The false nine has existed for a timeless eternity in the history of football, with the first traces of its use originating in 1936. Naturally a very powerful and demanding position, it has been occupied by many world class players – most notably Francesco Totti, Alfredo Di Stefano, Michael Laudrup, Johan Cruyff, and, of course, Lionel Messi. Players in this position have the ability to change the game entirely by redefining the space that they play in to confuse the opposition.
This is not to say that playing in this position is easy. On the contrary, it is one of the most difficult roles on the pitch, as the player has to have the complete package in his locker – the position hinges on his ability to be quick on and off the ball, tactically adept, fluent in the art of spacing, have exceptional vision to pick out his teammates, and exhibit impeccable finishing. Unsurprisingly, there are only a handful of people throughout the course of football history that have the skill set to play in this position.
Over the course of time, it has evolved as a position as managers adjusted their teams and playing styles to deal with changing formation preferences and playing styles; the most notable example would undoubtedly have been Guardiola’s reignition and remixing of the false nine through the god-like talent of Lionel Messi.
However, today, the art of the false nine is slowly stagnating as defenders become more adept at dealing with this role, and as managers opt to play it safe, deciding not to sacrifice a forward to play a risky game.
The modern striker is a blend of athleticism, physicality and finishing, and no longer holds the credentials required to play in such an esteemed role. Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski, Falcao and Diego Costa are polar opposites of the likes of Lionel Messi, opting to “bulk up” (comparatively) to score their goals. Their aerial abilities and powerful shots definitely contribute towards increasing the goal differential; why change a playing style that works so well?
The Basics of The False Nine
The main principle of the false nine, is, quite simply, creating space between the opponent’s midfield and defence by moving the position of the ‘conventional striker’ inwards, mimicking the play of an attacking midfielder. This negates the zonal marking system that the opposition employ. The offense is then run, unconventionally, through the midfielders and the wingers, who are freed up through the position change and can find themselves one-on-one with a well-placed pass between the lines.
It’s all about the mentality of the defenders. When formations clash, centre-backs often find themselves marking one or two strikers, and focus most of their physical and mental energy on covering their runs. It’s almost second nature to them. However, when said striker is pulled back and placed into the midfield, the defenders find themselves in a dilemma: should they move forward and track him, or stay put? The words of Christoph Metzelder, the centre-half of Real Madrid, sum it all up:
“He put Eto’o on the right and Messi in the centre. Fabio [Cannavaro] and I looked at each other. ‘What do we do now? Do we follow him into the midfield or stay deep?’ We didn’t have a clue what to do and it was impossible to catch him.”
From there, the false nine links with the midfield and the wingers, enticing the defenders forward to close the space between the lines. While they do so, the wingers move forward at deadly speeds, allowing the ball to be played between the lines and effectively setting them up for 1v1 situations with the goalkeeper.
To summarize, the false nine drops back, replacing the out-and-out striker position with empty space which is then exploited by the midfielders and wingers as a source through which to run the offense. Despite the fact that this tactic was rarely used consistently (once again, the Guardiola era disagrees with this statement), it created nightmares for defenders, and was the main reason for the success of individuals and their respective teams.
Did It Work?
Of course it did. Tactical inventions like the false nine allowed Lionel Messi to reach a new level of footballing genius, propelling Barcelona to a historic treble in the first season of its use. His ability to pick the pass between the lines or strike right through the heart of the defense with the help of the newfound space he generated created shockwaves in the footballing world. Messi’s reinvention as a false nine, to this day, is still attributed as one of Guardiola’s greatest tactical inventions, and it’s not difficult to see why. Messi is arguably the most successful false nines of all time.
However, the title of the most recent falsest false nine goes to Robin Van Persie. Throughout his time at Arsenal and United, there was significant debate over the position that he played in. His frequent dropping in and out of the forward line caused confusion in the minds of the defenders, and that playing style has followed him throughout his career, as he used the same tactic in Manchester United to mimic the Tevez false nine that Sir Alex employed during his injury crisis.
Francesco Totti also deserves credit where it is due. The King of Rome was repositioned into the false nine almost a decade ago, and this tactical marvel, combined with his sublime technique and understanding of the game, has allowed him to perform at the highest of levels for more than twenty years – a feat that truly makes us understand the importance of this position.
How Can You Defend Against It?
As I mentioned earlier, the defense have two options when playing against a false nine: stay in their position and risk giving the opposition all that space in between the lines, or move up and get caught in their expansive trap. However, there are a few tactical tweaks that one can make to negate the effect of the false nine.
