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  • Writer's pictureKai Abbott

The Evolution of Football's Notorious Number Nine

In football, numbers are usually assigned with certain roles in a starting XI. The number four is usually synonymous with center backs, the number of eight with midfielders, and the number one with goalkeepers. Certain players have even created their own legacy for a certain number, such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have made the numbers ten and seven interchangeable with the center attacking midfield and winger roles. Though, throughout history, no number has held more significance than the number nine. Since the legendary West German ace Gerd Muller broke onto the scene in the 1960’s, scoring 68 goals in a 62 game season, the number nine has been tied to the role of a striker. Since then, legends of the game, such as Ronaldo Nazario, Bobby Charlton, Alan Shearer, Johan Cruyff, and Alfredo Di Stefano, have all worn the very number on the back of their shirts. Though, since the 80’s and 90’s, this role has gone under serious development and change, with the exception of a few teams. Modern day strikers like Karim Benzema, Luis Suarez, and Roberto Firminio, and managers like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, have all reinvented what it truly means to be a center forward.

The role of a center forward was commonly defined by these following principles ever since a few decades ago; get the ball, occasionally dribble through a few players, and finish the ball with absolute precision and power. Since then, the role of a number nine hasn’t completely changed, although managers have realized that every striker can have their own tasks and special tactical characteristics, which is what causes the disruption in truly defining the role of a striker.

In the 19th century, as the game of professional football began to take shape, the term “striker,” made much more sense than what it does now. At the time, the most common formation was the 2-3-5, which boasted not one or two, but five strikers in a starting XI. These men were told to stay high on the pitch, and have one goal in mind; to score. With so many forwards, it made more sense at the time to simply just have more men in the box than defenders, at all times.

However, in the modern day, it seems that the development of the number nine position is due to a limited amount of space. Over a 100 years ago, the game of football was much more open, and much less tactically complex than how it is now. The result of this much more organized structure of play nowadays, causes the necessity for a striker to drop deeper from inside the box, and find space between the lines of the midfield and the defense. Managers and players have made the decision of accommodating a false nine, in order to create more fluid and quick moving football, which can easily break down even the deepest and most compact lines of defense.

Alfredo Di Stefano, Argentina, Spain, and Real Madrid legend, scoring against Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 UEFA Cup Final (

The result of this, has allowed strikers all across Europe to emerge from the shadows of the game, and create a new subsection of the position, called the false nine. A perfect example of this position is Liverpool’s Brazilian magician, Roberto Firmino. Though not as prolific or influential as he has been in past seasons, due to the overhaul of world class forwards in Liverpool’s side, Firmino embodies what it is to be a false nine. Firmino can commonly be seen throughout a game, dropping deep between the midfield and defensive lines of the opposition team, in order to receive the ball, defend, or to pick out passes to the wingers. The intention of this role is to constantly give teammates an option in midfield and defense, and more importantly, to draw defenders out of position, so inverted wingers and central players can make attacking runs into the box. The result of this has been nothing short of effective. Firmino has scored 93 goals and registered 73 assists for the club in 323 games, but more importantly, his influence on the Liverpool side, and his role giving way to new talents in the team such as Portuguese and Brazilian forwards Diogo Jota and Luis Díaz, have been insurmountable. Around the continent, players and coaches have adapted their teams now and in the past to accommodate such players, like Pep Guardiola with Lionel Messi in the 2011/2012 season; a calendar year where Messi scored 91 goals, and 22 assists.

Roberto Firminio celebrating in style next to teammate Mohamed Salah against AC Roma in 2018 Semi-Finals of the Champions League (​​

Although, let us not forget the importance and influence which the traditional forward still has on the modern game. The current leading goal scorers in the Italian, German, and Spanish leagues in the 2021/2022 season (Dusan Vlahovic, Robert Lewandoski, and Karim Benzema), all happen to be above 6 feet (1.83 m), and play the ‘classic’ role of a number nine. All of these players can be recognized as center forwards, and not false nines.

The commonality of these types of strikers in today's game vastly outnumber that of the false nine’s, showing the modern game of football’s reliance on tactics and beliefs from the past, is still feasible. This ideology is likely not going to go away soon, because as they say, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

While all fans alike are unsure what the future of the center forward position may hold, and whether or not the false nine role will become more prevalent or dwindle, one thing is certain, and that is the consistency of scoring goals. Whether that is through a non-conventional or more conventional type of striker, we do not currently know. However, it seems that due to the success of the false nine, it has secured its future in the world of football.

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