There is probably no position that speaks of a team being in the tactical avant garde as a false nine, a position that already has two clear interpretations. Most classically, it is a player who seems to operate where a traditional centre-forward would but then drops deep, becoming almost a playmaker, leaving space into which players can break from midfield and the flanks.
But there is a new interpretation (that has more to do with the player than his positioning), which is to deploy a midfielder as a centre-forward, still operating high as an orthodox centre-forward would, but using his skill set less as a goal threat than to retain possession, creating chances almost by attrition.
Here, we look at five of the most significant false nines in history.
The false nine is often considered a modern phenomenon, but there is evidence that the role began to emerge as early as the 1890s.
Smith was an asthmatic who joined the amateur side Corinthians from Oxford University and also played cricket for Surrey. He scored 132 goals in his 137-game career, but it was his interpretation of the centre-forward position that is fascinating, as he dropped deep and was focused as much on creating as scoring.
As the prolific Steve Bloomer, who played alongside Smith for England, said, Smith “transformed the role of the centre-forward from that of an individual striker into a unifier of the forward line, indeed the whole team.”
Nicknamed "The Paper Man" because of his slight build, it took Sindelar time to persuade the Austria coach Hugo Meisl to select him. Once he did, though, the effect was extraordinary, as his movement allowed others in the forward line to interchange positions in what became known as the “Danubian whirl.”
“He was endowed with such an unbelievable wealth of variations and ideas that one could never really be sure which manner of play was to be expected,” noted the writer Friedrich Torberg in his 1978 collection Die Erben der Tante Jolesch.
“He had no system, to say nothing of a set pattern. He just had...genius.” Sindelar inspired Austria to their first victory over England, but they reached their peak between World Cups and lost in the semi-final in 1934. He died of mysterious circumstances shortly after the Anschluss.
In November 1953, England were beaten 6-3 by Hungary at Wembley, ending their unbeaten home record against non-British or Irish opposition. The Man of the Match that day was Hungary’s “withdrawn centre-forward” Hidegkuti, who pulled deep and allowed the inside-forwards and wingers space to play, then drifted forwards untended to score a hat-trick.
“To me,” England’s centre-half that day, Harry Johnston, wrote in his autobiography, “the tragedy was the utter helplessness...being unable to do anything to alter the grim outlook.”
It was Messi who brought the false nine into the modern age, although Francesco Totti had played that role at times for Roma, while Manchester United in 2007-08 played a highly fluent 4-2-3-1 in which any of Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo could play as the false nine.
It was Messi, though, dropping from a centre-forward position to link with Xavi and Andres Iniesta, who showed just how devastating a vacuum at centre-forward could be—not least because, receiving the ball 40 yards out, he was capable of running straight for goal as well as looking to slip passes in to runners.
Fabregas embodies the other school of false nines: those who drop deep comparatively rarely.
When players did break beyond him, he was ideally equipped to slide through-balls to them, but his role at, say, Euro 2012 was really more one of ball retention. A centre-forward is usually selected for his finishing or his pace or his aerial ability. Fabregas seemed to be selected because he could pass.
He was there at the front of the attack for the ball to be bounced off and to provide more angles for the midfield, playing almost as a target-man, just receiving balls on the ground rather than in the air.