It started with Nándor Hidegkuti as England were humiliated by a mighty and marvellous Hungarian side at Wembley. The scoreline was written into history and has never ever been forgotten by anyone that has anything to do with football. But it is far from over and it has certainly changed the sport.
Because even 65 odd years since Nándor Hidegkuti first did it in front of English football fans, it was already a hundred years old by then. And yet, while there have been various other incarnations from the great Alfrédo di Stéfano to the equally great Johan Cruyff, arguably the most famous, or rather the most rememberable, of them all has to be Lionel Messi. It was called as a master-stroke, the first time Barcelona and Messi executed it, with the world shocked.
How dare they take what could be a superb attacker from his preferred position out on the right and place him more centrally? How dare Pep Guardiola, barely a year and a half into his Barcelona tenure, take the club’s best prospect and place him more centrally? But as the history books will tell us, the move turned out to be his greatest move and Real Madrid were swept aside. Lionel Messi became the greatest modern incarnation of the false nine and suddenly world football wanted it.
They couldn’t get Messi of course, given how stubborn Barcelona have held onto their best asset, but it didn’t stop many from trying their very best. Robin van Persie did the trick for Arsenal, and later Manchester United, for a while. Cesc Fabregas did it for Barcelona soon after Lionel Messi and the trend has gone on and on and on and on. That, in turn, has led to a complete rehaul and re-shuffle of tactics and formations with managers looking to compete with something a little extra.
But what it has really led to is the complete annihilation of a proper striker. Not even a decade ago, football was thriving, and some may say overflowing, with quality strikers of all ages. From the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Filippo Inzaghi, Samuel Eto, Diego Milito and a young Edinson Cavani in Italy to Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres, Chicharito, Michael Owen and Luis Suarez in England. Even Spain had Gonzalo Higuain, Karim Benzema, Alvaro Negredo, Aritz Aduriz and others thriving.
It was a world filled with players who had only one thing to do on the football field and did they do it well, so well that when the big boys came calling, clubs had no choice but to sell. It’s why Emmanuel Adebayor went from Arsenal to Manchester City to Real Madrid before leaving for Tottenham. He is a talented forward who could do a lot of things but the one thing he did really well at was finding the net.
So much so that he only failed to hit double figures for goals in three seasons during his spell in England and that includes an 8 appearance season for Manchester City. It’s an impressive record no doubt but Adebayor could do little else and it’s why in the modern era he finds himself a free-agent. The fact that he is also 36-years old might have a little something to do with that but even that’s beside the point because the false nine changed everything.
Suddenly, thanks to Messi’s over-effectiveness in that position, it became the new “sexy” position to play in football and everyone wanted it. Not just that but it saw football become a little weird as Louis van Gaal sent Marouane Fellaini out wide as a target man. Why? People to this date have no clue but Dan Burn was used in a similar-ish position against Liverpool and it worked. How or why? Till date, nobody knows but it did and that just continued to encourage managers across the universe.
Suddenly it was the latest trend, with every manager trying new things from Zinedine Zidane figuring at a way to play not one but four attackers in the same formation to Ajax playing Dusan Tadic as their striker in the Champions League. It sent out a wave of ideas and suddenly the world had decided to ignore conventional footballing wisdom for the more eccentric and weird ones, which changed the game.
But along the way in that battle to the find the weird or the universal perfect team, the conventional center-forward disappeared. Instead, the world loaded up onto a hype train flew off to some random station without a care in the world as to how it would affect future generations. Because now suddenly, here are a group of young forwards struggling to find their way through in a world where they should be thriving.
Not just because of the all-around demands on players but the demands to play deeper. Not the demands to be able to beat the offside trap at ease and score, or the demands to cause chaos with their runs across the defensive line but to be able to move into midfield and allow runners through. That did allow the old fashioned center-forward to thrive with Olivier Giroud, Sebastien Haller and Bas Dost amongst others to thrive and find their moment in the sun.
But once football became faster and all about high pressing and quick transitions even they were quickly phased out. It has now led to a present where a quick glance across football and there’s a vacuum of nothingness across it. Because suddenly, out of absolutely nowhere, the lack of quality strikes in world football didn’t just disappear but they dropped completely off the face of the earth. At the moment, beyond Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane, there’s nothing but a vacuum between the ages of 24 to 30.
There is quite literally nobody else good enough, in that age bracket, to be considered alongside either of the two and it has left teams lacking. Because while there are claims that modern football could do it all without the striker, the world proves otherwise. Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham wouldn’t be Tottenham without Harry Kane’s incredible numbers and the same applies to Jose Mourinho’s team.
While he does, as it has been pointed out quite a many times on the internet, lack the trophies and personal accolades to be considered the best English striker, the 27-year-old is definitely on that list. Take Lukaku, now at Inter Milan, again much like Kane - his trophy case is also rather bare which is a shock given his spell at Manchester United but such is life. And yet, despite his awkward first touch, the Belgian is arguably in a class of his own having just equalled Ronaldo Nazario's record at Inter Milan.
A feat that no other player has managed since the great Brazilian did it more than two decades ago. Then there’s Robert Lewandowski and Sergio Aguero, arguably the greatest outliers in the mixer. The Pole and the Argentine haven’t been considered to be the greatest striker in world football for quite a while when the truth is, that they may be the best the modern generation has seen. Especially when you consider what Aguero has done under Pep Guardiola, a manager well known for his hatred of playing pure center-forwards.
So much so that he put Cesc Fabregas into that role during his time at Barcelona but somehow both Aguero and Lewandowski became key parts of his plan at Manchester City and Bayern Munich respectively. Nobody knows who but the duo, alongside Edinson Cavani at PSG, have proved that with a striker you can still play the attractive brand of football you want and thrive. Of course, when it comes to being the best center-forward in the modern era, Cristiano Ronaldo might just take that cake.
The Portuguese legend’s transformation into a bonafide, goal-scoring machine in his late twenties has transformed the Serie A and given the new generation something to aim at. It’s why the likes of Moise Kean, Jonathan David, Timothy Weah, Silas Wamangituka and co are all doing well across the world. But every group has one talented center-forward who shines the light on everyone else and for this one, they’ve got two.
One, built more in the shape of the modern world striker in Kylian Mbappe and the other built-in the mould of the yesteryear legends in Erling Braut Haaland. Together the duo holds the torch for the future of their position although Haaland’s arrival on the scene as a teenager who did nothing else but to score goals at an absurd rate has seen the world flummoxed. After all, in a world where the false nines thrived, and still continue to, how did one teenager opt to build his game around the legends of yesteryear?
Shocking, isn’t it? What it has given though is the world hope that one day soon, a new generation of the Guman or the “Capocannoniere” will grace football with their wonderful ability to send people into raptures of excitement.