The Return of the No.9
By: Phillip Jong Min Lee
In any popular sport in the modern era, the main stars are often those who are responsible for the offensive part of the game. Basketball fans point to players like Michael Jordan and Lebron James when asked to choose the greatest basketball player of all time. Football fans chant Tom Brady in unison when asked who the greatest football player of all time is. Likewise, players like Pele, Maradona, and Messi are the popular candidates in the debate for the greatest of all time in soccer. While defensive aspects of the game should not be overlooked in any sport, offensive feats are not only flashier and more highlight-worthy, but also have a more blatant impact on the scoreline. As Johan Cruyff, a revolutionary figure in the field of soccer famously once said, “to win you have to score one more goal than your opponent.” Consequently, attacking positions have occupied a large role in the tactical development of soccer, and have also evolved in itself.
As the focal point of offense in soccer, forwards have been imbued with that much more accountability in the success and failure of soccer teams. Throughout the modern era, and especially this past decade, the forward position has undergone much transformation in the way attackers can influence the game. In this article, I aim to examine the re-emergence of “traditional” forwards this season in the English Premier League (EPL) and to identify what constitutes a forward as being traditional.
The History of the No.9
Historically, jersey numbers have signified different positions and roles in soccer. For example, goalkeepers usually wore the number 1 on their backs, and attack-minded midfielders who operated centrally wore the number 10. Number 9 has represented the striker who is usually positioned the farthest up in the field and is responsible for scoring. Therefore, the “traditional” no.9 role refers to forwards who are described as poachers: the player who is solely focused on scoring and maintains his main tactical significance as a goal-scoring threat.
Just like any other sport, soccer has been dominated by different trends of formation and tactics. As such, the tactical trend of the last decade has seen less emphasis on the traditional no.9 role, but rather on the false nine role, which is more about dropping down into the midfield for link-up play and opening up space for other players to run in and score. Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino, and the Spanish national team’s Cesc Fabregas once stood as exemplars of the false nine role. Meanwhile, the soccer world today is seeing a re-emergence of traditional strikers in the likes of players such as Erling Haaland, Dusan Vlahovic, and Darwin Nunez. Though the soccer industry involves countless numbers of leagues throughout the world, I will analyze players from the EPL this season, as we are halfway through the season and there seems to be a larger emergence of traditional forwards this year in the EPL.
Comparison and Analysis
I chose to compare the statistics from my sample of forwards this season to that of Roberto Firmino in the 2018-19 season, who had most recently epitomized the false nine role successfully and also competed in the EPL as well. Among the plethora of data available for analysis, I will be looking into individual statistics related to players’ finishing, passing, possession, and shot-creating actions (SCA) to gauge each player’s offensive output. For the sample of forwards from this current season, I chose Erling Haaland (Manchester City), Harry Kane (Tottenham), Darwin Núñez (Liverpool), Aleksandar Mitrović (Fulham), and Ivan Toney (Brentford). This selection of forwards was chosen for comparison as they are all competing for European competition spots and have boasted high productivity as forwards so far this season. For better context in viewing and comparing statistics, the data displayed below are per 90 minutes played, as Roberto Firmino’s data is based on a full season while the forwards from this season have played different numbers of minutes.
The first plot shows the selected forwards’ average expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes and goals scored per 90 minutes. I have selected xG and goals scored for analysis, as these two statistics are the two categories most directly related to a player’s capacity for finishing. For context, xG refers to the number of goals a player is expected to score based on statistical analysis of every shot ever taken in that area of shot taken; it is a measurement of the quality of chances and likelihood of scoring. Having a low xG per game usually indicates that the player lacks quantity of shot attempt, or the player usually is not well positioned (position in field when shooting, angle of shot, etc) when shooting. Thus, by examining players’ xG and goals, we can better analyze players’ output in terms of their ability to score. Based on the plot, we can see that Firmino’s xG and goals scored per match are both significantly lower than that of the sample of forwards this season. While Firmino recorded less than 0.5 goals and xG per game, the more traditional forwards recorded, on average, 0.9 goals and 0.7 xG, with Haaland being a further outlier with 1.56 goals and 0.97 xG per match. As Firmino assumed the false 9 role at Liverpool, he seems to be less of a scoring threat, as his role is more oriented towards creating space where his teammates can run in and score.
