There was once a time not too long ago that having a dynamic, lumbering striker was almost necessary for success. The likes of Fernando Torres, Carlos Tevez and Robin Van Persie were some of the most prolific goal scorers on the planet in most of the decade spanning from 2000 until 2010.
Since then, however, things have changed. While many of the world’s best clubs still deploy traditional strikers, others have opted for a strikerless attack. In the 2018 FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Manchester United, Blues boss Antonio Conte opted to deploy a starting XI sans a traditional striker. With Alvaro Morata on the bench, Conte chose to play winger Eden Hazard as a de-facto “striker” instead. The Belgian would go on to score the game’s lone goal in the 1-0 victory.
Football bettors have to find the right strategy when it comes to handicapping upcoming matchups. If one team plays at a slower pace with a traditional striker and they’re opposed by a team employing the false 9 strategy, the potential clash in styles is particularly noteworthy. It’s just one more thing to consider when analyzing an upcoming match.
The concept of playing without a standard striker is rather simple. Rather than having a player up top to hold up play and work as an anchor in front of goal, Conte played Hazard as a false 9. While he may find himself in the centre of the park on occasion, he has the freedom to go out wide if need be. Other wingers, such as Willian or Pedro, may find themselves in the middle with Hazard flanked out on either side. It’s a matter of players interchanging positions regularly depending on the flow of the game.
A striker like Morata doesn’t necessarily have the pace of a winger like Hazard or Willian. Without Morata on the pitch, Chelsea was able to play at a quicker tempo and deploy the counterattack more effectively. The ball moves left-to-right across the pitcher rather than straight down the middle through a central striker.
This tactic allows the manager to use the pace of his forwards and exploit channels left vacant by the opposing defense.
Chelsea are an example of a team that will occasionally deploy the striker-free lineup, but Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool play without a traditional striker at almost all times. Since Klopp came to Merseyside in late 2015, the team has struggled to integrate plodding strikers like Christian Benteke, Divock Origi and the oft-injured Daniel Sturridge.
Liverpool play what looks like a fairly standard 4-3-3 formation. Instead of a slow-footed striker playing up top in the middle, though, Klopp almost always plugs Roberto Firmino, a traditional attacking midfielder, into that spot.
The results have been devastating, with Liverpool currently arguably boasting Europe’s most frightening attack. With Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah leading the charge, the Reds score goals by the boatload and certainly haven’t missed someone like Benteke clogging things up in the middle.
Rather than having players occupy traditional positions, Klopp’s fluid tactics make it so that the attacking players can run essentially wherever they want, which makes marking an additional challenge for defenders trying to figure out where the ball will go next.
Klopp’s insistence on playing a high-pressure defensive style also works hand-in-hand with his strikerless formation. The “Gegenpress,” as it’s known, involves players instantly pressing hard after losing possession of the ball. This often results in forcing turnovers high up the pitch, which leads to quick counters and goal scoring opportunities. Klopp’s side is the best in the world at this.
While traditional strikers still have their place in the game, it’s easy to see why the false 9 style is in vogue currently. Some of the most successful clubs in the world this past season utilized the tactic exceptionally. Football is a copycat sport, so it’s safe to assume we’ll see more and more teams opting to ditch the lumbering striker in favor of a high-octane, high-pace midfield-laden attack.