Pep Guardiola is a manager famed for his use of the false No.9.
During his time with Barcelona, you would be hard-pressed to find all that many starting line-ups with an out-and-out center–forward playing in his accustomed position. Most famously making use of Lionel Messi in this role, Guardiola also managed to convert prolific goalscorer, David Villa, into one of these “false-forwards” to great success.
While this is a tactic that is starting to become more and more popular in Spanish football (one has to wonder whether or not there will even be such a thing as a “Spanish striker” in a decade or so), the idea of the false nine is much less popular elsewhere on the continent.
Certainly, there have been examples outside of Spain where this tactic has been incredibly fruitful. Perhaps most notably of all in the Luciano Spalletti Roma side of the mid-noughties. In this instance, Roma would utilise the legendary Francesco Totti in this role. While they were unable to win the Serie A title during this period, they did achieve a level of success that the Italian capital is only now starting to experience again, nearly a decade later.
False nines work as a tactic. That’s an undisputable fact—just look at the Spanish national team. As such, since arriving at Bayern Munich, it was probably not a great shock to most people that Pep would slowly start to implement this tactic on a regular basis regarding his team sheets.
With regular center-forward Mario Gomez being sold to Fiorentina, and the arrival of two central-attacking midfielders who epitomised his brand of Tiki-taka football perfectly (Thiago Alcantara and Mario Götze), it was obvious come the start of the 2013-14 campaign what Pep’s order of business was.
The real question was where this left Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic in proceedings.
Mandzukic, unlike some of the top strikers in world football right now, is not a player who is suited to this false nine role. The Croat is a born goalscorer and not—as some of Pep’s former squad were—a striker who is accustomed to dropping deep.
As such, it was probably little surprise to see Mandzukic dropped to the bench, with Thomas Müller instead filling the “Messi” role in Guardiola’s new outfit.
While this certainly was a tactic that worked against some of the weaker Bundesliga opposition, it has been more than evident that against the likes of Bayer Leverkusen and Hertha Berlin (sides pushing for a top four finish this season—Leverkusen perhaps even challenging for the title) this “pure” form of Tiki-taka will not always work.
Thomas Müller is a fantastic player, but when it comes to finishing chances, he is no Lionel Messi. Against Hertha Berlin this weekend, it was painfully obvious that Bayern were at times struggling to break the Blue-Whites down, and when they did, were wasting their opportunities.
With the score already at 1-0 to Hertha after 25 minutes of play, Guardiola needed to adjust his strategy. Cue the introduction of Mario Götze and Mandzukic.
Replacing Toni Kroos and Arjen Robben, respectively, the two went on to change the game completely.
With Mandzukic adopting his regular center-forward position and Müller moving into his more accustomed slot on the wing in the place of Robben, Bayern looked like a different side altogether. One could only describe the style of play as a mish-mash of the Tiki-Taka brand and the elite ruthlessness of the Jupp Heynckes team of 2012-13.
Mandzukic would go on to score two crucial goals and Götze the all-important third, sealing what would eventually be a hard-fought 3-2 victory.
This wasn’t the first time that the pairing has shown a great understanding and ability to link up well this season. For the second match-day in a row in the Bundesliga, Götze addition to a game has turned it on its head completely.
Last week, Bayern were again struggling against a far from elite Mainz 05 side before the former BVB man’s introduction at half-time. Assisting three of Bayern’s four goals in the game (again, one of which was scored by Mandzukic), one would assume that Götze may well soon find himself with a regular starting spot ahead of Toni Kroos (as a Manchester United fan it pains me greatly that a team’s biggest dilemma is whether to play Kroos or Götze…football can be cruel sometimes).
It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Pep stubbornly (and perhaps rightfully) stick to his patented Tiki-taka style with the false nine. This is the style of football he is used to, and it has been more than successful for him thus far in his still relatively young managerial career.
However, if the last few match-days have been anything to go by, then it would be a naive move on the Spaniard's part to completely overlook the influence and goal-scoring prowess that an out-and-out striker like Mandzukic brings to the team ahead of Müller.
Certain games call for the false nine and others for a player like Mandzukic. Pep’s toughest decision this season is deciding which fixture is which. Either way, having a brilliant creative talent like Götze and a natural finisher like Mandzukic to call upon may well see Bayern battle their way to an unprecedented double treble.