For the many ways that football has evolved, Robert Lewandowski has helped to rekindle the role of the classic number nine on the world stage.
It has been an exceptional 2020 for the man awarded the title of Men's Star of the Year by the editorial staff of Eurosport. Lewandowski has shown that the role of the number nine in football is far from obsolete. Shunned for years in individual awards with the sport having seemingly moved on, appreciation for traditional centre forwards has enjoyed a resurgence thanks to the success of the Bayern Munich star.
"There are fewer and fewer real number nines," came the scathing observation from Jean-Pierre Papin, the former Marseille striker and 1991 Ballon d'Or winner. The pure centre forward has largely been off the radar for years at the highest level. On the pitch, but also in the end-of-year awards. But this endangered species has, for the last few years, had a leader to guide it in this quest for survival. This year, Lewandowski has even shown that he has the talent to take the position to a new level.
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The time when number nines were the stars of the football world was not too long ago. Barely 20 years ago, their performances were the highlights of the weekends. The jerseys of cherished number nines were torn off the racks in the shops and worn proudly in the stands. Times have changed since then. You only have to look at the winners of the Ballon d'Or or the FIFA Player of the Year awards to see how number sevens and number 10s took the spoils.
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No centre forward has been crowned the world's best since Andriy Shevchenko won the Ballon d'Or back in 2004. Worse still, there has not been a single top striker on the podium since 2008. Papin explains that, "it's a fashion and a phenomenon. Now, few teams rely solely on a single goalscorer. We prefer to have two or three strikers capable of scoring goals. There are now no centre forwards who do just that. Football does not want to be dependent on one person any longer."
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Victims of the evolution of the game
Football is changing. The centre forward has had to adapt to the possession game that has become the benchmark of the football world for many seasons now. The strikers who used to dominate at the Ballon d'Or, such as Marco Van Basten (1988, 1989, 1992), Jean-Pierre Papin (1991), George Weah (1995), Ronaldo (1997, 2002), Michael Owen (2001) and Andriy Shevchenko (2004) were recognised a long time ago.
While Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo - far from being pure strikers in the truest sense of the term - have made their marks on the world of football, the centre forwards have been waiting for their time to return. And in the meantime have had to become more team players. "There has been a great evolution of the game in recent years," explains Bernard Lacombe, the former goalscorer for Lyon and Bordeaux in the '70s and '80s. "The players in the profile of former strikers I remember are rarer. The attackers must now participate more in the game. They must make more effort for the collective unit. When I see, for example, all the work put in by Karim Benzema at Real Madrid or Alexandre Lacazette at Arsenal, it is tiring. After all that work, they can lose the necessary touch and feel in front of goal. All those little details are so important."
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'Football will evolve once again'
In defiance of this current climate for strikers, Lewandowski has found his place at the very top of the game. Admittedly, the Pole is not simply a goalscorer: he is much more than that. Complete and technically superb, he participates in the overall build-up play for Bayern and also the pressing when the other team have the ball. "In the philosophy of Bayern, there is not a player who waits to be given the ball," Papin said. "He is part of a system where he must defend and attack."
Thanks to his agility, physique and lethal efficiency, the elegant Bayern Munich striker particularly shines in front of goal. He boasts five Bundesliga top scorer titles over the last seven seasons. In a system in Bavaria which plays to his strengths he has thrived. "In his positioning, in his movement, he is the real goalscorer. He is always well placed," said Lacombe, a connoisseur of the subject having scored 255 goals in 497 top-flight matches. Papin added: "When the ball arrives, he is there. It cannot be taught, he just has the gift."
With his track record it is abundantly clear, Lewandowski has put the role of the number nine back at the very heart of the game. The former Borussia Dortmund star has reminded everyone that number nines still have their place at the pinnacle of the sport and in the spotlight. "We will come back to this one day and football will evolve once again," Papin concluded.
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