How a shortage of elite strikers is shaping the summer transfer market

When Manchester United realised they were going to miss out on signing Darwin Nunez, they didn’t immediately move on to their next target. They couldn’t. There are not many similar players available right now, so the current feeling is that it’s better to wait. RB Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku will be on the market next summer, and most of football is waiting to see what Reims’ Hugo Ekitike decides.

The problem for anyone interested in either, though, is that there is going to be an awful lot of competition. That’s how precious No 9s have become.

It has already been a theme of this summer, set off by Liverpool signing Nunez and Manchester City buying Erling Haaland. Almost everyone, from City and Arsenal to Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona, went into this window looking for a central frontman. Tottenham Hotspur are among the few clubs that didn’t because they have got a rare commodity in Harry Kane.

It gives England an advantage at this World Cup too because the landscape in international football is inevitably similar. So many top teams would like a No 9 but are having to improvise. Spain are persisting with the erratic Alvaro Morata. The Netherlands are using Wout Weghorst. Hansi Flick is considering a wild-card choice in Simon Terodde, a 34-year-old who has spent the majority of his career in Germany’s second tier. That is also where he has done most of his scoring, to get Schalke promoted.

It is a theme of the summer, then, but also a contradiction of modern football. Everyone wants a No 9, since there’s still nothing like just being able to put the ball in the back of the net, but few of the academies are really producing them.

There’s an increasing argument that academies don’t know how to produce them, because of how specialised the position is. Most now come about by “natural talent” or “accident”.

“There are very few strikers in football,” one figure who works at the top of the game says, “and they’re dwindling annually.”

Even Nunez became an £85m signing after just one season of scoring in Portugal.

Many in football put it down to the “post-Pep era”. That isn’t to blame Guardiola or even say that most managers are trying to follow him in playing more midfielders. It is rather an unintended consequence of the immense influence the Catalan has had on the sport, particularly as regards possession and pressing.

It has created a coaching world, spreading well beyond Europe, where there is a conveyor belt of technically proficient players. The vast majority of youth graduates have all mastered the basics of technique and positioning, which in turn means the majority of players being produced are midfielders and – depending on athleticism – inverted wingers and full-backs.

That has had the added effect of underage games where more of the game-time is spent outside the box, the ball being circulated and rolled around.

Some liken it to “perfect laboratory conditions”, but these aren’t the conditions required to create No 9s. That is because the position remains so distinctive, arguably even more so since forwards have been asked to do more in general play.

Its most necessary attributes remain “instinct, movement and finishing” and all are more dependent on matchplay for development than any other position. Quite simply, No 9s need to be getting balls off the back of defenders, as well as getting into the box and learning how to both fashion and finish opportunities. These are aspects that aren’t as easy to hone when so much of their training and academy games involve operating as something closer to “inverted No 10s”. One Premier League manager recently complained that a young striker he really admired had absolutely no heading ability because he’d never really had to do it at youth level.

It isn’t quite a “lost art”, but it’s something that an increasing number of football figures involved in the area are wondering about and seeking to rediscover.

“Bring me a centre-forward” is one of the most common calls in executive offices, from underage level to the first team. It’s just that they are almost dependent on those with the pure natural talent for the position to develop independently.

When academy figures talk about the next generation in England, there are only a few names standing out. Among them are Chelsea’s Ronnie Stutter, West Ham United’s Sonny Perkins, Crystal Palace’s Zach Marsh, Rangers’ Rory Wilson – who is set to go to Aston Villa – and City’s Liam Delap.

It’s still a group of only 10 or so, though, when most scouts and coaches would really want a generation of around 30-40.

It begs the question of how clubs and federations intend to solve the problem and – more deeply – how you create modern No 9s.

Norwich City recently attempted an experiment where their academy teams consistently played 4-4-2, so that there would always be two strikers on the pitch, and a minimum number would develop in each age group. It didn’t work out, though, with one of a few reasons being that nobody now plays 4-4-2. As such, it just didn’t fit.

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