A False-9 is essentially a centre forward or a striker who drops deep into the midfield area and plays a role of a playmaker rather than an out-and-out striker due to various tactical reasons. The number 9 is used to depict a centre forward in a team. Therefore, when the player wearing the number 9 shirt is not playing in his orthodox position, he is not the true number 9 for the team. This is the reason that the player is known as the opposite of a true number 9, i.e., a false-9. Playing with a false-9 marks a huge step away from the two-striker system many used 10 years ago.
The false-9 formation was first used by the Austrian national team in the 1930s, in which the false-9 was Matthias Sindelar, and was later-on adopted by the Hungarian national team in the early 1950s with Nándor Hidegkuti acting as the false-9. Former Roma manager Luciano Spalletti used Francesco Totti as the false-9 up-front in an innovative “4–6–0” formation in 2007; this was met with a run of 11 consecutive victories. But his side was often considered a side lacking quality defense.
Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger utilised Robin van Persie as a false-9, often partnering him with Theo Walcott who would move into the box from the flanks, in a lopsided 4–2–3–1 formation. Cesc Fabregas was Vicente Del Bosque’s false-9 in Euro 2012 including the final of the competition, which they won 4-0. Manchester City, most recently started using the false-9 formation utilizing David Silva because of the injuries to their strikers.
But the most successful team to use false-9 was Barcelona under former manager Pep Guardiola, who played Lionel Messi as the false-9, which turned out to be a master-stroke as Barcelona dominated Europe, winning all 4 trophies they competed for in the 2010-11 season. Messi’s role as the false-9 was key in Guardiola’s “Tiki-taka” philosophy, with some of the highlights being a 5-0 win over fierce rivals Real Madrid and a 3-1 romp of Manchester United in the Champions League final.
Advantages of playing a False 9 formation:-
When a team plays with a 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or a 4-2-3-1 formation, the centre backs of the opposite team have the liberty to mark the sole striker of the team. What a false-9 does is that it leaves both the opposition’s centre backs free. The aim of doing so is to create confusion in the minds of the centre backs, as they are caught in two minds – whether to go after the false-9 leaving space behind them for onrushing midfielders, forwards or wingers to exploit, or leaving him free and allowing him to dribble at you and pick out a pass or even go for goal himself.
How to counter the false-9 formation:-
The most effective formation against a false-9 is playing a 4-2-3-1 with a deep line and having a pair of centre backs who won’t allow enough space for the false-9 to work properly. This type of a defensive tactic is often known as ‘parking the bus’ and has been quite successful against the false-9 formation. There is another approach to counter false-9 – allow one of the centre backs to follow the false-9 and hope that the back three maintain the line. This approach is risky, as it leaves the back line with three defenders and if the centre back following the false-9 is beaten, then there is a greater threat of conceding a goal.
Inter Milan in 2010 and Chelsea in 2012 are the examples of teams gaining success against the false-9 formation. The treble winning Inter of Jose Mourinho in 2010 defeated both Chelsea and Barcelona, and Mourinho was later quoted: “We didn’t park a bus, we parked an aeroplane.”
To play as a false-9 is one of the toughest jobs on the football pitch; dribbling ability to take advantage of space between the lines, good short passing ability to link up with the midfield and vision to play through team-mates making runs from deep to goal are the traits needed to be a good false-9. Lionel Messi, who is arguably the world’s best false-9, has been able to master this art and has helped Barcelona to win many titles in the past few years.