Does a team need a nine? This is the grating question which does not need to be repeated in the context of Spanish football. The emergence and popularization of the false nine has forced us to reconsider our perception of football as a whole. For some in Spain, the loss of a centre forward is only slight in their overall conceptualization of team building, forgetting that the former is as tactically natural a role as there is, a role which has infinite design and influence on the game. Well, with the sale of Gonzalo Higuain, the fans of Real Madrid are left to ponder this question.
Of course, Ancelotti may not play with a false nine, at least not with anyone the people qualify as such. Despite frequently operating there for Mourinho, and having more qualities necessary than many who operate in this role, Benzema has never been seen as a false nine. Beyond that, there are two salient questions. Are Benzema, Morata and Jese good enough to fill the role of playing alongside Cristiano Ronaldo? Secondly, can it be any other player in the squad?
The obvious answer to the latter question is Cristiano Ronaldo. His qualities are that of any great centre forward; pace, power, strength, a poacher’s instinct and a relentless mentality, would allow him to be without doubt, the best nine in the world. This would not make him a better player than he currently is, but would add clarity to his role as primary scorer on the pitch and erase the structural difficulties of having a winger who takes 500 shots a season. However, the point is that he does not want to be a nine. From his eagerness to change and rid himself of the number off his back, to him telling Carlos Quieroz as much at the South African World Cup when Hugo Almeida was subbed off for Danny, to his public reiteration of this point every time Mourinho classified this as his best position.
If one of the best players in the world does not want to play a certain position, no intelligent tactician will try to force himself into that role, particularly if that player is as temperamental as Cristiano. Similarly, we know Ancelotti was not able to convince Pato of the reverse, or more likely did not care to force any player into a role in which they cannot conceptualize themselves. Not that Pato is Cristiano, obviously. However, the point still stands, Ronaldo is not an option.
However an intermediate design, acceptable to Ronaldo, may exist. He could play alongside another forward, one who is not necessarily “central”. They would both enjoy space and mobility as a result of the other’s presence, making them difficult to mark for the compact central defences Ronaldo looks to avoid at all costs. Beyond the three candidates available, there is no candidate capable of performing this function. Really, this would be the only option if the supposed desire to sign Gareth Bale is completed. It is the only way to find meaning in the recruitment of the Welshman.
Bale would offer a mobile forward option, who stretches defences and who can produce spectacular moments of his own. He is also a Carlo player, skilled and direct with a powerful shot. He can be used in a wing aligned version of the role Kaka played for Ancelotti’s Milan. It’s similarly easy to see incongruences in this plan.Without a real centre forward, defences will not be stretched vertically, but rather laterally, meaning that filling central spaces with midfielders will be perfectly viable tactically for those wishing to negate the effect of the two wingers. However, with this move far from being cemented, it is more important to discuss the other options.
So the discussion shifts to Benzema, Morata and Jese. The latter two I see no point in discussing. Jese is a similar player to Bale and in my opinion, his presence makes the chase of Bale inconceivable. However, that is a discussion for another day. Morata is good enough to be a backup forward for many teams, for Madrid, it is still left to be decided. Neither is important or a point of contention, if another forward is bought, Benzema will leave and the role of reserve will fall to these two regardless.
So we arrive at the Frenchman. He should be one of the best players in the world. However, over the four years he has been at Madrid, he has demonstrated that level for only one and a half, and these moments of genius have been equally complimented by moments of absolute futility. When he is on form, Madrid is completely fluid, with his creative ability he is able to play provider for Cristiano, and with his forward mobility he is able to shake defences, linking midfield and attack without distorting the offensive flow. Even in his most deplorable state he remains a player of immense talent, vision and touch, which carries an intrinsic selflessness and intelligence for the game unmatched by another forward in football. However, his time at Madrid seems to have eroded his desire to be the great player he so clearly should be. Rather, he now operates merely as a satellite of Ronaldo, never operating out of his own volition. From that stems a clear inertia in his play, which holds back both himself and the team.
If we judge only by the past, it’s unlikely Benzema will maintain the level of play necessary in a permanent fixture role. Though, Carletto knows the situation better. He probably recognizes Benzema’s talent and the patterns which characterize his peaks and troughs. If so desired, give him the sense of continuity and the touches of the ball which promote his rhythm and activity, which endow him with the confidence necessary to be successful. It would be a great achievement.
The impossibility of convincing Cristiano to be the nine, the aversion to risking everything to Benzema leaves Madrid with two options. They can sign Bale and have him form a strike partnership with Ronaldo or they could sign a nine. Nothing seems decided, this is the least clear aspect of the new Real Madrid, and what they choose will impact them for years to come.