Complete Guide to the False 9 and Who Plays It Best
Early in the 2010-11 season, Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi combined to change the landscape for forwards in world football.
The Argentine was fielded in what has become known as a "false-nine role"—far removed from the usual poacher's role the likes of Michael Owen epitomised, but night and day when compared to the traditional, Duncan Ferguson-style battering ram of a centre-forward.
As part of his tiki-taka revolution, Pep turned the pages of history and micromanaged a role for Messi that ensured he stayed elusive enough to represent a goal threat no matter the marking scheme employed.
Here, we explore the dedicated makeup of the role and which players have made it famous.
In a game dominated by 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 4-5-1 formations, centre-backs have become accustomed to marking just a single player.
That lone centre-forward often pins himself to the deepest defender, stretching the pitch (vertically) as much as possible to give his team room to play. The position and movements of the striker often dictates where the defensive line is set when the ball is at the other end of the pitch.
In the 1990s, particularly in the Premier League, 4-4-2 vs. 4-4-2 would be common. Sir Alex Ferguson matched Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke up against a centre-back each and asked the question: Are you good enough to stop my strikers one vs. one?
The answer was invariably "no," with that particular Manchester United side enjoying dominance over all of Europe, compounded by their 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League Final in 1999.
Playing with a false nine means a team is not playing without an out-and-out forward or a proper No. 9 and marks a huge step away from the two-striker system many used 10 years ago, although it's important to note the multiple progressive steps between such seismic systematic shifts.
Formations rise and fall, and a combination of Jose Mourinho's exploits with the 4-2-3-1, Dunga's Brazil side in the 2010 World Cup and Guardiola's infatuation with possession have changed how football has been played over the last three seasons.
The false nine was done before Barcelona's Pep and Messi duo and it'll be done again, but perhaps not with the same motives, and probably not with the same efficiency.
Austria's 1934 World Cup side boasted a player playing in a rather similar role—Matthias Sindelar—but without video evidence, it's tough to ascertain just how his game compares to the modern-day equivalents.
How does it work?
A team playing with a false nine is playing without a dedicated striker or target man and relies on midfielders running from deep to do the damage. We'll take the case of Messi and Barca, considering it's the most successful use of the system in footballing history and look at the advantages.
In Pep's eyes, Messi was too good a player to have stuck on the wing on the periphery of the play, waiting to be brought in on proceedings by others.
He wasn't happy sticking him in as a No. 10 either, as that would allow him to be man-marked, or even double-marked, and rip apart the fabric of the traditional, classic 4-3-3 Barcelona have always preached.
Thus, a compromise was found in turning back the clock and copying another tactical revolutionary, Luciano Spalletti. The Italian had huge successes in deploying Francesco Totti in a false-nine role circa 2007, and you'll find that turning the pages of history was a common theme in Pep's thinking/planning.
Messi was deployed as a false nine—not a nine, not a 10 and nowhere close to an eight—yet still the furthest forward central player on the team.
His role was extremely complex and integral to the team's well-being, and the sheer size of the task he carries as a false nine is the reason why so few copy it and even fewer succeed.
He continually drops off from the defensive line, receiving the ball in deeper areas and finding room to turn and play. Barcelona preach a keep-the-ball philosophy and having a front man extremely able in passing and moving was essential for their blueprint.
Messi can take players on as well as he passes—either short or long—and he racks up a large number of touches alongside Andres Iniesta and Xavi.
Dropping deep, even to the halfway line, is common, and while that sounds detrimental on paper, Barca have two options in attack at this point.
Leaving a gaping hole at centre-forward encourages the centre-backs to step forward into the space, and while they believe a high line is a good thing, Barca begin licking their chops.
Whatever your opinion of Alexis Sanchez, he's a magnificent fit for this Barca system on paper. His electric pace from the right wing is an incredible tool when running in behind the defence, and with the centre-backs stepping up, one through ball is all it takes to set Alexis off with a one vs. one.
Pedro, Cristian Tello, Isaac Cuenca and David Villa have all prospered too.
Messi, rather than being a mere decoy, is perfectly capable of playing that cutting ball that splits a centre-back and full-back in a scything fashion himself.
If the defence doesn't bite, El Blaugrana will work the ball slowly forward, maintaining possession and pinning the opponent into the final third. From there, full-backs will bomb forward to create mismatches in the wider areas and then look for the late arrival of Messi in the box to sweep home moves.
You can't mark him if he's not there, and Iniesta is fully capable of poaching a goal from these areas too. Add Neymar into the current mix, and it's a disaster for managers trying to plan for the Camp Nou outfit.
Messi the greatest
Playing as a false nine is the toughest role in football.
To sacrifice a true forward is a risky move, and if the man who takes the reins from deeper in the formation isn't a world-class prodigy, you're likely to have some trouble.
He needs the full skill set: dribbling, passing, speed, centre of gravity, finishing (close- and long-range), awareness and quickness.
The one thing you don't need is aerial prowess and incredible core strength, but most accomplished dribblers have an unnatural element of sturdiness about them anyway. Who, in world football, combines these traits?
Precious few is the answer, with Ezequiel Lavezzi, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez a selection of the possible names. Johan Cruyff and Nandor Hidegkuti are historically excellent proponents.
Spalletti's experiment with Roma and Totti was fascinating to watch, but often left gaping holes in their own defence, and that Giallorossi side was known for its porous approach.
Guardiola and Messi hit the nail on the head, producing incredible production, dominant victories and a surprisingly sturdy defence. Gerard Pique takes a lot of flack in 2013, but under Pep, he was regarded as a world-class centre-back.
Messi still plays the role under Gerardo Martino, and despite defences wising up to it, it's still a formidable approach, but will it stick around?
Tata's more vertical approach and successful use of Cesc Fabregas could see Messi's role approach that of a regular No. 9 very soon.
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