The basis of the false nine lies in effective link-up play with the midfield. Therefore, if the opposition achieve numerical superiority in that area, they can effectively cut out their passing lanes and reduce the amount of space that they can work with. This can be accomplished via a 4-1-2-1-2, or a 4-2-3-1, to ensure that there are enough people up front to launch a quick counter attack once the ball is won back in the midfield. Moreover, the use of a holding midfielder to reduce the free space in between the lines reduces the effectiveness of a false nine. In the case of a 4-2-3-1 formation, one holding midfielder could be used to cover the space created by the false nine, and the other could be instructed to close him down every time he gets on the ball. This reduces the effects of his movement, and if these two work in perfect coordination, most of the desired attacking movements of the false nine can be nullified.
Lastly, The wing-backs will have to be wary of the opposition wingers, as the false nine formations can also focus their play on the wings.
The same effect can also be created by not allowing the teammates of the false nine time and space on the ball, consequently greatly reducing their link up play. This can work most of the time; however, in the case of false nines like Lionel Messi, this style of play could be more of a hindrance as it makes it easier for him to penetrate the defence if they’re more focused on reducing his options rather than marking him. Furthermore, teams can also opt to press the false nine the moment he gets on the ball, increasing the likelihood of him making mistakes, but the same warning lights flash: false nines are only played in their position because of their sublime dribbling ability, and they can run rings around oncoming defenders if they’re not careful.
The Future Of The False Nine
The false nine, as a position, has been dying out, with very few coaches opting to use it nowadays. Players with those specific abilities are one of a kind and have a very unique skillset, so it’s difficult to find a player who can emulate the likes of Lionel Messi, Totti and Cruyff. However, in my opinion, there are still a handful of players who could suit this role well, and could bring about a new dimension to this existing position:
The Belgian playmaker has already made a name for himself on the flank, but if he moves towards the centre, his close-control dribbling, ability to pick a pass out, explosive pace and short stature would be perfect for the false nine role. Playing through the middle could create a new dimension for his play. His ability to act as a catalyst offensively and engage in good link-up play with his teammates could translate into a great success as a false nine. He has all he needs to excel in that position, and who knows, maybe we’ll see him slot into the role after a few seasons.
Dybala’s game is based around the same principles as most of the false nines that we’ve seen so far – he has exceptional pace, links up very well with his teammates (he bagged a respectable nine assists last season), and, if need be, has an eye for goal, with a deadly left foot (73 chances created, 19 goals scored). His hold-up play is brilliant, especially if one takes into account his young age, and this talent led Juventus to another successful Scudetto defense. The offensive triangle that Dybala formed with Pogba and Cuadrado created shockwaves in Italy, helping the club to another title despite an undesirable start to the season.
Dybala frequented the false nine role throughout last season, but with the arrival of Gonzalo Higuain and the presence of Mario Mandzukic, along with the power heralded by Juventus on the flanks, Dybala’s attacking presence combined with the all-roundedness of Marchisio and reassuring brunt of Khedira could bring in a new style of attack for the Italian Champions.
A unique blend between the false nine and the ‘modern’ striker, Muller has all of the qualifications to play in a false nine role. In fact, his playing style could be described as an evolution of the tactics used in the false nine. Muller possesses great speed, stamina, dribbling, passing, and has a very keen eye for goal. Furthermore, his body shape and physique matches that of the aforementioned ‘modern’ striker, which allows him to blur the lines between the two positions. He would be a success in that role if he makes the most of this dexterity, but unfortunately, it seems that he’s not prepared to give up on his striker instinct; Pep Guardiola had attempted to play him in midfield on multiple occasions, only to have the wrong signs resurface every time.
The tricky, exuberant and rapid French attacker showed signs of the playing characteristics of a false nine last season. It almost seemed like he was subconsciously playing that role. As he dropped in deep to receive the ball in tandem with Torres, he alternated between finisher and creator, creating a deadly mixture of attack and midfield holdup from his sublime ball control, blistering pace and acute awareness, both on and off the ball. Now that he is nearing the peak of his abilities, it would be interesting to see how he could perform in a false nine role, with Torres acting as the target man, and Carrasco and Saul providing support from the wings. Simeone always focuses on quick ball movement, so only a few tweaks would be required to make this setup work. In my opinion, it would wreak havoc on defenses, especially if Torres and Griezmann were to keep interchanging their roles to keep them guessing. One minute, it’s a strong Spaniard holding up the ball; the next minute, it’s a fast Frenchman through on goal.
To conclude, the false nine is a position that is not used as much as it should be – in my opinion, it is one which allows for great tactical flexibility. It’s a shame to see the false nine dying out with defenses evolving to better match the opposition, but there’s hope that the players mentioned will be able to resurrect the dying art.