Front and Centre

Suarez

Suarez, 9. Photo by Marc Puig i Perez http://www.flickr.com

Football, like many other things in life, is subject to shifting fashions, and I’m not just referring to the design of the multiple kits that teams deem necessary these days. There are tactical fashions too, many of which have been shaped by Barcelona over the last decade or so.

The Barcelona side built around Xavi and Messi set the template for fluid attacking football that has been much imitated but with rather sporadic success since those doing the imitating have been attempting to do so without the aforementioned superstars.

One consequence of the fashion to play tiki-taka has been a reduced influence for what we might call the traditional centre forward.

With Messi playing as a ‘false 9’ (something that Totti was already doing at Roma incidentally), Barcelona became one of the greatest sides of all time without much need for a true 9 – just ask Ibrahimovic.

But when Barcelona signed Suarez in 2014, it signified the end of the tiki-taka era and the introduction of a more direct style at the Camp Nou to take advantage of the fearsome Messi-Suarez-Neymar (MSN) frontline. Messi and Neymar would float around as fluidly as ever, while Suarez would be exactly where you would expect a number 9 to be: front and centre.

I’ve written before that Barcelona have shifted the focus of their game to the forward trio rather than the midfield trio, which (when led by Xavi) used to create the “passing carousel” that caused such anguish to Sir Alex.

The Catalans may not be quite as dominant as a few years ago but where they lead others remain inclined to follow. Look at the top of the Premier League: Chelsea (Costa), Tottenham (Kane), and Manchester City (Aguero). Number 9s (even if that’s not always the number on their back) are enjoying a renaissance.

Interestingly, the fourth placed team in the Premier League remain tactically closer to a tiki-taka style of play. Roberto Firmino is many things but he is not a centre forward. Nevertheless, he has played as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack (in a false-ish 9 position) for most of the season.

Sturridge has been a combination of injured (as usual) or out of form and in any case is not in the same class as Costa, Kane and Aguero. The best that can be said of Origi is that he remains a work in progress with unfulfilled potential.

It’s unclear as to whether Klopp does not sufficiently trust his centre forwards to play them regularly or if his preferred tactical set-up has little need for them. Firmino, Coutinho and Mane (plus Lallana to a lesser extent) are tasked with bringing both creativity and cutting edge to Liverpool’s attack.

They’ve done so very erratically – Liverpool have struggled to break down lesser teams but are still currently the highest scoring side in the league. The main problem at Anfield is not the particular style favoured by Klopp but the lack of variability and adaptability on days when it’s not proving effective.

The absence of a true 9 in many games has hampered Liverpool’s ability to play more directly and pose a different sort of challenge to defences that are both packed and deep. The Liverpool boss should prioritise the signing of a centre forward in the summer, especially with Sturridge seemingly poised to leave.

Further down the league, the role of world-class strikers cannot be understated. Most of the progress made by Manchester United under Mourinho is due to the signing of Ibrahimovic, he who Barcelona struggled to fit into their tiki-taka rhythm.

Similarly, where would Everton be without Lukaku? At the other end of the table, Sunderland would be in considerably more trouble without Defoe. Arsenal have laboured for years now without a truly exceptional number 9 (and a few other missing numbers); Giroud is unfairly scapegoated on occasion but he’s no Costa or Kane.

Barcelona’s tiki-taka influenced the game defensively as well as in an attacking sense. Many teams sought more defensive cover and rigidity to guard against the shape-shifting nature of Barca’s movement. Strikers were primarily tasked with being the first line of defence and one was judged to suffice for such a mission.

4-5-1 thus became a common formation – sometimes of a more attacking disposition, often less so. It could be subtle, even at times sophisticated, but it was rarely swashbuckling. It tended to be dull though, particularly when 4-5-1 lined up against 4-5-1.

There is, no doubt, an art to defending (really there is PSG) but the artistry in football is primarily to be found at the other end of the pitch. A player such as Mascherano can paint in broad brushes but those with the talent of Messi and Neymar produce the masterpieces.

As in art, fashions change and usually they hark back to something that’s come before. The return to fashion of the centre forward is worth celebrating; welcome back number 9, may you cease to be false.

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The Monday Post – 10/11/14

Photo by: CFC unofficial (Debs) www.flickr.com

Photo by: CFC unofficial (Debs)
http://www.flickr.com

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (that’s any of you who have read more than three posts) then you probably know by now that I’m a Liverpool fan. It’s not my intention to devote more time and space here to Liverpool as a result but I will start my weekend review with their game against Chelsea.

It was the only match I saw this weekend. The clocks went back recently in the UK and that is not a good thing for a British football fan living in Malaysia. 3pm kick-offs now start here at 11pm rather than 10pm. Lunchtime kick-offs remain excellently timed though and so I settled down to watch Liverpool – Chelsea at 8.45pm on Saturday night.

It quickly became apparent that Liverpool have gone back further than the clocks in recent weeks. Rodgers had restored to the starting line-up most of those controversially dropped (rested) in Madrid in midweek but it made little difference. Chelsea dominated without ever needing to employ top gear.

It’s hard to pinpoint Liverpool’s problems since they are scattered all over the pitch. If defending is an art then Liverpool’s is less Van Gogh’s sunflowers and more Tracey Emin’s my bed: untidy, overpriced, and frequently prompting the question, why on earth did you do that?

The midfield is currently a little lacking in artistic imagination with the honourable exception of Coutinho who again, inexplicably, did not play the full 90 minutes. Up front, Balotelli looked like a tortured artist awaiting inspiration, or at least a decent pass.

After the game, Mourinho was asked if his side could go the whole season unbeaten. He bashfully dismissed the prospect and he was right to do so. I’ll be amazed if Chelsea don’t lose a league game this season but they are already looking like heavy title favourites.

Arsene Wenger certainly thinks so. He more or less conceded the title after watching his team lose 2-1 at Swansea, yet again managing to lose from a winning position. Before the game Alexis Sanchez had tweeted that ‘the 3 points are coming to London.’ Maybe he was referring to a Chilean boy band I’ve never heard of; the three premier league points decided it wasn’t worth the trip.

Opposition managers used to have to make stuff like that up and then post it all over the changing room walls to motivate their players. Now, they only need show a live Twitter feed from some of the opposing team’s most prolific tweeters.

It’s been a bad week for Arsenal after they threw away a three goal lead in the Champions League against Anderlecht and the only consolation I can see for Arsenal fans right now is the form of Spurs. Tottenham lost 2-1 at home to Stoke as their poor start to the season continued.

It seems that most of the points going to London at the moment are headed straight for Stamford Bridge.