We live in a footballing era where versatility is the name of the game. The evolution of the game has given rise to false nine, inverted wingers, central wingers and advanced playmakers who are not pure strikers, wingers and trequartistas. Goalscorers are not limited to just scoring goals now — they do a lot of work outside the box like dropping back for defensive duties and make intelligent movements in the final third. In such circumstances maybe we fail to appreciate the conventional ones. Perhaps this is the reason why a true number nine like Gonzalo Higuian is sometimes considered unfashionable and disregarded in comparison to his more versatile peers.
Last Sunday the Argentine scored his 24th league goal in as many Serie A appearances this season, as Napoli won 1-0 against lowly Carpi to cement their place at the top of the table. His strike came in the 70th minute as he calmly slotted a spot-kick to give Napoli the lead. Higuain played with urgency, purpose and showed a champion’s level of desire throughout the game. And this has been his story this season for the last seven months — a remarkable change in attitude from previous years where his facial expressions were ranging from a look of anger to one of tremendous annoyance. His psychological fragility has always held him back and affected his displays. The vulnerable outlook of this man is related to decisive misses at vital junctures in his career.
Bad luck or big-game bottler?
He seemed to be a robust yet technically assured Argentine striker when he first arrived on the European scene. He got off to a slow start with Real Madrid with just two goals in his first season in Spain. Gradually he carved out a respectable image for himself but he was never the celebrated one. He wasn’t a big name and never reached the status of Karim Benzema who was a big money arrival in 2009 with him. He faced similar treatment at the international level, where it was almost impossible to shine with Lionel Messi adjacent to him while competing with Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez for his place in the team. It is worth imagining Higuain’s frustration at being so talented, yet always having somebody around who was better than him.
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His move to Napoli gave him the chance to become the absolute leader of the team but his first two years were a showcase of his pent-up hostility. He was signed with a club record fee, and inevitably people in Naples were discussing his potential impact with comparisons to Diego Maradona in the 1980s. It was an uphill task from day one as he tried to live up to the billing but the pressure began to show on the pitch. A string of howlers at decisive moments did not help him either. In the 2014 World Cup final he had all the time and space in the world to score but he fluffed his lines — we all know Germany went on to win the cup that day. On the final day of the season he scored a brace to pull Napoli back against Lazio, but missed a crucial penalty when he should have scored his hat-trick and put his team in the driving seat for the third and final Champions League spot. Napoli lost the game 4-2 and finished in fifth position.
Things went from bad to worse last summer when he missed an injury time sitter in the Copa America final before blazing another spot-kick in the shootout as Argentina lost to Chile. Such incidents would have shattered the confidence of the most talented of careers but Higuain has reacted in the best way possible. When the man who convinced him to come to Italy left for Real Madrid, it was believed Higuain would follow Rafa Benitez out of Naples. But Maurizio Sarri who had just one season of Serie A experience prior to his appointment has unleashed a version of Higuain never seen before. He has not played at this level in his career scoring 24 league goals with 14 games still left to play. His anger has been channelled in a positive manner on the pitch, and he has been simply irresistible in some games.
Elevating an underdog rather than embellishing the establishment
His desire to erase horrible memories from last year and a new diet have been touted as possible reasons for his scintillating form, but it would be naïve to ignore Sarri’s tactical influence. After a poor start to the season Sarri moved from his favoured 4-3-1-2 to 4-3-3 with Higuain upfront alongside two wide players Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon. Napoli have played some of the most beautiful football in Europe and Higuain has not stopped scoring. He is doing justice to the number nine position in the best way possible. Higuain does not have the nimble footwork of Karim Benzema or Sergio Aguero, or the grace and presence of Robert Lewandowski and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Nor is he deft or lightening quick as Luis Suarez and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are. He is a classic number nine and a pretty efficient one.
Comaprison matrix of the best strikers in Europe this season
Of all the strikers mentioned only Ibrahimovic has contributed more assists and goals more chances than Higuian. The Argentina has gone beyond his defender more than any other strikers considered here with Suarez coming close to him. This presents a telling picture of his confident and determined approach where Higuain is more than willing to bear the burden of Napoli’s pressure. It is also worth considering that Higuain is reaching these numbers without a Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Douglas Costa alongside him (with due respect to Insigne and Callejon). While Ibrahimovic may be the most impressive striker statistically, it is important to note that he is part of an expensively assembled Paris St Germain side who are 24 points ahead of second place Monaco. Higuain is facing Serie A defences which, although not as impregnable as they were few decades ago, are still some of the most disciplined and well drilled across Europe. Additionally, Higuian has played more minutes than any of his illustrious striking rivals, appearing in every single one of Napoli’s league fixtures. His consistency across that period has been remarkable.
Stats showing number of take-ons, assists and key passes
Rebuilding his reputation to become Europe’s most wanted striker
There is no doubt that Higuain is the hottest striker in Italy at this moment but the bigger question is whether he is better than anyone else in Europe. Sergio Aguero is a strong candidate to be considered, but injury has once again prevented him from making the impact he would have wanted to have this season. While he has scored 14 goals in 18 games, five of those came in a single match against Newcastle United. Karim Benzema is another one widely considered to be one of the best in Europe. The Frenchman has 19 goals in 18 appearances for Madrid, and although that is a terrific tally it is perhaps not as impressive as Higuain’s given that he gets support from superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has 21 goals this season but PSG’s strength compared to the other Ligue 1 teams probably count against the Swedish talisman in this comparison with Higuain. The other contenders for the crown of the most in-form striker in the world are Luis Suárez, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Jonas and Robert Lewadowski. Lewadowski has taken his foot off the gas after a ridiculous run of 16 goals in six games for both club and country. Both Suarez and Aubameyang have 20 goals for their respective clubs while Jonas has 23. All three are in such good form that separating them from Higuain is a difficult task. However one thing can be said is that no title-chasing team anywhere in Europe is more reliant on a single player than Napoli with Gonzalo Higuain.
There is a growing acceptance now that Higuain has made the decisive leap from a good to a truly world class professional. This season he is in the spotlight and is enjoying it. He is leading Napoli’s charge towards a historic first Scudetto since 1990. His form has deservedly thrown him to the forefront of the competition regarding the finest number nines in Europe. There is no ‘false nine’ narrative for Higuain. He is the real striker – a nine on his back and a forward the way the position should be played.