In soccer, the creative ingenuity showcased by those who wear the Number 10 jersey has led to a legendary reputation developing around this famous shirt number. Players such as Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi have been hailed by generations of fans across the world for their incredible ability to beautifully link midfield and attack; however, the players being supplied by these world-beating playmakers can sometimes end up being the ones who gain an even greater share of the headlines.
In this article, we'll be focusing on those attackers stationed in the most advanced area of the soccer field. We'll be honing in on the Number 9 role, diving into the key responsibilities and duties associated with this part of the pitch, and explaining the origins and history of this soccer position. Later on, we're also going to take you through some of the most iconic players to have worn the Number 9 shirt over the years.
Shirt numbers were first introduced in the early twentieth century as a way of identifying and distinguishing between players on the field, and they've stuck around ever since. Each position on the pitch is traditionally associated with a different number — #1 for goalkeepers, #3 for left backs, #8 for central midfielders, and so on — and for centre-forwards, it's the iconic Number 9.
In soccer, a traditional Number 9 is a striker or centre-forward, positioned at the top end of the pitch and depended upon by their team mates for goals. A focal point in their side's attack, a good Number 9 will predominantly occupy the final third of the pitch when their team is in possession, looking to connect with other attacking players and create and finish chances.
The Number 9 is generally the most attack-minded position on the soccer field, and generally speaking these players will be the top goal scorers on their team. That being said, over the years the role has developed and changed, and today not all players who wear the number 9 jersey are plain goal poachers, looking to hit the six-yard-line and tap in a cutback.
For example, the False 9 role has developed in recent years, as players like Firmino are given a slightly deeper, more creative, less conventional set of striking responsibilities. But before we spend more time discussing the skills and duties of the Number 9, let's take a brief look at where this role first came from.
Soccer formations are constantly being adapted and tweaked by football coaches and strategists. Today, a wide variety of shapes are used at the highest level including 4-3-3 and 3-5-2, but in the Premier League in the 1990s and 2000s, the dominant formation was 4-4-2 (a flat bank of four defenders, four midfielders in front of them, and a strike partnership up top).
Go back further still to the first half of the twentieth century and coaches were structuring their teams in a very different way, with the 3-3-4 "W-M" formation being Europe's most popular shape.
What connects most formations used by association football teams during the last century is that they rely on having at least one central striker capable of causing problems in the opposition's defensive third.
Due to the advanced position occupied by the centre-forward, when it was first decided that it would be a good idea for players to be given squad numbers to distinguish themselves on the field (during a 1928 match between Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday at Highbury), it made sense that these forwards would be given the Number 9 shirt.
Since then, the Number 9 shirt has developed a level of significance that just isn't attached to most other jersey numbers. Commentators, pundits and coaches will refer to "the number 9" and people will instantly know which position they're taking about; the same can't be said for most other roles in football (except perhaps the attacking midfield role of the Number 10).
Perhaps it's due mainly to their goal-scoring prowess, which causes Number 9s to be given a level of glamour that players further back on the pitch can only dream about. But why else is this position so special? To give you a better idea, let's go through the main skills and responsibilities associated with this role.
Goals are the aim of the game for any center forward or striker worth their salt. But there's a lot more to their game than just that. Here are the key skills and responsibilities of the Number 9 role.
If there's one skill that a traditional centre-forward should have in their locker, it's the ability to be clinical and accurate in front of goal, finishing a range of chances and contributing goals on a regular basis.
Strikers should be able to score penalties, close-range tap-ins, low strikes from 18 yards out, and powerful efforts from distance; they might not be afforded many opportunities doing a match, so they've got to put away the ones they do get.
Hold up play is a crucial facet of the Number 9 role, particularly for more old school #9s who pride themselves on their physical attributes and their ability to be a focal point up top.
Essentially, this is all about providing an outlet for less advanced team mates as often as possible; number 9s should be able to receive the ball under pressure and hold it for several seconds, shielding it from opponents using their body and then bringing other players into the game.
The idea that the centre-forward is also available to chase onto a ball and receive it further up the pitch to create an outlet for midfielders is essential to the Number 9 position.
Being an effective target man is largely down to being in the right place at the right time. Strikers are constantly looking to pounce on the ball in the opposition's final third, and in order to do so effectively the timing of their movement needs to be spot on.
Perhaps the most crucial skill for any goal-minded soccer player is to know exactly when to drop back to link up with playmakers, when to shift wide and give a winger the space to run infield, and when to aim for the penalty spot to get on the end of an in-swinging cross.
Clever movement can be the difference between 5 goals in a season and 25.
In the modern day, you can be a super effective striker without being a massive lump. Look at Sergio Aguero or Jermaine Defoe; neither of them are particularly big, but they're two of the best centre-forwards the Premier League has ever seen.
That being said, an old-school Number 9, in the traditional sense of the term, will generally have a set of physical attributes that makes them particularly difficult for defenders to handle. Aerial ability is a big plus for any strikers, and regardless of their height they need to have a degree of physical strength in order to be able to outmuscle competing opposition defenders.
Speed is also important, particularly that extra burst of pace that allows them to shoot past the defensive line and connect with a through-ball from an attacking midfielder.
The Premier League's all-time top goalscorer (with a staggering 260 goals), Alan Shearer is the archetypal old-school Number 9. The Newcastle legend's prolific goal-scoring ability, physical strength and toughness, intelligent movement and pure, clinical selfishness in the final third made him an absolute handful to play against.
While his career trophy haul only amounts to one Premier League title win with Blackburn Rovers, his goal record for both club and country speaks for itself.
Still operating at the very top of the European game in his 35th year, talismanic Polish forward Robert Lewandowski is one of the great strikers of the 21st century, and his well-rounded skill set (strong hold up play, clever movement, and jaw-dropping striking ability) means he will probably go down as one of the best Number 9s of all time.
A physically impressive player who dominates defenders and leads from the front, Lewandowski has scored an incredible 573 goals in 792 games for clubs including Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona. Ridiculous numbers.
The man who led the Selecao to the 2002 World Cup trophy has a special place in the hearts of many football fans, particularly those who grew up watching him in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Still regarded as one of the most talented forwards the world has ever seen, Brazil legend Ronaldo scored over 350 career goals for clubs including Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan and Inter, reaching the pinnacle of the professional game and inspiring millions with his lightning-fast dribbling skills, impeccable ball control, and razor-sharp finishing.
It was in the 1970s that the Netherlands transformed European football forever with the introduction of the Johan Cruyff-led Total Football philosophy, but it was in the following decade that the nation produced its greatest ever out-and-out striker. Marco Van Basten was a prolific No. 9 who scored 24 goals in 58 caps for his country and represented the focal point of the Dutch Euro 88-winning side. A three-time Ballon d'Or winner and a master of spectacular strikes, his graceful, intelligent attacking play earned him the nickname 'The Swan of Utrecht.
If you'd like to spend more time swatting up on soccer's most iconic roles, check out our guide to the box-to-box midfielder role. By exploring this soccer position in depth, you'll learn more about how legendary players like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were able to make it to the top.