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In Defense of a Bona Fide No. 9

Fluid forward lines offer variety and flexibility, but sometimes a fixed point of attack is the most dangerous option

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We have spent so long living in the era of the false nine, the player who starts as a central attacker but drops back to link the buildup play, that it is easy for us to forget what an actual center forward looks like—a bona fide no. 9, if you will. The bona fide no. 9, whose favorite habitat begins on the shoulder of the last defender and ends 2 yards from the opponent’s goal line, has at times found itself something of an endangered species. This is because football’s central areas have become so inhospitable to the game’s most gifted attackers, so diligently patrolled by defenders, that they occupy the space out wide, only swooping to plunder at the very last moment.

The fact that so many teams now play with high defensive lines and also play out from the back means that the bona fide no. 9 needs to spend more time than ever chasing the ball to recover possession. As a result, their workload is often not so much that of a sprinter as of an endurance runner. Given this new tactical landscape, it is a marvel that there are still those who manage, thanks either to their athleticism or sheer nous, to find their spots in the opposition’s defence again and again.

For several years now, with a few notable exceptions, the wide forward (say, PSG’s Kylian Mbappé) or the second striker (more recently, Atlético Madrid’s João Félix) has been the glamour position, with the center forward—say, Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus or Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud—doing the unexciting work to support them. Yet in the last few weeks and months—thanks to the assorted swashbuckling of AC Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimović, Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski, Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland, and Manchester United’s Edinson Cavani—we have seen a resurgence of the bona fide no. 9. However briefly this may last, and thanks to the five key characteristics of this type of player, the glamour is back.

The first thing to notice about the bona fide nine is that you could not imagine them playing in any other position: They can never be the best supporting actor. If an elite football team is a Hollywood production, then this individual’s face is the brightest on the billboard (this is especially easy to imagine in the case of Cavani, who is so handsome that it is almost comical). Asking Zlatan to play on the wing would be like telling Jack Nicholson to use the side entrance instead of the red carpet. You just don’t do it.

The second thing about the bona fide no. 9 is that, at some point in their careers or just in an individual match, they must assume a daunting amount of responsibility. Last fall, Bayern Munich were looking uniquely frail under coach Niko Kovac, at which point Robert Lewandowski decided to take charge of his team’s attack. He became the first player in Germany’s top flight to score in the opening 11 matches of a league season, allowing his team to stay within reach of the other championship challengers, and, once Kovac was dismissed in November, giving new coach Hansi Flick the platform to lead Bayern Munich to a treble of Bundesliga, DFB Pokal (the German Cup), and the UEFA Champions League titles.

The third thing to notice about the bona fide no. 9 is their obsession with scoring goals. That desire isn’t always rewarded, but it must be there. You can see it in Romelu Lukaku and Sergio Agüero, whose celebrations are rarely choreographed acts, but instead the roars of hungry bears who are desperate for more mouthfuls. It needs to be such an overwhelming urge that it eventually results in an outburst of goalscoring, such as that seen by Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who leads the Premier League with 10 goals this season; it should be a depth of thirst that is almost vampiric in its intensity.

The fourth thing to note about the bona fide no. 9 is their positioning. Other players seek to arrive in the penalty area as late as possible, but the bona fide no. 9 is there all the time. They are as at home in the 6-yard box as is a polar bear atop an ice cap. Cavani watches the ball move around that small patch of grass as keenly, as expertly, as Dennis Rodman once watched the ball rebound from the rim. Zlatan occupies it with an air of grandeur, almost offended that defenders should trespass on what he clearly sees as his premises.

Both Cavani and Zlatan, though well into the winter of their careers, have given devastating recent demonstrations of their art forms. Against Southampton, Cavani swooped twice to score decisive headers in Manchester United’s 3-2 win, while against Napoli, Zlatan soared to score a header from beyond the penalty spot. Yet those goals were arguably not the most important aspect of their performances, which is the fifth and final trait of the bona fide no. 9: the ability to align all the elements of the attack behind and alongside you, as if they are a trail of iron filings and you are an electromagnet. For all the fluidity of modern forward lines, there are still moments when nothing but a fixed point will do. And that is what this type of player truly is: the star in the firmament, around which all the drama in football’s cosmos now revolves.