Evolution of the False 9: How Barcelona and Leo Messi Made the Position Famous

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterJuly 11, 2012

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 05:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona (R) shakes hands with his Head coach Josep Guardiola of FC Barcelona after scoring his team's third goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on May 5, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain. This is the last match as head coach of FC Barcelona for Josep Guardiola at the Camp Nou Stadium.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

Is football even remotely the same as it was two seasons ago?

If your answer to that question is noas is mine, and most other football fans'then you can probably apportion either blame or thanks to Pep Guardiola.

The former Barcelona manager has single-handedly changed the face of football, taking a brilliant Blaugrana team and micro-managing some outrageous successes.

One of the fantastic things about Guardiola's managerial style is his ability to create, to change and to innovate. He is a proven virtuoso in his field, and his mastery of the "false nine" is just one in a long line of genius tactical adjustments.

What's changed?

At times, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Guardiola simply dreamed of 10 midfielders and a goalkeeper on the pitch representing his team, and only obvious restrictions were stopping him from doing that.

An interesting piece from "The False 9" blog denotes the idea of ridding specialists from the game. Supposedly Guardiola, in line with the thinking of former AC Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi, looked to recruit players who could fulfil multiple roles rather than just one in order to eliminate placing certain players on the pitch for the sake of having others.

Essentially, Guardiola has looked to redefine the very meaning of "versatility" in football.

Small adjustments and tactical changes have been well received, and these are just the type of changes you need to introduce to stay ahead in the managerial game.

Converting Javier Mascherano to a central defender is an example of this, while Sergio Busquets is also able to drop in. Gerard Pique can step forward into midfield, while Andres Iniesta can play on either wing or through the middle.

The false nine is just another example of this. Versatility in its purest form. Of course, some people don't get it, but the vast majority understand innovation is the only method of progression.


Fabregas plays as what has become known as a 'false 9.' Why false? Is he an imposter? What's the point of football? To score goals.

— John Cross (@johncrossmirror) July 1, 2012


What is the false nine?

As if it needs any introducing whatsoever, since Vicente del Bosque recently rode its stable, glorious makeup to victory in the European Championships this summer.

Unfortunately, Lionel Messi can't play for Spain, so del Bosque had to make do with Cesc Fabregas in the false-nine position, but here's how it works.

This diagram depicts the Spain vs. Italy game in Euro 2012 Group C.

Fabregas utilised the false-nine role, performing a sort of "fake-forward" role if you will. He sits deeper in his starting position than a natural centre-forward would, often leaving a central defensive pairing or trio with no one to mark.

This is in stark contrast to Fernando Torres' starting position as a natural centre-forward.

The idea is to make incisive runs at the right time to flummox a back linean idea Fabregas spectacularly failed to grasp until the very final game.

Arnold Muhren (ex-Ajax): "At the start of the Euro, Xavi and Iniesta were looking for Messi, but they couldnt find him." #fcblive [via goal]

— barcastuff (@barcastuff) July 6, 2012

Fabregas acted as a midfielder for the vast majority of the tournament, meaning Spain essentially ground out games in a 4-6-0 formation. That system was perfect for major tournament football at the end of a gruelling domestic season.

It was, however, hardly an impressive audition for the innovation that is the Messi-esque fake striker.

Why Messi does it better than anyone else

Barcelona, Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi have made the false-nine role famous. It was so effective for Barca that del Bosque decided to rest on that strategy for the European Championships, given that over half of the players already knew the system.

With that, Spanish fans might as well send a gift hamper to Guardiola, as at this stage it seems he was more the manager of his nation than del Bosque ever was.

The Argentinian wizard was originally asked to fulfil this role in the 2010-2011 season, with Guardiola having recruited David Villa from Valencia and moving him to the left wing.

From there, Villa would act as an inside forward, while Messi would drift away from the opposing defence. The result was total confusion, and opponents took almost an entire year to figure out how to combat it.

Several strategies were tried. Hercules managed a fluke victory by defending deeper than anyone else had ever tried, having taken heed of Jose Mourinho's triumph over Barca as Internazionale manager.

Marcelo Bielsa's Athletic Bilbao have tried both stand-off and rigorous man-marking—both of which failed to yield a victory.


It's famous because it's Lionel Messi, it's famous because it's Barcelona and it's famous because it's different.

The adjustment itself is not massive as the diagram shows, so the reason it got everybody talking is because it's just the next step in the ever-changing game of football.

In 1936, it was a well-established fact that the 2-3-5 formation was the most solid, the most compact and the most competitive formation to use. We've come a long way since then, as you may see teams look to replicate the false nine next season.

Paris Saint-Germain have discussed the possibility having signed Ezequiel Lavezzi, whilst several players in the English Premier League seem capable of assuming its duties.


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