The false nine: Is this the end?
The old fashioned centre-forward is striking back against the false nine
The centre forward was dead.
A solemn Fernando Torres partnered Roberto Soldado and Alvaro Negredo on the bench. They peered enviously as a Spanish Armada of miniature midfielders tiki takaered outside
the 18 yard box. The strikers were unneeded spectators; redundant extras at Euro 2012, watching the maestros take centre stage.
Football's latest evolution had heralded the rise of the 'false nine'. Yet, just 12 months later and it seems the false nine had a false dawn, waning in popularity amongst even the most cultured of football aficionados.
As Pep Guardiola prepares to welcome Robert Lewandowski into his already formidable
Bayern Munich side, it seems the big, number nine is striking back.
The modern fascination with the false nine can be traced to 2007. With injury limiting his striking options, Roma boss Luciano Spaletti entrusted Francessco Totti with the role in a 4-6-0 formation.
Since then it has rightly become synonymous with Barcelona, Pep Guardiola, and Leo Messi. Pep's Barcelona legacy will be championed for his trophy haul, but it should be defined as an experiment designed to vindicate a philosophy and bring about evolution.
With Johan Cruyff, the last great false nine before Totti, as inspiration, Pep set about finding a way to cast the illustrious talents of young Messi as the centrepiece of his tiki-taka masterpiece.
Drawing on the influences of Marcelo Bielsa and Cruyff's systems, his fluid 4-3-3 could adapt and become anyone of four systems. With the full backs pushed on, Sergio Busquets dropping into defence, and Messi supported by the widemen, it became a caviler 3-4-3 reminiscent of Cruyff’s dream team.
With Messi dropping into midfield and the widemen running in behind, it morphed into a diamond 4-4-2 exploiting Messi's playmaking attributes. With Messi in the hole, and the wide men holding their position, it became a 4-6-0 that overloaded the centre of the pitch, aiding the midfield carousel and rendering the opposition centre backs futile.
There were three keys to the false nine's success at Barca under Pep. One, the multi-dimensional talents of Messi, equally gifted in the areas of dribbling, passing, and finishing.
Two, the fabled understanding between Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi. Triangles are the foundation of tiki-taka, with passing moves developing between a trio of players at a time; seldom in the history of football has there been a more technically proficient and intelligent triangle than these three.
Finally, and crucially, the role of the widemen. In Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o, Messi was flanked by two converted strikers, each with the ability and tendency to drift into the centre forward position whenever Messi vacated it, confusing defenders and offering penetration.
Neymar, Alexis, and Pedro's pace and runs in behind have continued to offer similar same benefits. It is no coincidence that most of Messi's assists come from a through ball in between RB and CB, finding a diagonal run from a winger.
A failure to understand and replicate Pedro et al's role in the false nine's success is the reason it has not worked for other managers and teams. Spain's supposedly boring performances at Euro 2012 are the prime example.
With David Villa injured, Torres in abysmal form, and his other strikers inexperienced in international competition, Vicente Del Bosque deployed Cesc Fabregas as his false nine. This decision was wrongly blamed for a string of low scoring victories featuring monopolising of possession but lack of clear cut chances.
The problem for Spain was two-fold: lack of space and lack of penetration. For many pundits, the obvious solution was playing Torres, Negredo, or Soldado and giving Spain a focal point for their attacks.
Yet, the issue was in Del Bosque's choice of wide players and use of two midfield pivots. In playing Iniesta and Silva out wide, he packed his side with technical quality but deprived it of any pace to stretch defences. Silva, Iniesta, and Cesc all gravitated towards the natural number ten position leaving the centre of the park congested and meaning Spain's play was always in front of the defence and very rarely penetrative.
Further exacerbating this was the selection of both Busquets and Xabi Alonso, meaning Xavi was unable to collect the ball from the CBs and orchestrate. Spain essentially had six players cramped into a 20 yard radius with no out ball or goal-scoring options.
Had Del Bosque dropped one of the pivots, moved Iniesta into midfield and unleashed the pace of Pedro and Jesus Navas making Walcott-esqe off-ball runs in behind, the false nine would have provided Spain a devastating platform to reflect their dominance in the scoreline.
This was illustrated in their performance against Portugal. After 90 minutes of tiki-taka without threatening, the introduction of Navas injected tempo and chances aplenty into extra-time. In the end, misuse of the false nine did not stop Del Bosque from ending the tournament as a champion.
In the final, Jordi Alba’s ambitious attacking compensated for the lack of wingers. But the criticism of Spain’s overall performances have seen Negredo, a big number nine, start up front in recent games.
To many this shift will confirm suspicions that the false nine was a fad, successful for Guardiola only because his false nine happened to be arguably the best player ever (please note the arguably). This suggestion is unfair but makes an important point: if the false nine is to work, the player entrusted with the role must be a genuine genius.
Teams from Premier League to Sunday League can get away with fielding a striker with substandard finishing or touch, as long as he offers a target and creates space by stretching defences. The false nine is not so forgiving a position.
It will expose any technical deficiencies or slowness of thought. It will not reward managers for its use when they delegate the role to the likes of Jonjo Shelvey (despite his potential and admirable grit) or Andre Schurrle (again despite his potential). That is not to say it can only be used with Messi.
There are a number of great players who would excel as false nines, given the right system and support cast. Cesc has often proved an able substitute for Messi, at Barcelona, as will Neymar. Wayne Rooney, for example, would simultaneously satiate his hunger for involvement in the game and thirst for goals, but he would need superior midfielders and wingers to those currently at United.
So herein lays the key reason why some managers are reluctant to abandon the old fashioned centre forward for a false nine. It requires too many factors to work. It has to be the icing on an already delicious cake.
It requires midfielders with the ability to pass in between the lines and find the false nine in pockets of space. It needs wingers quick, intelligent, and hardworking enough to become the prime source of penetration without abandoning their responsibilities.
It requires a commitment to a philosophy of flair over pragmatism. The false nine must be a world class talent capable of receiving the ball in between the minefield of holding midfielders and centre-back, then turn and run, or feed an intricate through-ball to a winger.
In essence, it is much easier to enjoy success with a number nine, who, when all else fails, can run onto a 50 yard punt or take one down, hold up play, and get his side up the pitch.
Indeed the renaissance of the classic number nine is also down to an abundance of rich talents emerging in the last few years. The likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robert Lewandowski, and Edinson Cavani et al are amongst the elite players of the game and their guarantee of goals, physical presence, and an emergency outball make them a premium asset.
In the Premier League, beastly Belgian duo, Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke showed last season that a good number nine can drag an average team to victory through sheer force. Even the best false nine in the world needs at least a good team to function.
Football evolves in cycles. Despite a short preoccupation with the false nine, the striker will never fall into extinction. It is a results game, and strikers have and always will guarantee results.
The false nine in many ways is a statement that a manager and his team will keep their game beautiful. So it is left to the principle philosopher, Pep, to decide the false nine’s fate. Thomas Muller’s intelligence in the role helped destroy Manchester City, Mario Gotze has many of the same attributes as a young Messi, whilst the incoming Lewandowski is arguably the best old fashioned number nine in world football.
Who or what Guardiola decides to build his future attack around could decide the legacy of the false nine.
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