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#FIFA World Cup

The role of the Number 9: More goals despite fewer attempts

FIFA, 19 May 2023

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During the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, players identified as playing in the centre-forward/Number 9 role scored a total of 58 goals, which represents a 12% increase from the 52 goals scored at Russia 2018.

This increase in goals scored came despite there being 56 fewer attempts at goal by Number 9s, equating to a reduction of 15% from the 2018 World Cup. Our findings also showed an improvement of +6 attempts on target per player, resulting in an increase from 36% attempts on target in 2018 to 41% on target in 2022.

For FIFA's Chief of Global Football Development, Arsène Wenger, these trends were a consequence of how teams defended at this competition.

“It can be linked to better quality chances or finishing, but in this competition we have also seen how many teams defended in compact blocks, so the centre of the pitch was closed and difficult to play through. 

“Also, there were more conversions from crosses. They are more difficult to defend than from the centre. The centre of the pitch was blocked so it's important today to have players who are efficient on crosses or on the second ball of the cross,” he explained.   

Further analysis into this increase in the efficiency of Number 9s also indicated changes in the overall role of the Number 9, such as:

  • Number 9s were less involved in build-up play and creating chances than in 2018, providing fewer key passes, assists and distributions per 90 minutes 
  • Defensively, Number 9s pressed more frequently, but less aggressively, performing fewer defensive events  
  • Teams used different types of Number 9s, each playing a different specialist role
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For this analysis, Number 9s were defined as follows:                                   

  • Players who played as a lone striker, or as part of a front two, for at least 90 minutes over the course of the tournament

  • Any games where these players did not play in the Number 9 position were excluded from the sample

  • The definition includes both traditional centre-forwards, such as Olivier Giroud (France), and wide players or attacking midfielders playing in the "false 9" role, like Mohammed Salah (in the 2018 World Cup) and Thomas Müller (in the 2022 World Cup).

During FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™, a total of 62 players were identified as having played more than 90 minutes in the Number 9/centre-forward position, with a total of 13,818 minutes played across the tournament. 

This compares to a total of 60 players playing in this role in 2018, with a total of 14,903 minutes played.

GOAL-SCORING EFFICIENCY

Most notable, however, is the contribution of the Number 9 to goal-scoring, where there was an increase of 24% in goals scored by Number 9s per 90 minutes compared to 2018.

Although Number 9s in 2022 had 15% fewer attempts at goal compared to 2018, the chances created in Qatar were of higher value. On average, attempts at goal were two metres closer to the goal than they were in Russia. There was also a 4% increase in attempts at goal from inside the penalty area compared to 2018.

Being less involved in linking play and creating chances for others allowed Number 9s to occupy dangerous areas more frequently and be closer to goal for their opportunities to score. 

Being centrally located and in the penalty area is exactly where the experienced Number 9 wants to be. Of the Number 9s who played in both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, Croatia’s Andrej Kramarić is the only player whose average attempt at goal location was outside the penalty area in both competitions. 

Movement types

According to Arsène Wenger, “The model Number 9 can exploit the space between the centre-backs. Their experience and ability to use every bad position of the centre-back to their advantage is crucial. 

“Where some players might make many runs right and left, the more experienced player might wait until they see the opportunity where they can take advantage of a wrong position of a centre-back.

“It is also crucial that they can score with limited touches of the ball. If they need more than one or two touches, it is likely that they will not score,” he added.

Examples of different types of movements by Number 9s to exploit space between centre-backs can be seen in the clips below. The videos also show their efficiency, with none of them taking more than two touches to score. 

Clip 1. Cody Gakpo (8) makes an untracked run from out to in before scoring 7m from goal, giving the Netherlands the lead against Senegal.
Clip 2. Portugal centre-forward Gonçalo Ramos (26) drifts to the outside right of Switzerland’s defence before receiving in behind and scoring from 9m.
Clip 3. Brazil centre-forward Richarlison (9) starts outside the penalty area before moving inside, receiving in behind Korea Republic’s defensive line, and scoring from 8m.
Clip 4. Olivier Giroud (9) stays in a central position as France progress the ball into the final third, before making a move to receive in behind Poland’s defensive line.

FOCUS ON FINISHING

Along with an increase in goal-scoring efficiency by Number 9s, there was also a shift in their contribution to build-up play and in creating opportunities for other players.  

