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.