as well as get into the box and learn to create and finish opportunities. These are aspects that are not so easy to hone when so much of your workouts and gym games involve operating as something closer to “inverted 10s”. A Premier League manager recently complained that a young striker he really admired had absolutely no heading skills because he never had to do it at youth level.
It is not exactly a “lost art”, but it is something that more and more football figures involved in the area question themselves and seek to rediscover.
“Bring me a center forward” is one of the most common calls in executive offices, from the lowest level to the first team. It’s just that they are almost dependent on those with pure natural talent for the position to develop independently.
When academics talk about the next generation in England, there are only a few names that stand out. Among them are Chelsea’s Ronnie Stutter, West Ham United’s Sonny Perkins, Crystal Palace’s Zach Marsh, Rangers’ Rory Wilson – who is expected to go to Aston Villa – and City’s Liam Delap.
It’s still a group of only 10 or so when most scouts and coaches would really like a generation of around 30-40.
This raises the question of how clubs and federations intend to solve the problem and – more deeply – how do you create modern 9s.
Norwich City recently tried an experiment where their academy teams consistently played 4-4-2 so that there were always two forwards on the field and a minimum number developed in each age group. It didn’t work out though, with one of the few reasons being that no one now plays 4-4-2. As such, it just didn’t fit.
The German federation, meanwhile, sent research groups to Argentina a few years ago to see how they produced some of their famous, robust strikers. Had they been more recently, though, DfB scouts would have found frustration at Gabriel Batistuta’s house as well.
Diego Huerta, a football executive and scout whose work contributed to an Argentine title at Racing, says even his country has begun to incorporate the more homogenized elements of European football.
“We will probably only have Lautaro Martínez at the World Cup as this type of striker,” explains Huerta. “The type of education players receive now is excellent in terms of training methodology, but it lacks that street football element.”
This is something Arsene Wenger argued nearly a decade ago, voicing the belief that it was only in South America that young forwards were still learning to “fight” with defenders. Now it really evolved there.
Might as well force advance divisions or abroad to learn their craft, where there’s a little more room. There’s no big six pressure, and there’s potential for more higher plays than in the Premier League.
As an example of this, there was excitement among some executives about the performances of Tottenham Hotspur’s Troy Parrott and Swansea City’s Michael Obafemi for Ireland against Scotland last week.
Both could end up as case studies, along with Ben Brereton and Rhian Brewster. Highly regarded as youngsters, the Irish duo looked like wasted talent, with both initially having to fall back after unsatisfactory performances. Parrott had some underwhelming loans, Obafemi went to Swansea City. There is now optimism that these seasons truly represented the kind of finishing school these forwards need – that they can now hone their predatory skills over the long haul.
Likewise, it helped Ireland, and the two players, that their instructions were to actually enter the area rather than run down the wing.
This points to two other connected elements of the position. Strikers can learn these traits – even the psychological aspects – later in their careers.
Diego Milito was Huerta’s boss at Racing, as the club’s sporting manager, and was one of those nines who only came close to a goal return every two games later in his career.
“He was one who didn’t become a ‘killer’ until he was 25 years old,” says Huerta. “I remember him saying that it was only when he worked with Marcelo Bielsa in the national team that he learned specific moves for a 9, which had not been shown until that moment. we call them counterattacks. [Krzysztof] Piatek scored a lot of goals like this at Genoa, where the striker goes to the back of a defender, then makes a diagonal move in the opposite direction. It is almost impossible to defend for the defender because they are two diagonals in the opposition when they must watch the ball and the attacker at the same time. Milito said it was like stepping into a new world for him. Bielsa did something similar to [Patrick] Bamford at Leeds United, and it comes with their video analysis. It shows how some moves can be trainable.”
Many in the game would cite the influence of similar coaches from Jurgen Klopp on Mohamed Salah, and Maurizio Sarri on Dries Mertens, both of whom have risen to another level in terms of scoring. They also made a lot of that score, popping up around the wing.
However, some of this is just a necessary answer to how the game has developed rather than a solution to the problem. It’s also instructive that Klopp, of all people, is heading for a number 9 like Nunez. Even Xavi, a high priest of Guardiola’s principles, insists on bringing perhaps the greatest number 9 in the game now in Robert Lewandowski. And he’s 34.
We can see things coming full circle in a broader sense.
It’s possible that this push, and this summer’s run, will make gyms respond for the future. There is a growing belief, widely held in Italy, that the future of the game itself is for seven outfield players to be rotational with only three fixed positions: a midfielder, a central midfielder and a forward.
Football history has also been defined by constant responses to what has gone before, reshaping the game again. The attackers were initially pulled back into the outfox defenses. Now, with so many teams playing three on defense, coaches can return to 3-5-2 – and two distinct attackers – to give opposing sides new problems. This is already being seen in League One and the lower end of the Championship.
For now, the view on forwards is pretty clear: the overall quality and numbers are going down – and the price is going up.