“No. 9, No. 9” – center forwards, old ideas, older terminology

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Earlier this afternoon, we talked a bit about Schalke’s Klass-Jan Huntelaar while mentioning Bayer Leverkusen’s Eren Derdiyok – two very different No. 9s. Whereas Huntelaar is the type of Dutch-hybrid No. 9 you might expect to come out of a nation that gave us Total Football, Derdiyok better fits our expectations of a more-physical target man.

Both find themselves in a soccer landscape that’s is undergoing a subtle debate as to what a No. 9 is (or, in the case of one prominent team, whether one’s even needed). As Chelsea’s recent tactical shift under Roberto di Matteo hints, there is still a place for a “everything is going to go through this guy” target man, though not every team is luck enough to have a Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (AC Milan), or Edinson Cavani (Napoli).

That’s where the adaptation is coming in. Players like Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), and Huntelaar are not typical target men; yet, they’re occupying the same spaces, performing some of the same jobs (hold-up play’s a good example), and serving as the man that needs to make that last, clinical touch. Most important (as it concerns this debate), nobody is looking at those players and saying “he needs a little more Drogba in him.” Instead they’re saying “that’s what a No. 9 can be, now.”

And where do players like Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Luis Suarez (Liverpool), David Villa and Alexis Sanchez (both Barcelona) fit into this spectrum we’re creating? At a far end, that’s for sure. In fact, it seems strange to even think about them as No. 9s. Just because, in terms of formation, they (at times) occupy a space old rules used to link to a nine shirt doesn’t mean they should go into the same pile as a Cavani or Drogba. Benzema or Huntelaar? OK, but that’s stretching it a bit. Rooney? Oh, no. No, no, no, no.

And then there’s Barcelona with Villa and Sanchez. Just as Pep Guardiola seems intent on redefining what we want out of a center back, so is he challenging our notions of a number nine. Villa’s history with Valencia obscured the fact that Guardiola was often forgoing a traditional striker’s role (often casting Villa in a wide-to-in role). When Villa broke his leg at the Club World Cup and Alexis (returning from his own ills) stepped in, Guardiola reverted a bit. Sanchez played through the middle more, but it still was not a typical striker’s role.

We’re not ready to call that a No. 9, yet, and who knows – by the time we are, the conversation may have shifted from ‘what’s a No. 9’ to ‘why are we still using these distinctions?’ Let’s face it: It’s only terminology, and we can really only persist with it for so long. As our target men become more athletic and skilled and the long ball becomes less prevalent in the modern game, we may want to leave this No. 9 business in the past.

Hmm – I really should have saved this for my ninth post.