When we compared the attacking output of the Number 9s that played both in 2018 and in 2022, we found that they made a total of 131 key passes in Qatar, compared to 160 at the previous tournament. A small drop in the number of assists made by Number 9s was also recorded, with 15 in 2022 compared to 19 in 2018.

RECEIVING LOCATIONS

The profile and location of how and where Number 9s/centre-forwards offered to receive and received the ball changed in 2022 compared to 2018.

In 2022, Number 9s were more committed to remaining in central parts of the pitch and were less prevalent in wide areas. This is evident in a 31.3% decrease in crosses delivered by Number 9s per 90 minutes. Instead, they were more efficient at scoring from crosses.  

Offers to receive by Number 9s occurred closer to their own goal in 2022 than in 2018 with a high concentration of increases registered in the middle third of the pitch. 

In addition, actual receptions of the ball occurred less often in the wide attacking channels compared to 2018. By contrast, receptions of the ball in behind by Number 9s increased significantly (57%) in the central, most dangerous, channel in front of the opponent’s penalty area and decreased in the wide channels.

Receptions in between the lines

Because of the frequent use of defensive mid-blocks in this tournament, receptions by Number 9s in between the lines tended to be well marshalled, with limited space available due to the compactness of the blocks.

As a result, when centre-forwards dropped in to receive, they were often forced to play the ball backwards. It also meant that subsequent balls in behind led to the delayed arrival of the Number 9 into the penalty area, due to their having to start their forward runs from a deeper position.

As demonstrated in the clips below, teams with pacy wide forwards sometimes used the Number 9 tactically to drop in to receive between the lines. When the centre-forward dropped deep in these situations, the team would then play a quick ball in behind, into the channels where wide forwards or wingers would progress the ball.

Clip 5. In their group-stage match against Germany, Spain centre-forward Marco Asensio (10) drops in deep to receive between the lines. This leads to his team-mate playing a ball over the top of Germany’s defensive line to release left-wide forward Dani Olmo (21) in behind. Olmo is supported by attacking runs from right-wide forward Ferran Torres (11) and attacking midfielder Gavi (9).
Clip 6. In their group-stage match against Iran, England centre-forward Harry Kane (9) offers and receives between the lines as he combines with wide forward Raheem Sterling (10).

Receptions in behind the defensive line

At the 2022 World Cup, offers in behind by Number 9s increased by 10.53% compared to 2018, from 23.94 per 90 minutes to 26.46 per 90 minutes. 

With many defending teams employing mid-blocks, higher defensive lines were held when the defenders were in the mid-block phase. This meant that the attackers' initial access to space in behind the defence was further from the goal than in Russia 2018.   

From a technical and tactical point of view, centre-forwards receiving the ball in behind in this area meant there was no structured defence to contend with (see also Figure 4 above).

Key to the ability to exploit and access this space was timing. The centre-forward had to operate in synergy with the players in possession of the ball to ensure the run in behind and execution of the pass were aligned. They had to understand and correctly anticipate whether the ball would be played on the first, second or third pass. 

As demonstrated in the clips below, Morocco centre-forward Youssef En Nesyri made a perfectly-timed arced run to split the two Canadian centre-backs and receive Hakimi’s forward pass in behind.  

Team-mates of the centre-forward can make decoy attacking runs in behind to drag defenders deep. This movement pushes the defensive line back, which can give the centre-forward an extra yard on the centre-backs and make it less likely they will be caught offside. 

An example of this can be seen below as Belgium's Yannick Carrasco (11), in the wide left position, makes a movement in behind, dragging Canada wing-back Richie Laryea (22) deeper than his defensive line. This facilitates the early run on the centre-backs from Michy Batshuayi (23).

On the transition to attack, deeper centre-forwards can accelerate into the space separating them from the opposition’s defensive line. This helps them to bypass static defenders at speed as the ball is played forward, giving them a significant advantage in behind. A great example of this synergy can be seen as Cameroon’s Aboubakar (10) and Choupo-Moting (13) combine to score from a counter-attack against Serbia.

