Do you really need a number 9?
When recruiting new players, the first thing that comes to our mind is usually their position. When we try to articulate what players we are looking for, it’s natural to think along the lines of “we need a striker who can drop deep” or “we are looking for a fullback who is great at overlapping ” and try to scout for players who are already doing those things.
But that’s not always the best approach. Many of the best players in the world used to play completely different roles from what they do currently. Instead of using data to assess tactical and positional instructions, such as whether a striker drops deep, we should be using data to assess skills that can be applied in a variety of positions, such as creativity or an ability to keep possession.
The textbook example of this is Roberto Firmino. Firmino started his European career at Hoffenheim, playing as a number 10. He was not your classic number 10; he was able to shoot, defensively disciplined, and provided a lot of mobility in midfield, but nevertheless his position was attacking midfielder. Liverpool, who had been looking for a striker following Suárez’s departure and sturridge’s injury troubles, found in Firmino a good option who quite literally established himself as their first-choice number 9 – after wearing the 10 jersey during his time at Hoffenheim, Firmino now wears number 9 for Liverpool.
Firmino wasn’t a fluke; two years later, Liverpool found their ideal central midfield recruit in promising winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. If Liverpool had restricted themselves to signing strikers to play as strikers, or midfielders to play as midfielders, they would have missed out on key players. Instead, they chose to identify a specific set of physical and technical attributes they were looking for, and found their ideal players playing in different positions.
This can also happen internally within clubs. Both Joshua Kimmich, at Bayern Munich, and Sergi Roberto, at Barcelona, were originally central midfielders from their respective academies. However, both of them have evolved over the past couple of seasons and are now the starting right backs for their clubs. Kimmich even played as a centre back for a while before eventually landing on the right back position. Instead of potentially spending millions on replacements for Philipp Lahm and Dani Alves, these clubs reaped the benefits from adapting young players with a diverse skillset to play a different position.
It pays off not to pigeonhole young players or potential signings into specific roles. It can be tempting to get bogged down in the details of the role a player is currently playing, but as some of the best clubs in the world have shown, players can frequently adapt to new roles. What we should be looking for in the data and in scouting are the specific technical attributes we want in our new signing (shooting ability, creativity, defensive work rate, tidiness in possession). In other words, we should be signing the best players for the job, not the players who already have the job.