When football fans think of strikers, the likes of Alan Shearer, Marco Van Basten, and Gerd Muller come to mind. However, in the modern game, strikers need to excel at more than just finishing. For example, they may need to drop deep to support their side’s build-up, or else be willing to run into pockets and channels. With this being said, should there be a concern that the traditional striker is being phased out of the modern game?
The Evolution of the Striker
It should be stated that strikers are not being phased out, but rather the role has evolved. Football tactics are constantly evolving and accordingly, the roles and fluidity of positions have changed, and this can be seen across the field. For example, the use of goalkeepers during build-up highlights the growing desire to make use of all eleven players. Similarly, the increasing use of inverted full-backs by coaches such as Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola demonstrates the evolution of positions within football.
The striker is no different, however, it is arguable the evolution of the striker in recent years has added more responsibility to the role whilst taking away from a striker’s goal tally. This has coincided with the rise of inside-forwards in contrast to traditional wingers, which has also led to a more balanced share of goals across a side’s front three.
New Positional Roles
One example of this is the use of the “False Nine” as opposed to a traditional striker. The False Nine is a concept most recently re-popularized by Guardiola at Barcelona and more recently Manchester City. The False Nine often drops deep to combine with the midfield, which not only can create numerical overloads in midfield but also can create gaps to exploit should an opposition defender choose to follow the striker. Guardiola, forever a tactical tinker, even recently experimented with two False Nines for true tactical bamboozlement.
Atop this, the scoring frequency and attacking prowess of players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Mohamed Salah and more has also created an influx of inside forwards. For example, today, young players such as Kylian Mbappe, Vinicius Junior and Rafael Leao are all prolific wingers who are most dangerous when cutting inside into central areas. This begs the question, are traditional strikers, the poachers and penalty box experts, fading from the game?
The Striker Shortage
This is a layered question. When it comes to naming “true” number nines the list appears quite short, and yet, in every transfer window elite clubs are often always in the market for a new striker. One example is Harry Kane most recently, who has been heavily linked with every elite team under the sun, or else Rasmus Højlund, who is the latest kid on the block. Højlund, just 20 years old, is currently off the back of a nine-goal season in his only season at Atalanta in Italy.
However, following a hot vein of form towards the end of the campaign, Manchester United are currently negotiating a deal upward of £50 million, a fee which certainly seems high given the player is far from the finished product. Nevertheless, why does this issue exist, why is there a shortage of young strikers in the current market?
One reason may be due to a lack of prominent strikers in the last decade, which may point to a lack of strikers developing in recent years. The European Golden Shoe award for top scorer was shared almost exclusively between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the last decade, neither of whom are truly strikers. Whilst strikers were certainly prominent, the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Luis Suarez, the rise of prolific inside forwards stole the headlines.
Another reason is the aforementioned change of roles different positions have undertaken in recent years. The False Nine, but also the rise of inside-forwards and inverted wingers becoming serious goal threats. However, given the meteoric rise of a young Erling Haaland in recent seasons, it may be that the pendulum is swinging back towards traditional strikers.
A True Number Nine
Haaland is a true goal machine and natural striker, and he is a player who scarcely strays beyond the width of either goal box. In the 2022/2023 season, Haaland managed to score a goal every 77 minutes, he averaged 3.5 shots per game, and this was all despite only touching the ball approximately 24 times in a game. These statistics are otherworldly, however, they support the idea that a team can thrive in the modern game whilst still using a traditional, less play-involved poacher for a striker.
This may be why the desire for strikers has become more prevalent than ever during the transfer window, and clubs such as Manchester United are willing to pay enormous fees to try and find their own Erling Haaland.
Return of the Striker?
Therefore, do traditional strikers still exist in modern football? The simple answer is yes, however, their presence has waned in recent years. In the last decade, Managers such as Pep Guardiola have built tactical systems that are team-oriented and less reliant on a target striker banging in goals. Ironically, it is Guardiola who is currently deploying the most deadly striker in the world, Erling Haaland. There is still perhaps a shortage of true clinical number nines in world football, nevertheless, given the constant development of football, this is likely to change soon.
FIFA is currently considering a change in the offside rule which would see an offside be given only if the entire frame of the player was deemed to be in an offside position. This is highly beneficial to attackers and, if implemented, may also positively affect the rise in poachers and strikers who play off the shoulder of the last defender.
The game is constantly evolving, and although the presence of traditional strikers, the selfish players who never passed and always scored in the playground did begin to fade, there will always be a need for goals. Today, multifaceted positionally fluid players are all the range; however, the iconic role of the number nine will always hold a place in football. Goals are everything in a low-scoring high variable game like football, and Messi and Ronaldo aside, no one scores more than a striker.