Evolution of the modern striker

In part 2 of the series I may have inadvertently wrapped myself into last week, I’d like to take a look at how the center forward, also known as the striker, has evolved into the modern incarnation of the role we observe today. The striker’s role has melded significantly to match the popular style of play throughout history. Though from this trend, we can look at two variations of the role and their intermediates that have taken hold on the modern game and the systems it has brought with it.

Put as simply as can be, the striker’s job is to be directly involved in scoring goals. I say directly involved in place of scoring goals, because in one of the systems I’ll discuss here, the striker is typically the creator of chances as opposed to the further forward, in the box, putting the ball in the net. They may be responsible for holding the ball while under pressure to allow teammates to get forward into the attacking third, as well as making dangerous runs in between defenders to receive through passes or simply to draw defenders’ attention and allow their teammates to get in behind unnoticed.

The striker does hold defensive responsibilities in conjunction with their duties of creating goals. As they are the highest player up the pitch, in modern pressing systems they are tasked with beginning the press. This usually means cutting the field in half by pressing defenders from one side to make the pass out of the back predictable to their ball winning teammates further back on the field.

For some minor context, positions in soccer are typically numbered 1-11. In this system, the striker is the “number 9” position, leading to this player to be referred to as a #9, or perhaps simply as “the 9.” The importance of this terminology will be clear soon. The position became synonymous throughout the second half of the 20th century with large, physical players that were dominant in the air and played essentially as goal poachers inside the 18 yard box. Given the longevity of this role, they are now referred to as the “classic #9.” perhaps no one is more synonymous with the role of the old school, classic #9 than England’s Alan Shearer. The Newcastle United legend is the Premier League’s all time leading goalscorer with 260 goals, nearly all of which were acquired by his physical presence in the 18 yard box and poacher’s instincts. Shearer was lethal when he found half a yard of space in the penalty area to get a shot away. He was by no means known for a massive defensive workrate, or his skill on the ball; while necessary facets of any striker’s game, they aren’t the cornerstone of a classic 9’s game. Shearer did one thing: score goals. And his role still lives on to this day.

Players like Robert Lewandowski are in the Ballon D’or race on the basis of the volume of goals they score. Lewa, as he affectionately known, is not known for having pace or skill, or making a lot of tackles; rather, he scores goal after goal after goal. With a quality supply line, he scored 41 league goals in the Bundesliga last season in 28 games, breaking the league record for goals in a single season. So while players like Neymar are involved in the Ballon D’or race on the basis of their skill and entertainment value, Lewa leads the way among fans purely off of the results of his penalty box presence. And don’t take it for granted, that presence is a skill in and of itself. To always be in the right place at the right time is a skill few possess, and only elite #9s can claim to have.

On the other side of the coin, we find the false 9. This position is built around the deception it carries tactically. A player lines up on the field where a traditional striker like Shearer would play, but then rather than occupying the penalty box, moves into the space in front of the defenders to receive the ball, opening space for teammates. He receives the ball where the attacking midfielder would normally play, and confuses the opponent in the process. The false 9 floats behind the midfield line, but in front of the defensive line, leading to confusion as to whose defensive responsibility he is. Does the central defender step out to defend? Should a central midfielder drop in to front him? Either way, space opens for others: either behind the center back who steps out, or in front of the midfielder who drops.

This positional role was popularized by manager Pep Guardiola at Barcelona between 2008 and 2012, where he worked with the legendary Lionel Messi. Considered by many to be the greatest player of all time, Messi’s skill set allowed him to become the epitome of the false 9. Messi starts high up the pitch, observing the game from the front, then makes his run to the ball in the gaps between defenders and midfielders. Under Pep, this allowed for David Villa, Thierry Henry, Pedro, and more to make darting runs in behind while Messi dropped in to numerically overload the midfield. In the modern era of three central midfielders, this meant Barcelona would play with four CMs, outnumbering any opponent in all situations and creating confusion among opponents.

As we saw with the CDM last week, positions have tended to follow some sort of division into multiple types of players (like the classic #9 and false 9), then fade back into some sort of intermediate between the two. This is very true of the modern striker as well, especially since 2010. Managers now look for players capable of playing both roles, so they can adapt their game plan to different types of defenses. Take Lewandowski, for example. While his natural instincts are those of a classic 9, he is also technical enough to adjust and drop into the midfield areas to link passes with his teammates. He commonly finds himself on the stat sheet with assists for this reason.

Perhaps a better example is England and Tottenham’s Harry Kane. Last season, Kane led the Premier League for goals and assists, with 23 and 14, respectively. He played as both a traditional target man, and also dropped into midfield to facilitate attacks from deep. This allowed for his teammate, winger Son Heung-Min, to get to 17 league goals, while also hitting double figures in assists. This varied skill set was the key to his success after defenses had adapted to his predatory penalty box style of play over the preceding years. 

As a final example, consider Sergio Aguero. Despite his size, he has always been known as a penalty box poacher, or a finisher extraordinaire. Then, when Pep came to coach Manchester City in 2016, he melded Aguero into the ideal hybrid striker. His relationship with dynamic midfielders and wingers like David Silva, Riyad Mahrez, and Bernardo Silva allowed them to flow into spaces vacated by a false 9 Aguero in order to unpick low block defences, while in more open games, Aguero would occupy the central defenders in the box and look to finish chances when the ball was served into the box.

Moving into the 2020s, I believe we will further see the striker meld into something of a hybrid between a true, old school 9 and the modern false 9. Sure, some will remain stuck in their ways; look no further than Sean Dyche-ball at Burnley. But top sides have vacated the need for an old school target man. Bayern have Lewa, Real Madrid have Benzema, Barcelona now have Depay and Aguero, and Chelsea utilize Lukaku in this role. Even Italian sides, typically known for using target men, have moved in this direction. Rafael Leao is lighting it up at AC Milan, and Victor Osihmen is tearing up Serie A at Napoli. The days of lumping the ball to the big man are over, and the era of the uber-technical striker is upon us–he just also happens to be able to dominate the box at the same time.