The announcement that Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland has agreed to a €60m move to Manchester City this summer set pulses racing around the world. But it is no coincidence that a striker’s transfer attracted such wild speculation both on social media and in the mainstream sports media. The center forward of a club usually makes the difference in a game, especially when it comes to finishing a play, but also when it comes to giving the defense a break by winning and defending from set pieces (among other things).
A team’s number 9 has long since ceased to be just a number and is now an overarching concept that a wide range of players get involved with. The basic definition is that of a “physically present central attacker”, who has some proficiency in scoring, protecting and passing the ball, as well as having some form of air force. While a modern trend has seen high-profile coaches like Pep Guardiola prefer a “false 9”: a creative movement-based player like Lionel Messi, who can open space for wing attackers in central areas and act as a central attacker to link attacking moves. However, it seems that most top coaches would rather have a “true 9” than play without one.
The problem is that the variety of skills needed for this position are usually not fully developed until well into a player’s 20s. At 21 years old, Haland is shaping up to be the exception, though some might argue he still needs to work on his defensive game, but when he’s scoring almost a goal a game on average (85 goals in 88 games in Dortmund), is a compensation that clubs can accept.
Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski have shown time and time again that a quality, experienced centre-forward offers a guarantee of goals, and that advantage can be difficult to cultivate with players of a different profile.
There’s a reason why City spent most of last summer working to bring harry kane of the Tottenhamwhose ability to pick the right spaces to circulate the ball from deep has almost led him to invent his own category of “9” (to illustrate the difference in style, kane touches the ball an average of 25 times per game, while Haland usually reaches 15 or 16). That’s also why the Juventus made the decision to sign Dusan Vlahović of the Fiorentina for 70 million euros in January.
So with Haland on the premier leaguewho are the next “9” likely to be targeted by the big European clubs?
Darwin Núñez, 22 years old, Benfica | Transfer value: 40 million euros
Although he is right-footed and prefers to operate from a wide starting position on the left, the Uruguayan international shows some similarities with Haland. Both thrive when running with space behind the opposing defense and both are extremely difficult to handle in physical challenges or when going full throttle.
Nunez arrived at benfica in a discreet €24m transfer from Almería in the summer of 2020. With 26 goals in 28 games in the Portuguese league this season, he offers a range of options: he can chase a long ball up high to show off his speed against the defenders (he scored a goal that way in the derby against Sporting), he can make clever runs to the end of crosses, takes precise long-range shots and takes good positions on defensive and offensive plays.
Undoubtedly, Nunez is at the top of his game, and the mighty 22-year-old certainly looks like he could migrate to one of Europe’s top leagues, being linked with the Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool.
Lautaro he was originally a “second striker” or “support striker”, which has gradually moved to a more central position. His finishing abilities, coupled with his ability to protect the ball and create chances in the final third, have contributed to his coaches wanting him to play closer to goal.
Playing a style somewhat similar to that of fellow Argentines Carlos Tevez and Sergio Agüero, the 24-year-old exhibits an instinctive “street footballer” style of play, with fast, functional technique and a low center of gravity. Martinez doesn’t have the traditional build of a No. 9, but he wins a respectable 38% of passing challenges from him.
Although he occasionally splurges in front of goal and has a tendency to go on scoring runs, Lautaro is becoming increasingly prolific (19 Serie A goals this season) and could be available in the summer transfer window, as the Inter de Milan seeks to rectify its financial situation.
Tammy Abraham, 24, AS Roma | Transfer value: 45 million euros
Possibly the candidate who best fits the classic number 9 label, the former forward of the Chelsea he has a balanced overall game, as well as a clear advantage in physical skills and aerial ability. Abraham has settled well in the A series and now he seems like a more confident footballer (he makes better decisions and seems more focused) than he did a year ago.
Watching the England international, it is quite clear that he is a player who has been working hard to improve his weaknesses. His account of 15 goals in the league is four more than the total Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner (the two strikers who prevented him from getting enough minutes to stay at Stamford Bridge), and although the Rome surely he would want to stay with him, his performances have aroused the interest of several clubs that will seek to win the next Champions League.
Victor Osimhen, 23 years old, Naples | Transfer value: 60 million euros
Despite spending a lot of time out injured during his first two years in Italy, Osimhen has 27 goals and nine assists in 60 appearances for the club to date. His combination of pace, directness and finishing ability make him a constant threat and give him a sharpness that is valued at a true No. 9. The next challenge for the 23-year-old is to improve his dribbling game and appear less separated from their teammates during the development phases of the game.
The Nigeria international shines when the ball is played from behind to allow him to run towards goal, but when there is little space behind the defense (unless he reaches the end of a cross) he tends to struggle to assert himself. However, since Naples paid 70 million euros to sign him from the Lille in July 2020 and he has three years left on his contract, he may not come cheap for any suitor.
An enormously talented center forward who, after years of playing for clubs like the Sampdoriathe Rome or the RB LeipzigIt is finally showing its full potential. Second behind Lewandowski in the league’s scoring charts. Bundesliga, Schick he has 24 goals in 26 games.
While injuries have dogged the left-footed forward in recent years, there has always been a consensus in the scouting scene that if Schick starts scoring consistently, he can be one of the best center forwards in the world. It’s clear that the pace of his runs and his finishing (often one-touch, sometimes half-volleys and spectacular volleys) have reached new levels this season. While he’s good at traditional No. 9 skills, he’s also surprisingly effective at running behind the defensive line.