The Number 9 And The Europa League: A Love Story

GELSENKIRCHEN, GERMANY - MARCH 24: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar of Schalke celebrates with teammates Raul, Marco Hoeger, Jefferson Farfan and Christian Fuchs after scoring his team's second goal during the Bundesliga match between FC Schalke 04 and Bayer 04 Leverkusen at Veltins Arena on March 24, 2012 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Bongarts/Getty Images)

English football may have fallen out with the big man up front; it may have fallen out of love with the Europa League. But I haven't.

If you were asked to reduce a nation’s footballing style to a single number, (notice the subjunctive, I really can’t see how this topic would come up, but you’ve got to start somewhere) how would you do it?

Some, like Holland, are easy. They are 14. The Netherlands side that somehow failed to win the 1974 World Cup wore numbers assigned alphabetically; apart from Johann Cruyff, who wore his lucky 14. This shows his unique importance to that team (and his famous arrogance too, of course), but there is something wonderful about the progenitors of Total Football finding their representation in a number outside the traditional range of 1-11 and its traditional positional associations.

Other nations, though, are trickier. Maybe you could give Brazil the 10, for Pele. But then Argentina have their own legendary number 10 (the two, apparently, don’t get on) and there the number has become a word: enganche.

It’s a word in Italy too, where they talk of the trequartista, sometimes fantasista. Manifest in Roberto Baggio, or Alessandro del Piero, this classic number 10 is the counterpart of the regista: a deep-lying playmaker, like Andrea Pirlo. While the regista’s Argentinean equivalent el 5 will always wear the number, well, 5, in Italy this is more flexible; Pirlo himself wears 21.

Which shows, probably, that this is all getting a little tenuous. So let’s go to England, where everything is straightforward, and look at the cult of the number 9.

Both word and number, the centre-forward is an iconic figure in English football. A symbol, indeed, for English football, the number 9 is the pachydermatous embodiment of the ‘they don’t like it up ‘em’ principle. 12th most expensive signing of all time Andy Carroll aside, though, when was the last time England produced a decent one?

The answer, arguments over Emile Heskey being ‘under-appreciated’ and Kevin Davies and Bobby Zamora having ‘deserved more chances’ notwithstanding, is ages ago. Punditry’s Alan Shearer, in fact, was probably the last great one. For that reason, the belligerently defended home of football has fallen out of love with its greatest representative.

Which is not to say that there aren't great number 9s doing the rounds. There really are. Edinson Cavani (alright, he wears number 7 – the holy number, coincidentally) combines luscious good looks, lustrous hair with an all-action fighting style while leading the line for Napoli (it strikes me, reading that description back, that Cavani is the exact opposite of Carroll; which means, if Cavani’s holy…). Radamel Falcao, now at Atletico Madrid, did a superb turn in the Zamora role in last season’s Europa League – out-Bobbying Bobby, who was superb for Fulham the season before, with a magnificent 17 goals.

The Europa League, in fact, as my seemingly unnecessary reference to a Queens Park Rangers striker suggests, is a tournament often graced (or rather decimated, given the nature of the beast) by thunderously thighed goal-getters with targets for foreheads. Luca Toni, Pavel Pogrebnyak and Vagner Love have also finished as top goalscorers in recent years. Who is top goalscorer this year, you ask? Well I'm glad you did.

That’s right! Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is the top-scorer in this season’s Europa League. He is just now, anyway. His remaining there probably depends on Schalke’s ability to overturn Athletic Bilbao’s first leg lead as Fernando Llorente has him well within range (it’s currently 9-6 to the Dutchman).

Last night’s first leg probably didn’t showcase Huntelaar’s abilities as well as 40 goals in 38 games, but he did nearly score a cracking equaliser, volleying onto the post from the outside of the box and was instrumental in creating the space from which his strike partner, Raul, scored a neat double (plus, he broke his face scoring against England last month). Llorente, though, despite looking a bit tired, was magnificent again. Although neither came close to matching his superb first-time volley against Manchester United in the previous round, Llorente’s two goals from precisely one and a half chances (he made the second goal a chance himself with a deft push in the defender’s back, which he disguised, brilliantly, as part of his own leap) for an outplayed team, distinguished him as, in this commentator’s opinion, the Europa League’s outstanding centre-forward.

Yes, it is a second tier competition and maybe the final stages of the Champions League, (Mario Gomez excepted, although you have to fear that he’ll get found out eventually) domain of the slippery-toed goal imps and Zlatan would be hostile to the number 9 and his straightforward ways. For this reason, the lack of appreciable big men in the upper reaches of English football (again, ignoring the gorgie cash cow - sorry, that is cruel, he's not of bovine proportions, yet) and the lack of English sides in the latter stages seem, anecdotally, linked. Both, it seems to me, indicate the essential joylessness of middle-class Premier League existence. Yes, the Big Man may not contribute much to the prozone mobility stats - but he's fun! And no, Europa League doesn't do much for the coffers - but what else are we going to do on a Thursday night?

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