Thursday August 27 2020
Inside Number Nine

A summer spree on old-school centre-forwards points to a new fashion in Serie A leaving the False Nine behind, writes Owen Diana.

As is the case with the fashion industry, Italy has long been known as an innovator in the world of football. The Metodo approach inspired the Azzurri to consecutive World Cup titles in the 1930s. Three decades later, Helenio Herrera’s Catenaccio delivered back-to-back European Cup triumphs for Inter.

However, the newest trend on the peninsula is not new at all. Hulking, hard-working centre-forwards are back in style after the advent of the False Nine threatened to render them obsolete. Instead, this summer has seen the traditional target man reassert their primacy in the modern Italian football landscape.

Unsurprisingly for a club accustomed to leading the way in Serie A, Juventus have been at the vanguard of the movement. They have been linked to all the premier powerhouse strikers in the division, with Roma hitman Edin Dzeko rumoured to be at the top of their wish list. The Bosnian could prove the perfect foil for Cristiano Ronaldo, but will have to beat competition from the likes of Duvan Zapata and Arkadiusz Milik in what has become a crowded casting call.

All three candidates enjoyed successful seasons, with Duvan Zapata in particular proving that his sparkling 2018-19 showings were no fluke. Their exploits are part of a larger trend in Italy’s top flight, with Andrea Petagna at SPAL and Andreas Cornelius at Parma proving that there is use for physical centre-forwards further down the division.

Those fearsome five are all proven Serie A goal-getters, but the logic behind the mad dash for their signatures extends beyond their ability to find the back of the net with regularity. Possessing a physically imposing striker gives coaches a plausible Plan A, but also a great option to come off the bench if their side is in search of an attacking spark. Being able to defend doggedly from the front is imperative in the modern game, and having a hard-working No 9 is a huge boost in that department.

As last week’s Europa League Final demonstrated, set pieces have become increasingly important at the highest level. Consequently, having a striker who carries a threat in the opponent’s box and provides an extra body when defending dead balls is a huge advantage. Whereas football’s tactical evolution seemed set to leave the target man behind just a few short years ago, it has now circled back to find a place for them.

Although the big man is back en vogue, it is unclear whether embracing their qualities will resolve Serie A’s struggles in Europe. Dzeko was nullified by Sevilla in the Europa League Round of 16 clash, while Lukaku was quiet in the final after his brilliant run set up an early penalty.

Deploying a centre-forward who serves as a fixed point of reference has clear benefits, but it represents a risky strategy against the continental elite. Inverted wingers like Ronaldo and Leo Messi have been prolific in recent years in part because their movements into the centre from wide positions are tricky for opposing defences to track. In contrast, a target man will never stray far from his sphere of influence, making him easier to mark if his teammates cannot supply him with quality service.

Even though the rediscovery of the orthodox No 9 is a feel-good story, it is unclear whether or not it will help Serie A recoup its place as the best league in the world.

Have your say...
Yes, 18 teams makes sense. And with Euros and world cup coming up, this will be good for national team not to have too many unnecessary fixtures and delayed ending to season.
on the 31st August, 2020 at 1:31pm
Thumbs up to reducing the league to 18 teams. It's no coincidence that the league had its best decade (90s) when it was at 18. Whether they're "Brescias" or "SPALs" or whatever, there always seems to be 2 clubs that are especially atrocious. In 18/19 bottom Chievo had 17 points. In 16/17 bottom Pescara had 15. FIFTEEN. In each of the last 6 seasons bar 15/16, two teams fail to make above 30. The bottom team never breaks 20, except for Benevento in 17/18 with 21. Amazing.
on the 30th August, 2020 at 10:27pm
Imagine if Germany expanded to 20 teams, adding two weak teams to league...
Robert would play German equivalent of "Brescia" & "SPAL". TWICE!
Guy could amass 16 goals only in those 4 games! LOL

Ciro, seriously, take the trophy & ship it to Lewandowski..!

PS: Serie A should change the league to 18 teams as well. There's really no point playing "SPALs & Brescias"... League would be stronger & teams playing in Europe would get more rest!
on the 29th August, 2020 at 11:02pm
Varsavia, I forgot Bundesliga had less games.
That's scandalous --How can Immobile take Golden Shoe?? Italy & Germany are practically equal on coefficient points!

