Understanding Tactics – The False 9
“Valdez makes a short pass to Pique who in turn passes it to Busquets. Busquets to Xavi who takes the ball into midfield. The opposition has dropped back into their own half cutting off space. Xavi to Iniesta. Messi drops deep to collect the ball, plays a quick one-two with Iniesta and releases Alves on the right. Alves passes the ball to Pedro, who makes space on the touchline and gives it back to Alves who passes it to Messi. Messi with the ball, feints past one defender, past another, takes a shot and Messssssssssssiiiiiiiiiiii! What a fantastic goal and what a fantastic player! Absolutely astonishing from the man from Argentina, who is cleaner than Neutrogena with his finish”
Flashback to when commentators could not keep up with the genius of Messi and the sheer brilliance of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team. Barcelona was great when Pep took over the senior team in 2008, but it was in 2009 against eternal rivals Real Madrid that Pep made a small tactical tweak to his team that elevated Barcelona and Leo Messi to extraterrestrial levels. During the game, Pep signaled Eto’o, who had occupied the center forward position, to move to the right and told Messi to occupy the space between the midfield and defense. Madrid’s defense did not know whether they should follow Messi into midfield or hold their position in defense. Barcelona and Messi tore Madrid apart and won by six goals to two. Messi showed the world what the false 9 can do.
While Guardiola and Messi, brought the false 9 into public consciousness, it wasn’t really Guardiola’s invention as many at that time believed. The false nine has been around in football for quite a while now, since the 1930’s in fact when Austrian striker Matthias Sindelar, created havoc in opposition defenses by dropping deep.
The false 9 gets its name from the traditional player number system. The number 9 was usually reserved for the center forward, so when this player who was wearing the number 9 on his shirt didn’t play in the area of the pitch(or the role) he was originally assigned to, he was no more the ‘true number 9’, but the ‘false 9’.
In modern football, Luciano Spaletti’s Roma’s side had Totti playing as the false 9 back in 2006 and had considerable success. Sir Alex Ferguson tried out a strikerless formation with Tevez, Rooney, and Ronaldo with all the three having no fixed positions. Arsene Wenger too with Arsenal deployed Robin Van Persie as a false 9 in 2009. Vincente Del Bosque used the false 9 in Spain’s big 4-1 win over Italy in Euro 2012, with Fabregas espousing Messi’s role for the Spanish National side.
However, none of these sides truly matched the destruction that was caused by the peak Barcelona side that was led by Messi, and that was mainly because amongst other things, there’s no one quite like Messi.
What a false 9 essentially does is take up the space between the defense and offense. Generally, with one or two center forwards, the center backs track the forwards and mark them. With a false 9, the center-backs are left free during the build-up play as the false nine drops deep into midfield. This causes confusion as they are caught in two minds on whether they need to follow the false 9 into midfield or do they stick with their partner and maintain their defensive line.
The midfield too has at least one passing option between the lines of the opposition midfield and defense, created by the shifting of the striker.
However, playing as a false nine is the toughest role in football. To sacrifice a true goalscorer for an additional man in the middle is risky, and if that man who plays that role has a name that doesn’t start with M and ends with essi, you’re likely to have a bit of trouble. The player who plays the false 9 has to have great dribbling ability, passing range, superb finishing, tactical awareness and quick feet. Very few people in world football have all these abilities.
Also, teams and more specifically, a man named Mourinho, have learned to counter this tactic. Generally a 4-2-3-1 if played with a deep line and a good double pivot won’t allow much space for the false 9. The space in front of the defense will become very congested and with no target in the box for the attacking team, they keep running into cul-de-sacs. This tactic also called “Parking the bus” was quite successful in negating the false 9. Another way is to allow a center back the freedom to follow the false 9 all over the pitch, and expect the remaining back three to hold the line. That way the false 9 doesn’t have space and time on the ball to break through the defensive structure.