Pass cmp - pass completion percentage
Pass - Prg Dist: Total distance covered in progressive passes completed
As shown in the second plot, I chose to review the forwards’ pass completion percentage (pass cmp), total distance covered in progressive passes completed (pass - prg dist), and total passes attempted per 90 minutes to look into the players’ passing efficiency. The plot shows that Firmino’s passing efficiency surpasses that of the other traditional forwards. Firmino dominates the other forwards in the quantity of passes attempted, as he attempted 45.3 passes per game and the other forwards, on average, attempted 21.58 passes per game. Despite having attempted more passes, Firmino’s pass completion percentage exceeds those of the traditional forwards, as Firmino recorded 36.3 completion percentage, while the other forwards recorded 14.34 percent on average. One thing to note, however, is the total distance covered in progressive passes completed. This stat aligns with one of the core differences between the traditional nines and false nines; while traditional nines are usually positioned higher up in the attacking third to provide more of a scoring threat, false nines drop down to midfield to link up passes and to distribute towards the wingers who run into the space created in the attacking
third. This trait is central to passing efficiency: other than scoring, advancing towards the opponent’s goal is central to prevent the opponent from scoring and to increase the chance of scoring. Consequently, Firmino recorded an average of 127.6 yards in completed progressive passes and the other forwards 61.16 yards on average. Similarly, of the current forwards, Harry Kane recorded 119.1 yards in progressive passing, which is closer to that of Firmino than the other traditional forwards. This accounts for how Kane started to assume a more false-nine role at Spurs, as he’s been dropping to midfield more often to feed Heung-min Son running into the space created by Kane dropping.
Succ Pass Rec = Successful Pass Reception (45.1 vs 25.56)
Touches - Att Pen = Touches made in Attacking Penalty area (5.21 vs 6.86)
Touches: (56.3 vs 33.48)
For the third plot, I looked into players’ statistics regarding possession, such as successful pass receptions, touches made in the attacking penalty, and total number of touches. Firmino recorded 56.3 touches and 45.1 successful pass receptions, while the other forwards on average recorded 33.48 touches and 25.56 successful pass receptions per game. This reflects how the more traditional forwards, usually positioned amid opposing defenders in the attacking third, are less likely to successfully receive passes as they are prone to defensive pressure. On the other hand, the sample of traditional forwards recorded more touches in the attacking penalty area, as they are more likely to be positioned in the penalty area to be more of a scoring threat when their teams are attacking. Erling Haaland, widely known as the most complete embodiment of the traditional nine, recorded the least number of touches and pass reception while leading the group of current forwards in touches in attacking penalty area and offensive outputs such as goals and xG. This statistical discrepancy between Firmino and Haaland encapsulates the core difference between the traditional and false nine roles.
Shot-Creating Action (SCA)
Finally, I chose to examine the players’ quantity of completed live ball passes that lead to a shot attempt to analyze the forwards’ contributions to offensive output. Firmino surpasses the other forwards in terms of shot creating actions, as he recorded more completed live ball passes that have led to shot attempts. This reveals how Firmino, operating as a false nine, is more oriented towards creating chances for his teammates who find spaces and are better positioned to score. Meanwhile, there are several things to note on the other forwards. Liverpool is a better balanced team that usually outperforms opposing teams within the EPL. Thus, Firmino was more likely to have more touches on the ball and more space to possess and distribute passes to his teammates. Firmino also had world class wingers on the receiving end of his passes in the likes of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, as they are unrivaled in their ability to attack space and score. Moreover, we should
consider the cases of Kane and Nunez, who also play in more competitive teams. Though Nunez’s playing style differs from that of Firmino, he plays in a similar system of soccer, under the same manager as Firmino, in Firmino’s position. Also, Kane started to take on a more false nine oriented role since last season, as he started collaborating with Heung-min Son, who started to attack space more frequently and thus proliferated as a goal scorer within Spurs.
Ultimately, as exemplified by contrast with a false nine, the traditional nine appears to have less presence in terms of quantity of touches and passes. The role seems less concerned with possession, as the sample of traditional forwards lacked in successful touches and pass completion compared to the false nine. Furthermore, traditional nines had less impact when progressing towards the opponent’s goals, as they surpassed Firmino only in touches in the attacking penalty area. The traditional nines’ playing styles display a stronger tendency to make runs in behind the opponents’ defensive line and to overload the opponent’s goal by engaging more directly with the opposing defensive units. Soccer is an extremely complex game; it is a game of eleven players continuously working together to put the ball behind the opponent’s net. Naturally, even with identical formations, there are a variety of different roles and responsibilities that players of similar positions may assume depending on the composition of players within a squad. Given a player of Firmino’s caliber and skill set, it would be more advantageous to assign him a false nine role. With Erling Haaland, it would be more logical to assign him to a more traditional nine role, as his attacking mentality, pace, and physicality provides his team with the perfect asset to score. On the other hand, Harry Kane could deliver a more hybrid forward role, due to his clinical finishing and passing IQ. The forward role, therefore, is not black and white. However, despite the gray areas, certain statistics point to the main qualities that could categorize a forward as a traditional or false nine. Based on my analysis of these statistical differences, the traditional nine role is primarily geared towards scoring, where their playing style involves producing goals efficiently.