This summer has been like football reverting to type. It always used to be that the defining moves at the elite end of the transfer window came up front, when the number nines were signed. If creativity was required, then it would always be in the context of how a new player would supply the existing focal point. The glory and the big money would most commonly be found in what became known as ‘traditional’ focal point.
Needing such a description shows just how much the definition of striker play has changed. We live in the age of tactical innovation; the best coaches, with Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola chief among them, are constantly finding new, groundbreaking ways of winning. Guardiola himself has been the main driving force behind a shift away from ‘normal’ offensive play over the past decade, utilising playmakers and wingers in those positions and rewriting the rule book on attacking from central areas. Because he had so much success with that, others followed, and a rather unfortunate byproduct of that has been a dearth in quality strikers coming through.
Meanwhile, the advancements in player conditioning has also been profound. As a result, existing top strikers, such as Robert Lewandowski, Luis Suarez and Karim Benzema, have maintained peak form well into their 30s. Top clubs have, in the main, either utilised ageing strikers or gone without completely and found a more fluid system with which to attack. It was not only telling that Guardiola’s City didn’t replace their last traditional frontman, Sergio Agüero, directly, but also that their main rivals in the Premier League, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, also played with an interchangeable front three. Until now, that is.
It would be a big enough statement that both this summer’s main deals have been strikers anyway, but the fact that City and Liverpool are behind them really does point to a potential ‘number nine’ resurgence. Erling Haaland is seen as the best traditional striker to emerge in years; old fashioned in his build but modern in the variation he brings in front of goal. Guardiola rarely goes for statement signing, so it really isn’t an exaggeration to say you can read a lot into his next approach by his signing of the 22-year-old Norwegian from Borussia Dortmund.
Much the same can be said for Liverpool’s capture of Darwin Nunez from Benfica. Klopp’s side have built their entire philosophy around the movement and freedom offered to them by Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, none of whom lost their best football in the penalty box. Klopp added attackers in a similar mould, namely Diogo Jota and, as recently as January, Luis Diaz, picking three from five options, all of whom had the capacity to score goals on an impressive scale without ever playing as a nine. But with Mane’s move to Bayern Munich likely to have gone through by the time you are reading this, Nunez’s arrival suggests a new direction.
Not only is this a positive for both clubs, and proof that constant evolution is the bedrock to maintaining success, but it can also be viewed as that for football itself. Teams will yet again have to alter their preparations when they face both Nunez and Haaland, while reverting to the existing structures is also an option for the managers. But considering Dusan Vlahovic’s move to Juventus in January, there is evidence that strikers are finally fashionable again.
How strange it is to say that the most vital component to scoring goals, in a sport where that is existentially the point, have fallen out of trend. But the evidence is there. In the 1990s and early 2000s, almost every team played with two strikers and it was a straight battle between attack and defence to see who came out on top.
Then as football became more possession-based, to get an advantage in midfield, some managers opted for one striker. In the age of high pressing and ultra counter attack, more technically gifted players have been required, and that’s what has forced the change.
While at their best, both Liverpool and City are scintillating and very tough to stop, their games have relied upon pace and overpowering intensity to unlock the opposition. There have been examples where, if they haven’t broken through early and begin to slow down, they’ve been failed by the lack of option to change things up. That is no longer the case anymore.
What happens next? Who knows. There is no guarantees that traditional strikers will become the dominant force again. After all, we’ve seen Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi set records for goals from wide positions, and teams are generally more adept at sourcing goals from across the pitch.
But scoring goals as a main striker has always been where the glory is, and although the experienced players mentioned above have carried the torch, it is a relief to see a new generation of box predators emerging. We can only wait to see what sort of impact it will have.