Romelu Lukaku’s interview saying how unhappy he was at Chelsea and revealing his hopes of returning to Inter Milan rightly sent shockwaves across football. They came from absolutely nowhere.
The Blues No.9 was punished for his explosive comments and it appears the powers that be at Chelsea have drawn a line under it.
However, the Belgian’s form has shown no major sign of improving since and his reference to Thomas Tuchel playing a ‘different system’ has thrown up more questions about his role at Chelsea and the place of No.9s in the game. Were they actually a cry for help on behalf of a dying breed?
But before analysing whether the role of the No.9 is a dying art, we need to establish how the role is traditionally viewed.
Former Tottenham, Aston Villa and England striker Darren Bent says in his day, which really wasn’t long ago at all, his performances were judged by the amount of goals he scored.
Meanwhile former Watford, West Ham, Leicester, Southampton and Republic of Ireland frontman David Connolly admits there was no getting away from that when he played.
History tells us football evolves tactically and sometimes positions can even die out – you’d never say your team needs to sign a sweeper these days.
And Alan Shearer, arguably the greatest No.9 in Premier League history, feels the natural evolution of football has put the No.9 role past its sell-by date.
Shearer wrote in The Athletic: “Players are gymnasts now, not just athletes, and a ‘forward’ has become a more general description of nimble players who are comfortable anywhere along the line rather than a marksman or a target man you build your team around. A No.9 in other words.
“One day you’re young, the next you’re an old fart, talking about how it was better in your day. It happens to all of us.
“The game is less physical, less brutal, less about contact and personal battles and more about possession and pressing and somewhere along the way, the centre-forward has fallen out of fashion.”
When you look at what’s been happening at the top of the game in recent times it’s hard to dispute what Shearer’s saying.
Manchester City won the Premier League last season at a canter with Sergio Aguero absent for large parts of the season, while Liverpool won it the year before with Roberto Firmino leading their line.
City look well on course to win the title again without a traditional No.9 – Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Ferran Torres, Bernardo Silva and even Kevin De Bruyne have been given a go at leading the line at this season.
Meanwhile, Harry Kane and Erling Halaand were both heavily linked with moves away from Tottenham and Borussia Dortmund respectively in the summer, but both stayed put.
Lukaku was a striker who did get his big-money move but he’s far from had it all his own way having been in and out of the Chelsea team and Connolly does have sympathy for the 28-year-old.
Connolly told talkSPORT.com: “I can understand what Lukaku might be thinking because in a certain shape maybe there’s not a role for him. At Inter he played in a 3-5-2 but that’s not going to happen at Chelsea.
“If you play a 3-4-2-1 at Chelsea, where do his natural wingers come in? Where would Callum Hudson-Odoi play? He can only play as a wing-back and for someone who’s played as a winger in a 4-3-3, he’s then got to evolve his game.”
Predator is a word often used to describe a typical no.9 as they obsess over hunting for goals. It’s clear these predators are experiencing a change in environment like many of their defensive, midfield and goalkeeping counterparts have had to contend with in the past.
Connolly added: “Defenders never used to play out, goalkeepers didn’t play out. Now they do and can command the same transfer fees as a striker.
“Now midfielders can score goals, wing-backs can score goals – it’s the evolution of players who are now coming through being more rounded and being able to finish.
“You can’t escape that, it’s happening. You’ve got coaches like your Tuchel’s and Pep Guardiola’s who seem to evolve and change where players are played. A full-back like Joao Cancelo is operating on the edge of the box in the centre of goal.”
Connolly adds this changing of the times shows there’s potential scope for the next evolution which would see some players being able to play in totally different positions – take Dion Dublin playing as a centre forward and a centre-back at Leicester.
But generally a level of compromise will be needed from these notoriously selfish creatures if they are to continue thriving.
Bent, member of the Premier League’s elite ‘100 Club’, told talkSPORT in October: “I still think you need a no.9, but I’m always going to say that.
“Come the end of this season I think the most coveted player in world football is going to be a no.9 – Erling Haaland. Whoever gets him in this country, it’s a massive coup for them.
“Potentially the role of the No.9 now… and I liked it that way [in the past], you were judged on numbers of goals.
“It is false now because all of a sudden I don’t think No.9s are focused on the numbers now. There are some out there that are goal hungry, if their team wins 5-0 and they haven’t got one then they’re absolutely fuming. I do think now numbers in terms of the centre forward aren’t as important.”
If Lukaku isn’t willing to adapt and evolve his game then he could become extinct at Stamford Bridge.
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