TACTICS: An insight into the false nine role

Guardiola’s presence in Barcelona revolutionized modern football in many ways. We have already taken a look at changes that went through with wingers and defensive midfielders. However, Spaniard is most renown for his attacking prowess. Here we will pay attention to attacking third and rise of false nine role. Traditional number nine role is usually associated with out-and-out striker like Alan Shearer or Gerd Muller. Players with impeccable finish and real threats in the box. False nine, however, is something completely different and is born as a response to packed defences modern football often employs. It should be mentioned that it is often called deep lying forward, or second striker sometimes. The differences are mostly in a way how different players execute this role while the principle remains the same.

The role itself was used as early as 1930s in Austria and later during 50s in famous Hungarian national side. However, modern false nine appears with Francesco Totti at the turn of the century and the real effectiveness was expressed by Guardiola’s Barcelona. It was so effective that even Spanish national side used it and won the 2012 EURO with Fabregas in the slot.

Leo Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Francesco Totti, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney…

Off the ball movement, vision, ball control, passing, decision making

What makes this role really effective is, above all, the intelligence of the player and, only after that, his skills. While traditional striker was primarily a poacher who relied on his team mates to deliver the ball in the box, false nine is kind of opposite. It is essentially an attacking midfielder with ability to drift back towards the midfield and creating chances for his team mates.
The main problem a false nine poses to defence is his movement. It makes defenders think hard if they should go and cover the striker, leaving their position and creating a gap, or keep the position leaving the drifting player alone.

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The ide abehind false nine role is to attract players from defensive line and create holes for other players to explit

Above is the example from famous 5:0 Barcelona win over Real Madrid in fall of 2010 when Messi was playing the false nine role. You can see exactly why this role is so dangerous. Carvalho, the center back, decides to help Khedira to close down on Messi leaving his position. From that moment it isn’t four players covering the width of the pitch but only three. This opens up space for left winger to exploit and score.

Crucial here is the ability of player in false nine role. Nothing would have happened if Messi wasn’t able to escape the pressing with great ball controll. Furthermore, if he didn’t have the vision to see the pass between the defenders or ability to execute it perfectly, Barcelona would never have the chance to score.

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A text book example of situation when false nine is not tracked by a CB, he has time and space to pick a team mate

Above you see maybe more illustrative example of what happens when CB doesn’t track the movement of false nine. The defence has to react to ball shifting to right winger but after a pass back to center false nine has time and space to an open player on the weak side.

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However, if central back tracks the false nine, the defensive line has to cover more space with less bodies creating opportunities for opposition

Above is an example of situation created by a center back leaving the defensive line and closing down the false nine. If the false nine is able to break the pressing spaces open for onrushing wingers on either side since opposition has fewer players to cover same width.

If we want to call the role false nine, deep lying forward or anything else, the essence of it is always the same. As well as the dilemma it imposes on defenders. With more teams employing holding midfielders, or even two defensive midfielders, this role is increasingly more difficult to execute. As spaces get tighter and packed with more men behind ball, false nine has less space to drift back and be effective. Therefore, it is no wonder only the most refined and gifted players have the chance to play it and be successful.

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