These days, you don’t have to watch Cesc Fabregas leading the line in the red of Spain to see a ‘false nine’ in action. Once something of a fringe tactical movement popularised by La Roja during their period of dominance over the international scene, these days it is a role as recognised and accepted in the mainstream is that of the wing-back and the ‘number ten’.
See Roberto Firmino at Liverpool. Leandro Trossard, meanwhile, grabbed a hat-trick of assists from that position during Arsenal’s 3-0 thumping of Fulham on Sunday.
But the ‘false nine’ is one thing. A ‘wide nine’ is, by contrast, a far more alien concept.
Cedric Itten joined Rangers in a £3 million deal from St Gallen during the summer of 2020 as a centre-forward. Then-Ibrox boss Steven Gerrard, however, felt that the Swiss international’s height and physicality could be utilised effectively not through the middle but in a wider role.
“We wanted him to play as a ‘right nine’,” Gerrard told The National as Itten started alongside Kemar Roofe during a 2-0 triumph over Kilmarnock three-and-a-half years ago.
“We knew the left-back was really small and we knew we were going to get into certain areas and get it wide to Borna (Barisic).
“(Itten) is not a right-sided player for sure. He is a number nine. But with work and with time, I think he and Roofe can strike up a really nice partnership.”
Can Petar Ratkov be Rangers’ new Cedric Itten
Given that Mick Beale is so often referred to as the tactical ‘brains’ behind the Gerrard operation, it is no stretch to suggest that Itten’s rather unique deployment was an idea hatched by the man currently in the Gers dugout.
And it’s a role one of Rangers reported summer targets – Serbia U21 ace Petar Ratkov – could perform with aplomb. At 6ft 4, Ratkov is actually two inches taller than Itten. He too has been used in a wider role at times. Thereby handing Ratkov the freedom to start from deep while making late runs into the penalty area.
Ratkov, who has eight goals for Serbian side FC TSC this season, may look like a traditional targetman on paper. Watch him in action, however, and you will see a player who appears to be at his most effective when dropping off the front, drifting wide while using his acceleration to bend those runs in behind opposition backlines.
Beale admitted a few weeks back that he wants a new striker at Rangers. One who’d bring something ‘different’ to Ibrox. Ratkov certainly ticks that box a bright red magic marker. Not since Itten have Rangers had a centre-forward with that intriguing combination of physicality and versatility.
“Ratkov is playing well,” TSC president Janos Zemberi explains, while suggesting that offers of over £2 million may be considered. “We are waiting for the summer transfer window because we believe that his price will increase further. Again, I come back to patience. You have to wait.
“Another player should be signed in his place. We must have projects like Petar. If you’re only chasing results, then young players won’t have the patience, and we wouldn’t be able to make money either.”
Itten’s Ibrox career was, in the end, scuppered by illness and inconsistency. We will never know if he would have perfected that ‘wide nine’ role under Gerrard. But could Ratkov pick up where Itten left off?