Ciro had 36 goals in 38 games.
Lewa had 34 goals in 34 games.

Looking further,
Ciro played 3176 minutes in Serie A, while Lewa had 2762 minutes in Bundesliga.
That's 1 goal every 88 minutes for Ciro &
1 goal every 81 minutes for Lewa!

Without penalties it's even worse:
1 goal every 144 minutes - Ciro
1 goal every 95 minutes - Lewa
on the 29th August, 2020 at 10:48pm
Bundesliga plays 34 fixtures in a 18-team ligue rather than 38 fixtures in 20-team Serie A, four plays less in a ligue season is a HUGE disadvantage for Lewandowski (Munchen), Werner (Leipzig), Aubameyang (Dortmund).
on the 29th August, 2020 at 10:41am
Thank you, USoT.
I value these forwards about 2 Million euro for one goal. Slightly more or less if player is young or 30+.
on the 29th August, 2020 at 10:34am
a Varsavia,
Here's your list, but WITHOUT PENALTIES:

Immobile 22 goals
Ronaldo, Caputo 19
Lukaku, Zapata 17
Dzeko 16
Ilicic 15
Joao Pedro 14
Muriel, Martinez, Berardi, Cornelius & Simeone 12
Belotti 9
Petagna 7
Mancosu 5

(Meanwhile, Lewandowski had 29 & Werner 25 goals without penalties.)

For next year, FI should post penalty goals in brackets next to striker's goal stat! We'd all want/ appreciate that, right?
on the 28th August, 2020 at 9:51pm
I agree with @Mark. These are not classic old-school center forwards. Just because they are phisically strong doesn't mean they are similar to their old counterparts. They are hard working, mobile, tactically superb forwards who can even help in the build up and play making.

You don't see a Peter Crouch or Luca Toni type of player in a top club anymore.
on the 28th August, 2020 at 9:18pm
Messi takes club (& its league) to another level!
30 YEARS FROM NOW & Inter would STILL benefit from Messi's brand!!! ("Inter? The club that Messi played for, right?")

Inter games would be sold out weeks in advance. My grandma & neighbour's blind cat wouldn't miss Leo's debut on TV!

Seriously, any Inter fan that moans about signing Messi, preferring Lautaro, needs to be slapped asap! The nerve on you!
(...Hell, with Messi Factor you can even bring Martinez back in 2 years..!)
on the 28th August, 2020 at 9:16pm
I can't believe some of Inter fans are against signing Messi!!!

How ARROGANT & SPOILED are you, Interisti??

If one of the best, if not THE BEST PLAYER EVER!!! wants to sign for your club, there should be no debate!!!
The rest of us can only envy how lucky you are.

Messi brings HYPE and POWER!
(Fans, other Super star players, Squad Motivation, Sponsors, Money, Ref favouritism, Advertising..!)
TOO MUCH actually so it spills & WHOLE LEAGUE benefits/ earns from it!!!
on the 28th August, 2020 at 8:51pm


No matter what you or I think of him, his talent, stats, career (for clubs & his country) speak for themselves.
He's more on Levandovski/ Ibra level than, as you shamefully put it, level of Pategna/ Cornelius...

You're probaly one of those vultures that loves to pick apart super star players that are getting past their prime.
Or maybe you just never followed Edin?

Roma is holding Dzeko down. Flank him with Dybalas & Ronaldos, & you'll see!
on the 28th August, 2020 at 8:07pm
The funny thing about this article is that even the way these no. 9's play is not traditional. Dzeko has adapted big time to play in Serie A and is not just a target man. Same with Lukaku. It's their physical status that adds to the "static" criticisms. They are anything but. Dzeko moves more than most MF and tracks all way back to the box most times.
on the 28th August, 2020 at 7:30pm
how are you at the vanguard of a movement if you are trying to poach other team's assets that have been so successful? Wouldn't that mean Roma/Inter are at the vanguard of a movement?
on the 28th August, 2020 at 5:17pm
Gone are days when there used to be at least 1 great Italian striker in top 6 clubs around 15 years back.
I’m surprised that Juve is now considering Luis Suarez to replace higuain. Why not try Belotti? He had a great run after lockdown and he scores in pressure matches that Torino needed to win and is better for Italy than immobile. For all those who say he doesn’t have quality and works hard, he does score great goals with left and right foot and headers both inside box and from distance.
on the 28th August, 2020 at 5:15pm
Great teams,winning teams need all aspects of play and great players to be successful. It is always great team play that wins championships and often solid defense from the backs and midfielders that leads to control and playmaking.
It is wonderful if your team has a Nine but there is only so much one man can do on the pitch that makes the difference. That being said it is always a pleasure to watch these Nines score in creative ways and often turn a match on its Head. No pun intetended.
on the 28th August, 2020 at 12:57pm
@Maldini's Heir, good points about players played out of position or not to their natural strengths. Cant tell you how many times I've seen that in Serie A and remains a mystery to me why. World class players becoming mediocre like this and I'm left scratching my head why.

