This piece originally appeared on www.sabotagetimes.com.
The transformation of English football in recent years has been as swift as it has been profound. Changes off the pitch have been hard enough for fans to tolerate, but they have been dealt a further blow by the fact that the sport they love has also changed for good in a technical sense. The ultimate hero of the English fan, the goal-poaching number nine, is vanishing. Most fans grew up watching every team use the same strategy, with tricky wingers aiming to create as many chances as possible for their striker to finish. Unfortunately for fans of this traditional style, the days in which defenders and forwards hovered around eighteen-yard boxes while midfielders and wingers ran vertically between the two areas are very much over. Now, top-level sides tend to favour one of two strategies: either seeking to dominate possession and territory, or to counter-attack swiftly with co-ordinated forward bursts somewhat reminiscent of gridiron. In either tactic, penalty box play is secondary to the battle to control and exploit space in midfield.
Internet satirists have often said that Barcelona and Spain are leading the charge toward a boring sport played entirely by possession-hogging midfielders, but Premier League sides have watched Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and company and learned the value of controlling matches by keeping the ball. At 81.6%, the Premier League now boasts the highest pass completion ratio of any league in the world. With this highly-skilled but risk-averse culture prevalent, goalmouth action is increasingly rare. While the poacher is still a common enough sight, a player who can smell a goal twenty miles away but cannot control or pass a football is a clear hindrance – predictable in his intentions and therefore exploitable.
Nowhere is this clearer than at Villa Park, where Paul Lambert has dispensed with the services of Darren Bent with a view to creating a more cohesive, rounded eleven. The Scot has been roundly criticised for his choice due to the Villans’ poor results, recently receiving twenty-two consecutive questions about Bent at a press conference. His response to repeatedly being asked about an individual was illuminating: “It’s a team game,” said Lambert, “You need everybody to pull the same way and that’s hopefully what we’ll create here.” The statistics support the decision to remove Bent from the first team and begin anew. Bent has averaged an abysmal 13.9 passes per game, with a completion rate of 67.2%. He has not registered an assist this season and, incredibly, is yet to attempt a single cross. While his movement in the box is usually an exemplary model of predatory instinct, outside of it he offers nothing. Bent’s two league goals in 2012-13 have earned Aston Villa one point, but his non-contribution when a first team regular has cost them many more.
Elsewhere, Nikica Jelavić’s recent struggles for Everton also illustrate the challenge facing the number nine in the Premier League. The Croatian started 2012-13 with a flurry of goals but has only two to his name since September. Due to his explosive success in 2011-12, teams have come into this season wise to the threat. Often, they have sought to sit deep, limiting the space in which he can work. David Moyes has recognised this, and since the signing of Thomas Hitzlsperger, Everton have played a slower, more controlling game. The strategy is yet to bear fruit. Despite the lower tempo, Jelavić averages only 16.9 passes per game, with a completion rate of 67.9%. His one assist came at home to Southampton, when he inadvertently deflected the ball into the path of Leon Osman before falling over. As with Bent at Aston Villa, if Jelavić is not among the goals then Everton are effectively playing with ten men.
Papiss Demba Cissé has toiled similarly in his first full season in English football. The Senegalese scored thirteen goals in fourteen Premier League appearances last season, but has only two in twelve this term. As with Bent and Jelavić, Cissé offers nothing except a goalscoring threat. He too registers below twenty passes per game, with a completion rate of 69.1%. Despite playing in twelve of Newcastle’s fourteen games this season, he is yet to register a single assist. Given that Newcastle’s tactics are significantly more direct than Everton’s, one may assume that Alan Pardew is less concerned about Cissé’s lack of involvement outside the box than his contribution inside it. However, Cissé has only taken 1.9 shots per game in 2012-13, compared to 2.8 last season. Newcastle are currently winless in seven games in all competitions. Considering the voluntary disadvantage they have created for themselves by playing Cissé, this is unsurprising.
While 2012-13 has told us that while managers could do a lot worse than drop their poachers from their starting elevens, number nines can still be productive as impact substitutes. Between them, Javier Hernández and Edin Džeko have eleven Premier League goals this season, with all but three scored following their introduction as substitutes. Used as starters, Hernández and Džeko have floundered in the same way as Bent, Jelavić and Cissé, showing poor ball retention, lacklustre movement and generally making no significant contribution. However, both have thrived when thrown on in desperate situations, their managers being left with no choice but to prioritise possible salvation over tactical cohesion.
The reason for their success as substitutes is unsurprising, and it has less to do with tactics than it does with status. More often than not, big clubs end matches in the ascendancy: either they are ahead and their opponents are pouring forward, leaving space to exploit, or they are not winning, and their opponents retreat into the penalty area and plan to weather one last storm. The success of Hernández and Džeko shows that without a midfield to control, passes to complete and teammates to assist, the finisher becomes not only relevant, but practically essential. This is how far the number nine has fallen in the Premier League: from superman to supersub.