Number nines — dying breed?

That dazzling Argentine, Lionel Messi, originally a winger, flits here, there and everywhere across the attack, often centrally, sometimes on the flanks, but you couldn’t call him a centre forward, writes Brian Glanville.

A re number nines in danger? A species threatened with extinction? By number nines, of course, I mean the classic centre forwards who in English football have so long borne that number on their backs? There is some possibly relevant, recent evidence. Not least the fact that Spain have won the European Championship without using such a so called striker. To general surprise, the Spanish manager, Vincente Del Bosque, boldly and surprisingly deployed teams with six players in midfield and no striker or centre forward upfront.

With this formation, Spain won the title, beating Italy most convincingly in the final. The use of highly talented and effective Cesc Fabregas as a kind of floating attacker with what might have been called a roving commission, was very profitable. It was in fact from an outside right position that he so easily went round Juventus’ Chiellini to make the devastatingly early first goal for David Silva. Nor was it his first successful appearance in the tournament in such a role.

But was the six midfielders deployment essentially a tactical move in principle, or simply a question of necessity, as they say, being the mother of invention? For with the sad waning of the once incisive and prolific Fernando Torres and the serious injury to David Villa late last year, in that meaningless Club World Cup match against Santos, Spain had no centre forward satisfactory to Del Bosque.

True, Torres himself was tried, and actually, if somewhat deceptively, ended as a top scorer in the tournament. But he was deployed in only a very limited way. In fact, when he came on in the original group game against Italy, as a substitute, he missed two easy chances. Against the feeble Irish it is true he scored twice. But by the time he came on in the second half of the final against Italy in Kiev, the Azzurri, reduced to 10 men, had plainly run out of steam. Torres thus had scant difficulty in scoring one goal and neatly setting up another.

It should also be observed that Barcelona, who provided the backbone of this Spanish team, have, in the absence of Villa, no orthodox centre forward. That dazzling Argentine, Lionel Messi, originally a winger, flits here, there and everywhere across the attack, often centrally, sometimes on the flanks, but you couldn’t call him a centre forward.

Then there is the rather distressing case of Andy Carroll, who cost Liverpool a massive GBP35 million when he joined them from his local Newcastle United last season but now, with the arrival from Swansea City as the new manager of Brendan Rodgers, appears to be superfluous to requirements and has been loaned out to West Ham. A devastating blow to Carroll, only weeks after he had headed such a spectacular goal for England in the European finals game against Sweden. What you might call a classic centre forward’s goal, the tall and burly Carroll rising high above the defence to head Steve Gerrard’s cross inexorably home.

Spectacular indeed and typical of what the player can do at his best, even if he had just come out of a disappointing season for Liverpool who had paid that colossal sum for him. It was believed that Liverpool were prepared to take a GBP15 million loss on his transfer. The problem being that Rodgers wanted to replicate the quick short passing style which he used to good effect at Swansea. Big Carroll needs high crosses like a traditional number 9. From Dixie Dean of Everton, who scored a record 60 Championship goals in the 1927/8 season, through his even more incisive heir Tommy Lawton, prodigious both in the air and on the ground, all the way through to such an astoundingly prolific leader as West Germany’s Gerd Muller, who finished his astonishing international career with the winner in the 1974 World Cup final in Munich, where he had scored so often for Bayern.

Newcastle United fans have been desperately keen to have their idol Carroll back. It’s a Club with a historic tradition of centre-forward though not always of the Carroll kind. Scotland’s Hughie Gallacher was short and square, a free scoring demon on the ground. Local born “Wor Jackie” Milburn was a formidable sprinter, originally an outside right. When he did head the first goal for Newcastle in the 1953 FA Cup final against Manchester City, it was a rarity. But with one exceptional sustained burst of speed and a terrific left footer one saw him score twice in the 1951 final versus Blackpool. Not to mention some 20 years later the still fiercer left footer, Malcolm Ian Macdonald, a Londoner, fast, too, and powerful in the air.

We still today have the likes of Didier Drogba whose tremendous power and fierce finishing with foot or head were essential in winning Chelsea the last European Champions League. Torres is still there, at Chelsea but Drogba, who will now earn GBP200,000 a week in Shanghai, seem irreplaceable to me!

Look back to the 1970s and you find the inspirational Johan Cruyff, superb captain of Ajax and Holland, a centre forward who could indeed play the Total Football of the time.

I don’t think the traditional number nine is becoming obsolete. I don’t think the Robin van Persies and Emmanuel Adebayors are a dying breed. We used to hear much the same thing about wingers; and look at how many of them are flourishing now. And what about Carlos Tevez?