The "big man" is back as Fernando Llorente, Peter Crouch are thriving
After the 2015-16 season, in which Leicester City won the title and shocked the history of English football, there have been few surprises in 2016-17. Of course, another unlikely champion wasn't on the cards; we probably aren't going to have an outsider battling for the Champions League places either. But more interestingly, we haven't had any real shocks in one-off matches either.
Liverpool's clash with Swansea was supposed to be one of the biggest formalities of the season: third against bottom, the league's best attack against its worst defence. Yet after a hugely tedious first half and a thoroughly entertaining second period, Paul Clement's Swansea ran out 3-2 winners. It was, using bookmakers' odds as a barometer, by far the biggest surprise of the Premier League season so far.
It was a huge clash of systems. Liverpool played on the front foot, with 74 percent possession, and they spent the vast majority of the game in the opposition half. Swansea concentrated on playing in a deep, narrow block, denying Liverpool space between the lines, funnelling their attacks wide and playing primarily on the break.
There was a particularly interesting contrast between the two centre-forwards, too. Liverpool played Roberto Firmino up front rather than Daniel Sturridge or Divock Origi, while Swansea used an old-fashioned number nine in Fernando Llorente. Both scored twice, but it was Llorente who finished triumphant and collected the man-of-the-match award. At the moment, players in his mould have enjoyed something of a resurgence in popularity.
By now, some pundits expected that all forwards would be in the Firmino mould: short, quick, hard-working, excellent at linking play and spinning in behind. Although few Premier League sides use a "false nine," there has certainly been a shift toward players such as Firmino, Sergio Aguero and Alexis Sanchez. None are typical number nines.
That's common among the big clubs, but further down the table, number nines are alive and well. For any traditional strikers wondering whether they still have a place in the modern game, Llorente's performance at Anfield was a perfect demonstration of the qualities required.
Watch the highlights of the game, and you'll see Llorente doing his basic job: He toe-pokes the first goal home from close range in the aftermath of a set piece, then storms into the box to provide a classic bullet header following a brilliantly well-worked move and pinpoint cross from Tom Carroll.
Watch the whole game, however, and you'll find that Llorente was doing something else entirely. With Swansea sitting extremely deep on the edge of their own box, the Spaniard had responsibility for dropping back to shadow Jordan Henderson, Liverpool's deepest midfielder. Henderson has been hugely impressive with his ability to control matches and spray passes out wide this season, and he has often been afforded far too much space by opponents. Not Swansea.
When Liverpool's centre-backs had possession, Llorente positioned himself intelligently, cutting off the passing route into Liverpool's skipper. When they worked the ball forward, he dropped back and marked Henderson. It caused serious problems for Liverpool's build-up play, and Llorente ended up being Swansea's key player both with and without possession.
Llorente now has eight goals this season and a decent minutes-per-goal rate of 170, which would bring him 20 goals if he played every minute this season. In truth, Llorente has been particularly streaky this season with three doubles, including both an equaliser and a winner in stoppage time in the absurd 5-4 victory over Crystal Palace, which is effectively the result that means Swansea are currently one place ahead of Palace on either side of the relegation line.
At times, he has been frustrating, though. It's worth remembering that Bob Bradley, in charge of Swansea for three months, often dropped Llorente and used Gylfi Sigurdsson up front as a "false nine" instead.
There's an argument that the latter suited Swansea's natural style. They're a passing team, a slick team demanding interplay and movement from their main forward. But at his peak, Llorente offers the best of both worlds. He's a traditional striker who developed at Athletic Bilbao (traditionally Spain's most direct side) yet was good enough in possession to play a useful role for Spain in their World Cup victory in 2010. Llorente emerged from the bench in the second round against Portugal and became the game's key player.
Llorente is a number nine, but he's not entirely one-dimensional. More limited strikers, though, are also prospering.
It's notable that Peter Crouch has enjoyed a sudden resurgence at Stoke City. Handed limited opportunities over the past 18 months, the lanky striker hadn't netted a Premier League goal since 2014-15, only managing strikes against lower-league opposition in the cup. Suddenly he has become a regular again, scoring three times in his past four matches.
The most recent goal, against Sunderland, was the archetypal Crouch goal: Charlie Adam thumped a long ball downfield, Crouch out-jumped Vito Mannone to nod it home. It was old-school Stoke and a goal that wouldn't have been scored when they were using winger Marko Arnautovic up front, as they did away at Arsenal.
West Ham United are level on points with Stoke -- and, somewhat surprisingly, the Hammers are in 10th place after four wins in their past six. Slaven Bilic's team have benefited hugely from the good form of English football's most typical number nine.
Andy Carroll missed the majority of the first half of the campaign through injury, but he has now banged in four goals in five games, including that extraordinary bicycle kick against Crystal Palace. Again, it's a different proposition to Michail Antonio, who led the line on a couple of occasions this season. Antonio is certainly an aerial threat, but he's not a proper number nine.
Elsewhere in the bottom half, Christian Benteke (eight league goals) is playing well for Sam Allardyce, whose usual style should, in theory, suit the striker perfectly. And and Islam Slimani is perhaps the one bright spot in Leicester's otherwise disappointing campaign.
The best number nine performance of the season, however, goes to West Brom's Salomon Rondon for his hat trick of headers against Swansea; he's only the second man, after Everton's Duncan Ferguson, to achieve that in the Premier League era. Playing in perhaps the Premier League's most direct side, Rondon suits Tony Pulis' approach perfectly.
While none of these players are among the most revered strikers in the division, this season's Premier League is all about tactical diversity. "False nines" work at some clubs, but in the bottom half at the moment, it's all about the "true nine" instead.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.