x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Football managers think outside the box in lining up sides without strikers

Teams such as Spain, Germany and Argentina are building attacks around what is an increasingly popular 'false No 9' instead of a traditional target man, writes Ian Hawkey.

Cesc Fabregas, right, has had plenty of success as a 'false No 9' for Spain, with coach Vicente del Bosque opting against strikers. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
Cesc Fabregas, right, has had plenty of success as a 'false No 9' for Spain, with coach Vicente del Bosque opting against strikers. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

Vicente del Bosque had just returned from Rio de Janeiro last week when he was plunged into a familiar dialogue.

The head coach of Spain had been collecting another award. As long he is in charge of the reigning world and European champions, these prizes will keep coming and requiring Del Bosque to take to the stage and collect them.

And as long as Del Bosque stays in the job, he will be partly remembered as the manager who dared go strikerless and made it work.

The issue cropped up again as soon as he landed back in Madrid from Brazil.

He had just named his squad for Spain's forthcoming World Cup qualifiers, against Finland and France.

As he expected, he was asked about the balance of the group, and about the limited number of out-and-out forwards.

There was no Fernando Torres, of Chelsea, among the names he had listed. David Villa, now back from the broken leg which ruled the Barcelona man out of last summer's triumph at the European Championship, is in the party, but cannot be certain of starting, despite his pedigree as the country's all-time leading goalscorer in internationals.

Alvaro Negredo, the Sevilla centre-forward, is included, but, as ever, has the look of a back-up option.

Del Bosque soon found himself praising Cesc Fabregas, the midfielder who in Spain's most recent round of friendlies was positioned as the furthest forward player in Spain's formation, just as he had been at various times during Euro 2012.

"Fabregas has enriched our team," said Del Bosque, whose first use of the player in an unusual role excited much theorising about the tactical evolution of the sport in general.

Del Bosque is not alone in having reconsidered the value of the orthodox No 9.

Over the last few days, Germany's Joachim Low has been busy explaining why, for the forthcoming World qualifiers against Kazakhstan, he named a squad including just one recognised frontman.

Miroslav Klose, the veteran centre-forward, is unavailable because of injury. Any assumption the powerful Mario Gomez, of Bayern Munich, will automatically start in his place is misplaced.

Gomez, despite a prolific 2011/12 campaign, is not commanding a starting berth at his club.

"You don't always have to have a big, strong player in that role," Low told reporters.

"Small, mobile players can make life very hard in tight spaces for central defenders."

To a line of inquiry about why Stefan Kiessling, the Bayer Leverkusen centre-forward and the leading German goalscorer in the Bundesliga, had been excluded from his squad, Low replied: "We have plenty of possibilities in the group to push forward our philosophy of how we want to play."

In other words, there seems a high chance that dainty Mesut Ozil or Mario Gotze will be leading the line against Kazakhstan on Friday, and, when he returns from suspension next Tuesday, that zippy Marco Reus may be given a chance in that role.

These are all footballers who you would see classified as midfielders in handbooks, or on statistical websites.

But the demarcations of "midfielder" or "striker" are not based on absolutes.

As 4-4-2, the broadly fashionable way of organising teams over the past 20 years has fallen out of fashion, so has the traditional target man striker, the dedicated penalty box predator. The emphasis on pressing and higher lines of defence - and the higher fitness levels of players that have enabled strategies founded on pressing - mean space at the elite level of the game has become tighter.

Manoeuvrability is prized over muscle, and the striker who willingly and creatively occupies deeper positions to create openings for others is a more valued asset.

Fabregas may be the most conspicuous, so-called "false No 9" in international football.

He does not much like the phrase - "false" carries a connotation of something counterfeit - but he has talked of being "very proud" of being, as he put it, "a stopgap who ended up winning the championship as a striker".

Fabregas, though, insists: "I am a midfield player who had to adapt to a position I had never played before for the good of the team."

His burden is that in the role of "false No 9" he cannot always reach the standards set by his own Barcelona in defining that role. There, Lionel Messi, a winger or No 10 whose game has developed brilliantly since he began to occupy the central role in the front line of Barcelona's 4-3-3, is now celebrated as the pathfinder for a football that eschews the traditional target man or poacher at centre-forward in favour or nimbleness, flexibility, and a mastery of the territory between demarcated lines.

Messi is a superb finisher, but he is not a traditional centre-forward.

But then nor is his great rival.

The phenomenal goalscoring records being regularly set at the top end of club football this decade are mainly the work of men who are not orthodox No 9s: Messi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo.

Look at the Fifa rankings ahead of this round of international games, and the false No 9 seems very modish in international football.

Messi's Argentina are third, Low's Germany are second as they prepare to extend their flirtation with strikerless front-threes, and Spain are the top of the table.

Meanwhile, in Italy, a familiar bandwagon is rolling along this week, centred around Francesco Totti, the veteran Roma captain and the man who might legitimately claim to have brought the false No 9 into 21st century fashion.

Enjoying some splendid form in his 37th year, Totti is being asked again about his attitude to the Azzurri, the national squad from which he retired after the 2006 World Cup.

He is playing with such evergreen panache that the possibility he could contribute very positively for Italy at next summer's World Cup is a real one for the coach Cesare Prandelli to ponder.

Were Totti to come back for Italy, it would most likely be in a No 10 role behind a centre-forward, but if they wanted someone who understood how to drop deep, cleverly open up the channels for midfielders from the front of attack, he could bring out the manual of how Roma were using him, very effectively, six or seven years ago, under then coach Luciano Spalletti.

Back then, Roma's no-centre-forward formation looked a novelty.

Now it is widely imitated.

Strikerless and proud

France 1998

The World Cup hosts entered the tournament with a No 9, Stephane Guivarc'h, who had gained a sound reputation as an expert finisher of crosses and a penalty box predator. Alas Guivarc'h had a rotten tournament. But on the back of a solid defence and with the majestic Zinedine Zidane making up for the shortcomings up front, France won the game's biggest prize.

Spain 2012

A wretched run of club form from Fernando Torres and an injury to David Villa meant the reigning champions went to Euro 2012 with question marks over their potency. What they did have was a superabundance of talent in midfield. So, with Cesc Fabregas often occupying the most advanced spot, although shifting position fluidly with the likes of David Silva and Andres Iniesta, they exploited that.

Germany 2013

Germany's first friendlies of this year featured sustained spells without an orthodox striker at the sharpest point of their forward line. With the powerful Mario Gomez not guaranteed a starting place at Bayern Munich and the veteran centre-forward Miroslav Klose injured, the head coach Joachim Low is minded to use instead one of his young No 10-style players, such as Mesut Ozil, Mario Gotze or Marco Reus.

And the not so bold .

Scotland 2012

Craig Levein, the Scotland manager, attracted fierce criticised when, in a Euro 2012 qualifier against the Czech Republic, he sent out a team without a recognised striker. He made few apologies for the lack of ambition shown by his 4-6-0 formation, cited a shortage of quality forwards to call on and conceded he wanted to pack players behind the ball to gain a draw. Scotland lost the match 1-0.

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