Pep Guardiola’s tenure as Barcelona’s head coach has changed the way modern football is being played in many ways. But the defining change came about when he moved Lionel Messi from the right to the center and made him play as The False 9 . Then, even in the International football where tactical innovation and change is rare, teams started playing strikerless formations. Spain under Vicente Del Bosque proved that The False 9 can be successful even when you don’t have someone as talented Messi, as Cesc Fabregas played as one in the Euro 2012 final which Spain won easily. So what is The False 9? And why is it called so?
Well ,the term “The False 9” might be quite new to the football dictionary but the position is quite archaic. The false 9 is essentially a striker who drops deeps,i.e he drifts back into midfield rather staying around the penalty box for various tactical reasons. We ll get to see why he does so,a little later.
Why is it called the false 9?
Back in the old days of football,when there were no squad numbers the traditional center forward used to wear the number 9.
The traditional numbering system
So when this player who was wearing the number 9 on his shirt didn’t play in the area of the pitch(or the role) he was originally assigned to,he was no more the “true number 9”. So that’s how the term “The False 9” was coined.
In the 1930s,the Austrian national team known as the wunderteam were dazzling fans and opposition teams with their revolutionary style of play. Leading the team was the withdrawn center forward Matthias Sindelar. Sindelar was one of the first strikers who dropped deep to create havoc among defences. Then there was the great Hungarian team of the 50s with Nandor Hidegkuti as the deep lying forward. But in modern football,the earliest example one can think of is,Francesco Totti for Roma under Luciano Spaletti in 2006/07.
The Rise of the False 9
After Totti’s success as a false 9 for Roma,many managers started to experiment with it around Europe. Sir Alex Ferguson tried out a strikerless formation with Tevez,Rooney and Ronaldo with all the three having no fixed positions. Arsene Wenger too with Arsenal deployed Robin Van Persie as a false 9 in 2009. It was vital as it allowed Wenger to field another striker,either Bendtner or Eduardo with Van Persie. But it was Lionel Messi with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona who played it to perfection. Messi with his ability to drop deep and play defence splitting passes was crucial for Barcelona’s great success during those days . The 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid was probably the peak of Pep’s Barcelona and Messi was easily the man of the match in that game tearing apart the Real defence with ease. But Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain line up in the Euro 2012 final gave “The False 9” an official status and it became mainstream. It was when the vast majority of football fans came to know about the position,as for the first time in a big international final,a side started without a striker. Cesc Fabregas a pure attacking midfielder,played as a center forward for Spain against Italy in the final and Spain ran out 4-1 winners.
Why is The False 9 successful
Generally with a traditional center forward,one of the center back tracks him and the spare one covers for him,but with a false 9 both the center backs during the build up play are left free. This causes confusion as they are caught in two minds on whether they need to follow the false 9 into midfield or do they stick with their partner and maintain their defensive line.Lets take the above mentioned example of the game,Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid.
In all the three goals shown above,the red circle is Messi and the two black circles are the Center Backs,Pepe and Carvalho(In the second photo it is Pepe ,Sergio Ramos and Carvalho who leaves his position in an attempt to close down Messi). All the three pictures show the final pass before the goal,and in all the three cases the Center backs are not tracking Messi nor are they in a position to stop the goalscorers. This confusion created the goals and even though Messi didn’t get a single goal in this game, but it was one of the greatest displays of how The False 9 could be so devastating.
How do you counter the False 9 Generally a 4-2-3-1 if played with a deep line and a good double pivot wont allow much space for the false 9. The space infront of the defence will become very congested and with no target in the box for the attacking team,they keep running into cul-de-sacs. This tactic also called as “Parking the bus“(or parking the aeroplane in the case of Chelsea on route to their Champions League win in 2012) was quite successful in negating the false 9. Another way is to allow a center back the freedom to follow the false 9 all over the pitch,and expect the remaining back three to hold the line.
2020 Update: It’s been more than 7 years since this article was published and The False 9 has become part of the mainstream with even FIFA allowing you to play as one. Lionel Messi is no longer playing the role as he doesn’t have the legs anymore. Currently, the best exponent of this role is surely Roberto Firmino whose unselfishness and intelligent movement has allowed Sadio Mane and Salah to thrive. But we might never get to see another player or team to utilize The False 9 as effectively as Lionel Messi under Pep Guardiola.
Spain has developed a unique commitment to technical football which has put them in good stead to make the past decade a period of Spanish dominance. The story to this dominance begin decades before hand when Cruyff decided that Barcelona would be the club he would next manage after his time at Ajax was over. He would create a cohesive identity for the club which kept the vision while finding success. This vision began with a number of manager who came before Cruyff but after Cruyff left, there would be many managers in Spain who would use his methods to discovery their own success.