The scene-setter came courtesy of Diego Costa. It often does. A man who can be the barometer of any occasion set the tone for a tournament in idiosyncratic fashion. He played for a tiki-taka team and scored a Jose Mourinho goal, marrying a clinical streak with touches of world-class bastardry.
He accepted Sergio Busquets’ long, Cesc Fabregas-style pass, bundled into and barged past Pepe, drove forward and dispatched a shot beyond Rui Patricio. Thanks to the unapologetic directness of a battering ram, it finished Portugal 3 Spain 3 on the second day of the World Cup. Costa struck twice. Forget the 2012 Spain, though; his first was the 2015 Chelsea.
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There was something symbolic about it. Spain had become the spiritual home of the false nine in recent years, thanks in part to Pep Guardiola. Costa had felt a mismatch with his adopted national team: unable to score in the 2014 World Cup, unable to make the Euro 2016 squad.
He is now spearheading both the side and the revival of the traditional No. 9. It would be an exaggeration to say the false nine had rendered him an endangered species, but the old-fashioned striker is back with a vengeance and not just because vengeance is one of Costa’s hobbies. He may not have scored against Morocco, but acted as the focal point – and pivot – for the attack that led to Isco's goal and already has three goals to his name in any case. He is one behind Romelu Lukaku, who is waging a battle for the Golden Boot with Harry Kane (five). Their rivals also include Cristiano Ronaldo (four), who has long had a striker’s selfish mentality, if not always status as the furthest man forward.
The convergence of specialist scorers, most out-and-out centre-forwards, shows a change from the last World Cup. Then, only one of the five most prolific players was a striker and he, Robin van Persie, had been, to use Arsene Wenger’s phrase, “a nine-and-a-half”. Only two of the top 10 were real No. 9s.
Perhaps, like everything, this is cyclical. Kane and Lukaku feel at the peak of their powers now. Had both gone down injured a month ago, the picture may have looked very different. And yet it feels part of a broader tactical trend. Russia’s towering target man Artem Dzyuba can be found on the leaderboard of the top scorers. Germany manager Joachim Low had a dalliance with false nines but he began this tournament with a genuine striker, in Timo Werner. When elimination beckoned against Sweden, he sent on still more of an archetypal, 20th-century forward, in Mario Gomez, and his nuisance value was a reason why Marco Reus equalised. The creative, slight Mesut Ozil remained unused on the bench.
France began the World Cup with supposedly fluent, fearsome front three, a high-minded concept that did not really work for them. They recalled Olivier Giroud to do what Giroud does: win headers, lead the line, act as the selfless foil to the flair players behind him.
Some might say that football has regressed. Forget the technical, the physical is back. Instead of the idealistic pursuit of a side where everyone is a midfielder in skillset and upbringing, the dinosaurs are roaming the earth again, taking their inspiration from Costa’s ever-present snarl and jutting elbows.
Yet it may in part be because of the game’s evolution. The introduction of VAR has brought an increase in spot kicks. It is getting harder to deal with a big bloke in the box. Now a penalty-area presence can produce more penalties. Wrestle and grapple with Kane at your peril; unless you are a Tunisian defender, anyway. Foul a false nine when he drops deeper and the punishment is lesser. The striker can also expand a game, not compress it, with his age-old duties of dragging a defence deeper to create space for the assorted attacking midfielders, wingers and No. 10s who roam around in his slipstream.

Harry Kane of England and Yassine Meriah of Tunisia

Image credit: Getty Images

Which helps explain the fate of arguably the two finest false nines operating in club football. Roberto Firmino and Dries Mertens have both played their parts, the Brazilian helping set up Philippe Coutinho’s opener against Costa Rica and the Belgian breaking the deadlock against Panama in spectacular style. But it was notable that when the Liverpool man was introduced on Friday, it was to join Gabriel Jesus, not replace him. The Napoli top scorer operates off Lukaku, not instead of him.
Unable to recruit, international managers can veer towards pragmatism. Able to shape their squads and granted more time on the training ground, their club counterparts are more able to indulge in idealistic experiments. And there can be little doubt the false nine is a more complicated concept to coach. When said false nine is Nandor Hidegkuti, for Hungary in the 1950s, or Lionel Messi for Barcelona in the last decade, it feels a revolutionary development featuring a prolific player. When the false nine was Jorge Valdivia, something of a cult hero in Marcelo Bielsa and Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile sides but a player whose 79 international appearances produced just seven goals, then it creates a reliance on others to score. It necessitates an understanding many international sides do not possess.
In contrast, there is a certain simplicity to a scoring striker powering his way to goal, Costa-style, or blasting in penalties, like Kane. There is something comfortingly familiar in the tall, forceful No. 9, just as there is something uncomfortable about facing him. And not just because he is Diego Costa.
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