Having returned to the global football psyche through the effective implementation of Lionel Messi for Barcelona and Cesc Fabregas for Spain, the false nine is very much a la mode at the present time.
In this article, Bleacher Report examines the role and considers some of the qualities that would be employed to create the ideal player for this position.
I begin with a definition, then go on to consider the modern day requirements for the role before concluding with some players who possessed the qualities required to make the dream false nine.
What is the false nine?
Although it may appear to be a recent innovation, the position is, in fact, anything but. The false nine has long been present in football, but has merely drifted in and out of fashion like tight pants or denim jackets.
A false nine is typically a centre-forward who doesn’t play as a traditional centre-forward. So, instead of leading the line and finishing chances, the false nine's responsibilities typically include dropping off the forward line, creating chances for his teammates and disrupting the marking system of the opposition.
For Spain, Fabregas was perhaps less of a deep centre-forward but rather a midfielder playing in this role. Thus, he was less inclined to drop deep, rather he maintained his position, retained the ball and used his sublime passing ability to feed his teammates and throw the opposition into disarray.
It is useful to understand his position as that of a target man, but one who receives the ball on the ground rather than in the air and who uses his nous and his vision rather than his strength and his clout. During Euro 2012, Fabregas was by no means perfect in this position, but his passing ability and clever movement allowed Spain to build a platform high up the pitch from which to complete attacking moves.
In essence, the use of a false nine is an approach which, at its best ,employs a terrific talent to the finest possible benefit to the team as a whole. The likes of Messi, when used in this position, will drift and dart, flick and spin, creating chances, spaces and opportunities for his fellow attacking teammates.
Adaptations to make for the Modern Era
While the likes of Fabregas and Messi are both technically proficient and mentally aware enough to play as the false nine, it is important to note that they both work endlessly for the team.
Below, I will profile Matthias Sindelar—one of the first to excel in the position—and one of the most intelligent players ever to play the game.
While ‘The Paper Man’ was an undoubted genius and a magnificently cerebral attacking talent, I have my doubts that he would have the discipline or the work rate to excel at the top level of competition.
He was also famously fragile, but in this, the age of David Silva, Eden Hazard or Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, I am not convinced that this would negate his threat.
Adel Taarabt provides a (flawed) example of a player who possesses perhaps the touch, the guile, the technique and the movement to operate as a withdrawn frontman, but who is still yet to find the consistency and teamwork to flourish at the highest level in the modern game.
Thus, I would argue that the major difference between a false nine today and one of yesteryear is that the modern game demands players who can fit into a system, can work for the team and who have the discipline to operate as part of a functioning unit.
The Calculation of Sindelar
Nicknamed The Mozart of Football, Austrian Matthias Sindelar was arguably the first-ever false nine and was the (withdrawn) figurehead of the 1930s national wunderteam.
While much is made of his fragility and small stature, this perceived weakness only serves to magnify the majesty and effectiveness of his creative powers.
Austrian coach Hugo Meisl adapted the conventional W-M formation to permit Sindelar to drop deeper and have more of an influence on the play and a role in the creative build-up. It was addition by subtraction from the Austrian attack, and Sindelar flourished.
In building the perfect false nine, Sindelar’s intellect and creativity would certainly need to be incorporated.
Following the player’s death at 35, Alfred Polgar wrote his obituary in Pariser Tageszeitung: “He would play football as a grandmaster plays chess; with a broad mental conception, calculating moves and countermoves in advance, always choosing the most promising of all possibilities.”
The Movement of Nandor Hidegkuti
Almost two decades after Sindelar’s Austrian team beat England 2-1, the Hungarian dream team of the 1950s employed a similar method to defeat the Three Lions.
In 1953 the Golden Team travelled to Wembley, attempting to become the first overseas side to beat England. The Mighty Magyars didn’t just beat the mighty English however, they absolutely demolished their antiquated opposition, running out 6-3 winners.
Key to their victory that day was deep-lying forward and key creative influence Nandor Hidegkuti.
In 1953, and throughout the side’s glorious period, Hidegkuti’s movement was key to the team’s success.
He would sublimely drop deep, linking up with the midfield or pulling defenders out of position, creating space for Sandor Kocsis and Ferenc Puskas to wreak havoc.
It’s no wonder that the former found the net 75 times in 68 internationals for Hungary; thanks to Hidegkuti’s movement, he had all the space in the world.
The Genius of Cruyff
Few football academics are held in higher regard than Johan Cruff. The father of Barcelona, a deity at Ajax, Cruyff is the man who has had possibly more influence than anyone over the modern game of football.
On top of all that, he was one of the greatest players to ever grace the sport.
As Ajax and Holland burst onto the footballing scene in the early 1970s, Cruyff was the grandmaster of two Total Football machines. Given licence by coach Rinus Michels, he was the Dutch side’s on-field general in their romp to the 1974 World Cup final.
Nominally operating from a central attacking berth, Cruyff’s ingenious reading of the game meant he was often a few pulses ahead of everyone else. His perception saw that he often ended up dictating the games, carrying the Dutch forward and throwing the opposition into disarray.
His desire to impose himself meant that he often drifted into deeper or wider positions, from which he was able to take possession and create the opportunities for his teammates.
It wasn’t just that Cruyff knew what to do, but he also melded swift movement of body and mind together in order to operate at a peerless speed.
Cruyff was also flattered by the system he played in, while the system undoubtedly benefited from having him as its creative fulcrum. With a team full of players primed to move, to float, to drift and to switch positions, the false nine is rendered even more effective with a multiplicity of attacking options to choose from.
Nicknamed Pythagoras in Boots, his approach to the sport forged an entire footballing philosophy.
The Perfection of Messi
In truth, it’s hard to choose just one of Messi’s many qualities to apply to the ideal false nine of the modern era. The player truly is the contemporary master of the role.
The Argentine is capable of playing both creator—dropping deep, receiving the ball to feet and then unleashing one of Barcelona’s attacking players with a deft pass—but also of finishing the chances afforded him by others; the statistics that surround him and the goal-scoring records broken are testament to this.
Messi offers a truly exceptional modern interpretation of the classic false nine, a player capable of passing and moving, of scoring and dropping and with the quickness of mind and body to constantly remain in advance of the opposition.