Clip 7. Belgium centre-forward Michy Batshuayi (23) remains central and times his movements perfectly, thus ensuring he is onside to receive Toby Alderweireld’s (2) pass in behind the defence.
Clip 8. Morocco centre-forward Youssef En Nesyri (19) makes an arced run to split the two Canadian centre-backs, allowing him to receive in behind and centrally from Hakimi’s perfectly weighted pass forward.
Clip 9. On Cameroon’s transition to attack, Aboubakar (10) and Choupo-Moting (13) remain central but make clever runs on the outside of Serbia’s two recovering centre-backs. They combine excellently to score a great counter-attacking goal.

DEFENSIVE EVENTS

When their teams were out of possession, there also appears to have been a decline in high-intensity pressing and counter-pressing responsibilities for Number 9s at Qatar 2022, as compared to the 2018 World Cup.

Despite there being an increase in the defensive pressure applied by Number 9s in 2022 (38 per 90 mins versus 32 per 90 minutes) compared to 2018, there was a decrease in direct pressure applied and an increase in indirect pressure. There was also an overall decrease in the number of defensive actions performed by Number 9s per 90 minutes, from 4.5 per 90 minutes in 2018 to 3.6 per 90 minutes in 2022.

When a team is in a block, the centre-forward (or other forward players) can apply pre-orchestrated, indirect pressure to their opponent's possession to dictate where the next pass can go. This can force the players in possession to play passes that can be anticipated and intercepted. 

As we see in the clips below, the application of indirect pressure by the centre-forward from defensive blocks (low/mid/high) can be an extremely effective way of winning back possession.

Clip 10. France centre-forward (9) Olivier Giroud pushes on from his team's low block, applying indirect pressure to force the ball back to Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez.
Clip 11. Croatia Number 9 Andrej Kramarić applies indirect pressure from a mid-block, cutting off passing options and forcing a central pass, which is intercepted.
Clip 12. Starting in a high-block, Morocco centre-forward Youssef En Nesryi (19) proceeds to apply indirect pressure as Canada start to build up from their goalkeeper, eventually forcing a long pass which results in a turnover in possession.

The case of Olivier Giroud

An interesting shift in the role of the Number 9 in 2022 compared to 2018 can be seen in the case of France centre-forward Olivier Giroud.

In 2018, Giroud had 15 attempts at goal, with 11 of them coming from inside the penalty area, but scored no goals and had no attempts on target.

In 2022, Giroud again had 15 attempts at goal, all from inside the penalty area. Of these, six were on target, and he scored four goals, resulting in him claiming the adidas Bronze Ball. His attempts at goal were made under less pressure than in 2018, which correlates with the data showing that centre-forwards were able to exploit the space between centre-backs.

One standout statistic tells us that in 2022, 47% of Giroud’s attempts at goal came from crosses, compared to 20% in 2018. Moreover, in 2022, he performed 0.00 crosses per 90 minutes, compared to 0.31 per 90 minutes in 2018.

He also conformed to the tournament trend of creating less for team-mates, recording 11.99 passes per 90 minutes in Qatar compared to 15.01 in Russia. Positionally, he also aligned with the trend of Number 9s operating in more central areas in 2022, with a significant reduction in receptions of the ball in wide areas compared to 2018. 

Appendix

Summary

  • The role of the Number 9 changed during FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™, reverting to a more traditional approach than the "false 9" role that has evolved over recent years. The frequent use by defending teams of compact blocks, and particularly mid-blocks, meant the space in between the lines where false 9’s thrived was eliminated, or at least became much more difficult to access. 
  • As a result, attacking teams often used the wide areas either side of the blocks to progress the ball and access the final third, resulting in Number 9s scoring more goals from crosses. 
  • In 2022, Number 9s became more focused on goal-scoring, with an increase in goals scored of 12% compared with 2018, despite their having 56 fewer attempts at goal between them. 
  • Their goal-scoring efficiency increased because they tended to remain in central positions, creating higher value chances a result of being an average of two metres closer to goal when making attempts at goal. 
  • In the 2022 tournament, Number 9s delivered 41% of their attempts at goal on target, compared to 36% in 2018, and they often finished those chances with a maximum of two touches. At the same time, their contribution to creating chances for others decreased, as they made 18% fewer key passes.
  • Out of possession Number 9s applied more pressure compared to 2018, however there was a decrease in direct pressure applied and a decrease in the number of overall defensive actions performed by Number 9s. 
  • In conclusion, it can be said that 2022 marked the year when Number 9s reverted to being finishers as opposed to creators.

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