The second striker. The Dark Knight of the football world. A player who ties it all together, combining style and substance. The on-field equivalent of Claudio Ranieri holding Andrea Bocelli's coat while he serenades a packed stadium. The under-appreciated star.
This role is packed with creativity, spontaneity and more often than not, inconsistency. And this final trait is what separates the great from the absolute cream of the crop. Sure, these guys might have an off day or two, but 99 times out of 100, when you're looking for someone to lean on in the dying moments, they stand up and be counted.
A deep-lying forward, or second striker, plays to serve those around him, be it a proper centre-forward, who snatches the headlines by applying the finishing touches to our protagonist's chiselled craft, or as part of a forward three, chipping in as a 'false nine'.
The title 'second striker' often varies in its terminology, and the specific role can be adapted in different forms. But from the days of Dennis Bergkamp teeing up Thierry Henry at Arsenal, or Francesco Totti conjuring moments of magic for Gabriel Batistuta at AS Roma, these players have always been very special.
And there are five guys in the modern game who have made this position their very own. Here are the best second strikers in the current world of football - ranked, for your pleasure.
5. Josip Ilicic
It's taken Josip Ilicic over a decade to finally find some consistency and a loving home, but at the grand old age of 32, he is finally earning recognition as one of the greatest second strikers in the business.
Working his way up from Slovenian side Bonifika, the forward completed a series of sideways moves, despite turning heads in Italy with his early performances in a talented Palermo side back in 2010. His career stalled from then on, enduring an indifferent spell at Fiorentina, before eventually landing in Bergamo. It seemed as if he'd never earn the big move that his talents merited.
As it turns out, he didn't need it. Ilicic has dragged Atalanta to the dizzying heights of Champions League football and competing with Juventus at the Serie A summit, while scoring bucketfuls of goals.
La Dea look set to break the 100-goal barrier this season, and none of it would be possible without their creative genius, Ilicic.
4. Lautaro Martinez
When Lautaro Martinez arrived at Inter in the summer of 2018, there was a feeling that the second coming of Mauro Icardi had reached Milan prematurely. Another fiery, Argentinian striker with a nose like a bloodhound for sniffing out goals, I Nerazzurri supporters knew their future was in safe hands.
Only, the 22-year-old is nothing like Icardi as a player. He is so much more. Nicknamed The Bull, Martinez's game revolves around doing all the dirty work at the top end of the pitch, and laying goals on a plate for strike partner Romelu Lukaku to profit.
Inter have blown teams away this season, with their dynamic duo often doing the damage, and El Toro's hold up play and desire to run every defender into the ground is the main cause.
18 goals in all competitions so far this season tells only a fraction of the Martinez story, and it's a tale which is destined for bigger and better things - sooner rather than later.
3. Roberto Firmino
This man epitomises what it means to be a second striker. Roberto Firmino spent several years being overlooked and deemed dispensable in this Liverpool team - until he was taken out of it. And that's the beauty, and the curse of performing this role.
Firmino has become the key component in Liverpool's Champions and Premier League winning side, supplying Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah with all the ammunition they need to steamroll their opponents.
The Brazilian is so good at his job though, that he has been able to find the time (away from making everyone around him look better) to hit double figures in every Premier League campaign since arriving in 2015. He's only one goal away from doing the same this year, but even if he doesn't reach the magic 10, his contribution has been worth its weight in title gold.
The ultimate unsung hero.
2. Paulo Dybala
It's not been an easy rise to stardom for Paulo Dybala. Comparisons are often unfair on a young, developing forward, so to be likened to the greatest player in the world in Lionel Messi is as anxiety-evoking as it gets.
But la Joya has continued to work on his game, and he has grown to become the most valuable player in a star-studded Juventus side. The 26-year-old has learnt how to stamp his influence on a game, and his performances can truly determine whether I Bianconeri pick up one point or three.
With his devastating speed across the ground, his ingenuity to pull apart any defence, and a newly-found lethal eye for goal, there's little that this man can't do. He'd be a regular starter for any international team in the world, if only he didn't occupy the same position as this man...
1. Lionel Messi
The greatest footballer in the world, so obviously Lionel Messi is the greatest second striker in the world, too. The Barcelona star defies history, logic, time, and just about every notion we have come to accept as normality in our endless existence.
Messi's game has changed over the years, starting out as a pacy, tricky winger who loved to cut in from the right and wreak havoc and destruction. As the passing of time tried to take its toll, the rebel has adapted his game, and now begins much more centrally, looking to dictate play from deep.
At 33 years old, the Barça wizard has become La Liga's Pichichi winner, notching 25 goals, and he also supplied the most assists over the course of the campaign, with an unrivalled 21 helping hands for his teammates. And this is all while playing in the worst Barcelona team of his generation.
Words simply don't do him justice.
Source : 90min