The scarcer something is, the greater its perceived value. And in football, one of the most scarce things in an industry otherwise defined by its rampant excess is the striker, that out-and-out-goalscorer with a No. 9 on the back of their shirt.
It's a paucity that saw Manchester United pay £64 million to secure 20-year-old Denmark international Rasmus Højlund from Atalanta based largely on potential; the fee could rise to £72m based on performance-related clauses. It's why Napoli striker Victor Osimhen has been slapped with a £120 million price tag heading into January, and why Tottenham Hotspur could restrict their market for Harry Kane to non-English clubs but still get a fee that could be worth up to €120 million from Bayern Munich.
Pleasingly, there are signs in Australia that more No. 9s are finally being developed, but the previous dearth is the great perceived failing of the A-Leagues' modern epoch. This development perhaps generates an added level of emotion because of the nation's history of top-class talent in the position, the nostalgia tilting expectations of what should be accomplished in the contemporary era.
Mark Viduka is the most obvious example of an Australian No, 9, but there's also his Golden Generation teammate John Alosi. Before them, there was Frank Farina, Graham Arnold, Bobby Despotovski and Damien Mori. John Kosmina was the first Australian to play for Arsenal, and Eddie Krncevic was the country's first to win a Golden Boot in a European league, with Anderlecht. Ray Baartz scored 211 goals in 236 games for Sydney Hakoah, and Attila Abonyi led the line for the Socceroos in their first World Cup appearance in 1974.
Of course, the modern demands of the game mean that pining for a return to the traditional No, 9 is probably similar to hoping for the return of the sweeper or, to go back further, the half-back. Conversely, football is not a static beast, and it's perfectly plausible that the influence and impact of players such as Osimhen and Erling Haaland will bring the position naturally back into vogue. Or maybe, if ongoing trends surrounding relationism hold, positional footballing approaches as a whole could soon fall by the wayside.
But it's important to note that Australia is hardly alone in identifying that the production line for top-class hitmen has slowed. England manager Gareth Southgate revealed that the shrinking number of strikers in the game dominated the FIFA World Cup debrief led by Arsene Wenger, and there's conjecture that present development practices are behind this trend the world over.
On a basic level, the game's focus on possession, technical proficiency, and learning multiple positions, isn't suited to creating centre-forwards; there's less instruction and focus on the nuances and intricacies of what goes into being a classic striker, honing the natural instincts that go into the movement in and around the penalty area, and the ruthless finishing touch required.
Combine this with trends that have seen teams get away from playing multiple strikers in a formation, or increasingly no real striker at all, and a promising junior who previously would have gone up top is now frequently shifted onto the wing, into midfield, or perhaps even a full-back position. And even if played up top at a youth level, coaches, especially in an Australian context, will frequently deploy them elsewhere at senior level.
"I still believe that sometimes when you have this, and I'm not saying that our program of junior development wasn't right, but it can help players in different positions develop a lot quicker," Aloisi told ESPN.
"The nine is an actual specific position. For instance, when we're doing possession games and passing drills, that doesn't work on the nine's positioning on the field; you need to actually coach that, you need to be taught that at a very early age. That way, when they do get to senior football, they're ready for that. I think that was lost a bit."
There are some Australian nuances to account for as well. A-League clubs faced with a limited amount of foreign player slots, and the restrictions imposed by a salary cap, will inevitably seek to maximise the impact of those players. Frequently, the foreign signings have been strikers.
This can then produce something of a self-perpetuating cycle. Young strikers get stuck behind high-priced internationals or established veterans perceived to be a more sure thing by risk-averse coaches, and, therefore, they stagnate in their development. Then, when those in charge of squad construction look around and see a lack of strikers coming through, they focus their scouting and recruitment efforts on ensuring they have someone of the required quality to fill that position.
However, as the 2023-24 A-League Men season commences, something remarkable is occurring in Australian football. Somehow it looks like it may be bucking global trends and seeing a new cohort of promising young strikers emerging, with more than half the league fielding young No. 9s with potential to develop in a manner similar to recent A-League success stories Nick D'Agostino, Mohamed Touré and Ben Waine. That is good news for obvious on-field reasons, but, in a new era of developmental focus in the league, a young striker scoring goals, or even just showing they might one day, is also one of the most lucrative assets a club can have.
"It seems now they might be coaching [strikers] that a little bit more," Aloisi said. "Because I see with the likes of Noah [Botic] and others in the league, they're typical nines in that they know where to run, where to move in the box, and that comes from coaching when they're young.
"You sort of know what their qualities and attributes are. Sometimes they will know where the ball will be and it might not be exactly what you're wanting from your striker but they can smell that opportunity. You need to allow that.
At Brisbane Roar, 18-year-old Thomas Waddingham announced himself with four consecutive Australia Cup games and, due to a lack of alternative options if nothing else, shapes as a potential key contributor for Ross Aloisi. At Newcastle Jets, 18-year-old Archie Goodwin remains one of the few things giving fans reason to be excited, albeit he's yet again battling injury to start the season. At Perth Glory, 22-year-old Adam Zimarino grabbed two goals in two starts last season and is seeking to make a mark.
At Adelaide United, Luka Jovanovic just signed a three-year deal and should be given the chance to start this season, with the 18-year-old showing all the makings of a potential star. Olyroos striker Alou Kuol is back at Central Coast Mariners after a difficult time in Europe, and at 22 years old has plenty of scope to find form again. Patrick Wood, 21, continues to flash potential at Sydney FC, even if he may become the latest prospect to see minutes snapped up by a foreigner in the form of new Brazillian loanee Fábio Gomes. Max Caputo, 18, has a frame and instincts that belies his age and shapes as the primary backup to Maclaren at City.
And Botic, under the tutelage of John Aloisi, is set to start the season as the starting striker of Western United. The 21-year-old cut a different path from most of his contemporaries in that his emergence didn't come in an A-League Men academy but, instead, at Rockdale City Suns in the NPL NSW. Scoring four goals in four games at the 2019 Under-17 World Cup, he trialled with Manchester United before signing with the youth side of Germán side TSG Hoffenheim, only for COVID to shut down football for significant stretches and cut him off from family and friends.
After signing in Melbourne's west in 2021, he broke out with six goals in 10 starts in 2022-23 and now, with Aleksander Prijovic departed and Nikita Rukavytsya still trying to get up to speed, he's set to open the season leading the line. Aloisi has been desperate to protect his young prospect from undue expectations and hype -- Viduka comparisons have flowed in recent months, an unfair expectation on anyone -- and he has endeavoured to put veteran mentors around the striker and not rush his progression. But now, he feels this season that Botic is ready to shoulder the load.
"He showed that he's ready for this level of football," Aloisi said.
"The offseason has been good for Noah.
"He's ready to start showing he can be the No. 9 that leads the line."