@Luca, good point about the static man syndrome, and yet for some reason, teams like Juve continue to be fixated on this position like a broken record, year after year when their midfield (the engine) remains in shambles.
on the 28th August, 2020 at 12:44pm
The list of good No's 9's is short:
36 Immobile
31 Ronaldo
23 Lukaku
21 Caputo
18 Joao Pedro, Muriel, Zapata
16 Belotti, Dzeko
15 Ilicic
14 Berardi, Mancosu, Martinez
12 Cornelius, Petagna, Simeone
but substract penalties first.
on the 28th August, 2020 at 11:09am
The point is unless you have an absolutely world class player like Lewandowski then the days of the static target man are over. Even Lukaku who has the physique of a target man is very mobile and has more to his game than just standing up front waiting for service. If you're looking to be a possession based team that presses high up the pitch you need some dynamism and energy and a front line of Ronaldo, Dzeko and Dybala has none of that
on the 28th August, 2020 at 11:04am
I'm not sure this new fashion is something to be pleased about. Aside from Bayern who have the best Striker in the world tell me out of all the other major teams across Europe who plays with a tall, immobile no.90? Liverpool with Firmino? No. City with Aguero or Jesus? No. PSG with Mbappe/Neymar? No. They bought Icardi and that doesn't seem to have worked out now they've realised how static he is. Barca have never had a big no.9. Real have Benzema who can't really be classified as a big no.9.
on the 28th August, 2020 at 11:01am
Serie A was the best league in the world when there were world class foreigners surrounded by above average to world class Italians. Sadly those days are long gone, never to return because we now have average foreigners surrounded by 1, 2 or 3 average Italian players. Just look at some of the names we consider superstars now - Dezko, Petagna and Cornelius.
on the 28th August, 2020 at 2:39am
started playing players in their preferred positions. Who knew that Çalhanoglu would start performing better when he was actually played in his preferred position rather than on the left wing? Forget about tactics or systems, and focus on getting more out of your existing players. You might actually get some loyalty which is worth far more than any tactics.
on the 28th August, 2020 at 1:08am
Reina, Caldara, Bonucci, Acerbi, De Sciglio, Cristante, Pašalić, Locatelli, Suso, Higuain, Kalinić. That's a 1-11 of players who were deemed failures for Milan but are actually now at clubs that either finished higher in the Serie A table or, in the case of Suso, just won the Europa League. It's embarrassing. And all of these players failed because Milan failed to get the best out of them. That is failure on the part of the club not the players. We saw last season when Milan finally
on the 28th August, 2020 at 1:05am
clubs. Last year there were 860 departures and 369 arrivals at just 20 Serie A clubs. In contrast in the Bundesliga there were 293 departures and 296 arrivals, the Premier League had 371 departures and 336 arrivals and La Liga had 158 departures and 221 arrivals. That is the reason Italian teams struggle in Europe. Because teams don't stay together for more than 5 minutes. This farce is perfectly shown by this starting 11 of Milan "failures" who are all now at more successful clubs!
on the 28th August, 2020 at 1:01am
There's too much emphasis on tactics in Italy. Tactics should be used to get the best out of the players that you have rather than fantasising about the players you want. If you have a big number 9, play to his strengths, if you have a small mobile number 9, play to his strengths. This fantasising is what drives so much of the pointless transfer activity we see especially in Italy. In the past few seasons Italian clubs have been involved in twice as many transfers as English, Spanish or German
on the 28th August, 2020 at 12:54am
I have been/am/will be in fashion. Be like me.
on the 28th August, 2020 at 12:25am

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