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Robert Lewandowski redefines the parameters of the “traditional number nine”
They say that orthodox number nines are going out of fashion in European football to make way for more clever, technically-gifted false nines playing in tactically modern 4-3-3 formations. The debate is only just reaching the farther reaches of Major League Soccer in the United States, however, as the San Jose Earthquakes learned this season. Chris Wondolowski, the Earthquakes’ all time top-scorer, found himself being dropped into the midfield last season to reinforce the Quakes’ central-midfield in a 4-1-4-1, set behind a big, hulking target-man.
Uproar followed the change on its tails, with fans claiming Wondolowski is better up in a poaching role. Yet as the weeks went by and Wondolowski’s goalscoring tally kept steady, it became increasingly evident that the change had little impact on the American’s effectiveness in the side. He was still the intuitive poacher he had always been, operating inside the lines. Numbers and formations were just semantics, which brings us back to the raging debate over traditional forwards. The problem with the term “traditional number nine” is that it’s such a amorphous concept.
Wondolowski is a poacher, thriving off his movement and finishing skills. Yet that only covers one facet that an orthodox number nine encompasses. The term, or moreover, the idea, undoubtedly came from the old-fashioned target man, meant to be dominant in the air and proficient with his back to goal.
It was the premise of this player, perhaps unfairly blamed with the burned of long-ball football’s unattractive style, that Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka revolution at Barcelona so rebelled against, instead opting for a false-nine, nimble on the ball and meant to channel the attack. Perhaps this is why, when Bayern signed Robert Lewandowski in the summer of 2014, Guardiola seemed at best lukewarm, if not simply displeased. Upon his arrival, Guardiola only stated: “I congratulate the club to sign a player like Lewandowski.”
But a year-and-a-half on, the pair have thrived together and only made each other better. Guardiola’s tactics have melded Lewandowski into the most complete forward in the world and likewise, Lewandowski’s presence has made Bayern more direct, given them a lethal Plan B in attack.
The Polish international’s first season at Bayern was mild in comparison to his final days at Borussia Dortmund, just as his first year in Dortmund had been. The Bavarian’s attack was focused around two inside forwards, usually Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery, who loved to cut inside from the wings. This allowed Lewandowski to develop the technical side of his game and ability to combine and work off-the-ball in Guardiola’s system. This was reflected Bayern’s scoring charts: Lewandowski and Arjen Robben netting seventeen goals in the Bundesliga, Thomas Muller grabbing thirteen and Gotze scoring nine.
Yet injury forced Guardiola’s hand, and Robben and Ribery were replaced by more direct wingers Kingsley Coman and Douglas Costa. This allowed Lewandowski to loosen his leash up front and play facing the goal more often, his presence dominating the box. No more evident was this than in his famous run of five goals within nine minutes against Wolfsburg earlier this season. The goals showcased his complete set of clinical finishing, quick-feet, aerial power and movement off-the-ball. At the moment, he’s one of the few elite footballers to bring the whole package to the table. Suddenly, he and Guardiola have come to form an unlikely friendship on and off the pitch, illuminated in their chest-bump goal-celebrations.
Having single-handedly led an average Poland team into Euro 2016 with an extraordinary tally of thirteen goals in ten qualifying matches – the highest tally in qualifying – and dominated the Bundesliga with Bayern, 2015 has been the year that Robert Lewandowski earned his place on the stage of the world’s truly elite footballers. A fifth place spot in The Guardian’s ranking of the top 100 footballers of the year and reported transfer interest from Arsenal, Liverpool and Real Madrid have all been earned.
Homepage photo credit: Rufus46 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons