The death of the false-nine

and why Erling Haaland is the poster boy for a new era

International break and the injuries are piling up. 😕

Welcome to the latest Marginal Pains newsletter. It’s Sam, again. There seems to be a shift in the way strikers are being judged by fans right now, so I wanted to talk to you about Erling Haaland, Christian Benteke and Roberto Firmino.

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As we all know, football moves in cycles. A certain style or feature will dominate for half a decade and then, in what feels like a blink of an eye, it’ll be dated. For example, I grew up watching teams play 4-4-2 (yes, I’m a 1990s kid), but then midway through the 2000s, it was just as if managers got together and decided 4-2-3-1 was better. Pep Guardiola and that Barcelona team then made 4-3-3 the system everyone wanted to play. We’re now seeing some sides return to their 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 roots as they look to gain an advantage over opponents. 

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Players either have to adapt or perish. Look at Mesut Ozil, he was one of the best playmakers in the world but now three Arsenal managers have decided he doesn’t do enough off of the ball to warrant a place in their team. Christian Benteke scored goals for Liverpool, but he was more selfish than selfless, especially when compared to his successor, Roberto Firmino. 

For a period, specialist players could’ve been considered luxuries. The attack being the first line of defence was no longer just a cliched saying, those leading the line really did have to pull their weight for the team to be successful. 

The likes of Firmino, Karim Benzema and Luis Suárez all sacrificed parts of their games for the benefit of others. The Liverpool man played a key role in Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané’s evolution into goal machines. Benzema stepped aside for Cristiano Ronaldo while Suárez, though still scoring goals, was always the support act to Lionel Messi at the Camp Nou before his switch to Atlético Madrid. 

However, there has been a change over recent seasons. There’s now more pressure on No.9s to be goalscorers. Benzema picked up the baton after Ronaldo left to join Juventus and Suarez is the main man for Atléti.

Carlo Ancelotti has turned Dominic Calvert-Lewin into a penalty box poacher and FC Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski is in the form of his life as the undisputed main goal threat for the Bavarians. Furthermore, Firmino’s place in the Liverpool XI is no longer as assured as it once was. Some fans want to add a pure finisher to the squad and there have been tentative links to Erling Haaland. 

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But the Reds aren’t the only team keeping an eye on the Norway international. All of Europe’s elite are keen, despite the 20-year-old only joining Borussia Dortmund in December 2019. He reportedly has an active release clause as soon as the current season ends. The former Red Bull Salzburg man is a goalscoring machine who, per FBref, isn’t a very active presser. He’s not reliant on volume either, averaging just 2.8 shots per 90 for BVB since the move. For context, Lewandowski has averaged 4.3 shots since the turn of the year in all competitions. 

Looking at those select stats, the era of the ruthless No.9 might be underway, and Haaland could well be the poster boy for it. 

It’s as though the seven-cap international was created in a lab. The 6ft4ins powerhouse forward is deceptively quick, both over short distances and over 100-yards. You rarely see strikers who can physically bully an opponent, and then race away from them as effortlessly as he does. 

Haaland scores a variety of goals, too. He’s left-footed but you’d be forgiven if you thought he was a natural right-footer after seeing his finish against Schalke in the Revierderby recently. He nonchalantly lifted the ball over the keeper with his weaker foot, without any hesitation. 

But what really makes the 20-year-old standout is his shot selection. He’s an instinctive player who just has the knack for being in the right place at the right time. It’s a phrase often muttered when talking about strikers, but with Haaland, it’s not just a lazy, throwaway comment. 

The graphic above looks at one touch finishing. It’s a list of seven of the best strikers in Europe right now and only two of them score over 50% of their goals with one-touch shots - Lewandowski and Haaland. But the latter is a clear winner, in particular, this department. Remarkably, and perhaps rather freakishly, only 29% of his goals arrive when he fails to shoot with his first touch. 

Every other player, except for Harry Kane, generally has an even spread when looking at the graphs. 

To make these comparisons a little fairer, with Haaland only moving to Germany during the winter window, this is just looking at their data since 1st January 2020. During this time, the one-time Molde man has taken 63 shots across Bundesliga and Champions League and 37 of them have been first touch efforts. 

He’s scored 17 goals from these 37 attempts, and only six have been inside the six-yard box. This alone highlights that these efforts aren’t tap-ins and the fact he’s able to hit these first time suggests that he’s managing to carve out high-quality areas in the penalty area. 

Haaland is one of the coldest finishers in world football and he’s only going to improve with age. With the most recent shift in football seeing forwards needing to score, the BVB man could be the most in-demand player this summer. 

You’ve heard of pass the pod, right? Well, let’s do pass the article. If you know someone who might like this, please do share. You can also find us on Twitter - @SamMcGuire90 and @DAHughes_