Sometime over the last ten years something clicked in the minds of those managing top flight football clubs in England. No longer could sides afford to play two up top and so the art of a ‘deadly duo’ or strike partnership has slowly waned. In his autobiography Gary Neville credits Carlos Queiroz for Manchester United’s deviation from English football’s most tried and tested formation as a way to counter European sides that were overrunning English midfields in the Champions League.
The switch away from 4-4-2 has had a dramatic effect on three areas of the pitch. No matter which alternative is used the defensive unit is now afforded more protection in either a defensive midfielder or an extra centre half. Midfield options and shapes have changed to accommodate diamonds and Christmas trees which has led to wide players being pushed either further forward as part of a front three or back as wing backs. Some teams abandon wide players altogether outside of the defence and therefore the onus is on the full backs on either flank to provide width. Arguably the biggest change has come in the pursuit of the perfect number ten.
The ten role has been around for almost as long as 11 a side football but the job of a ten has changed to suit the times. For a long time in England the number ten was merely a second striker, the little man to the burly number nine or vice versa as a hold up man. Either way they were expected to chip in with a decent strike tally but share that work load with someone else whose sole purpose was sticking the ball in the net. Nowadays some might argue not much has changed. A ten is still expected to provide goals in the shape of creativity, assists and good old fashioned goals but it would seem the position is used to harbor those seen as indispensable to the team. Roberto Mancini would rarely substitute Yaya Toure when under the cosh instead he would choose to push Toure further forward at the expense of a second striker, usually Dzeko. At Manchester United they have been through Shinji Kagawa, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Adnan Januzaj and even Marouane Fellaini in the position in the last three years without mentioning Wayne Rooney. It is difficult to know what a number ten is expected to provide for the team nowadays apart from that ever elusive ‘x factor’.
A by product of this obsession (or possibly just a coincidence) is a serious decline in top quality centre forwards. Because of the Ronaldo and Messi effect teams are now expected to get large numbers of goals from other sources. For Chelsea Frank Lampard took the role of goalscoring midfielder to new heights in the Premier League but it must be remembered that we are exceptionally privileged to see the likes of Messi and Ronaldo in the same generation and looking for wingers and other forward minded players to chip in with 50 goals a season is fantasy beyond those two greats. The baton then must be picked up by those number nines the world over but where are they?
Arsene Wenger has taken some huge criticism for his lack of activity in the recent transfer window but the investment in huge scouting networks for all Premier League clubs means the days of finding talent no one else has spotted are long gone. The only alternative then is to ask (with huge sums of money) football’s biggest and richest to give up their rare talents.
In bygone years you could spend an entire evening discussing and reeling off the list of talented number nines in European and world football that simply is no longer the case. According to the press Arsenal failed in their attempts to buy Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, Barca have Suarez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is 34 years old and German giants Bayern have Robert Lewandowski. In England Manchester City have Sergio Aguero and Chelsea have the time bomb that is Diego Costa. Outside of that list there are some good strikers but none are super stars. The lack of world class talent in that position has led to the great Brazil playing with a chap upfront called Fred! Worse than that some sides have such a depth of talent in other positions they have experimented with not playing a striker at all. For both Barcelona and Spain Cesc Fabregas has been employed as a ‘false 9’, something up until recent years would have seemed impossible to contemplate. For the sake of the game a new crop of top strikers needs to emerge soon or that all important art of goalscoring might be left up to made up positions and the new Ronaldo and Messi.
Long live the number the centre forward, striker, attacker. Whatever you call them they used to be the players most kids aspired to be. If we are not careful they might just turn into a nostalgic distant memory.