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How the false nine works, and doesn't

FLATTER TO DECEIVE
For almost 120 years, the false nine has existed in soccer. Is it time for a change?
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

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MODERN TIMES

Jonathan Wilson explains how striker partnerships are back en vogue to frustrate opposing defenses.

As football matures, its terminology becomes more specialized. The use of the term “false nine” is commonplace now, but it has only really crept into everyday football-speak over the past five or six years, largely as a way to describe how Lionel Messi plays for Barcelona. Yet he was not the first to play as he does, nor is the way he interprets the role the only way of doing so.

Messi, though, is a useful starting point. Traditionally, the number nine was the center-forward, the main striker who led the line, pushed hard up against the central defenders. The British idea of the best type of player for that role (often a big, bruising target man) might have differed from the more subtle continental model, but there was consensus about where on the pitch he played.

Messi does not play there. He starts there, taking the place in the team of the number nine, but is forever pulling deeper or wider, looking for pockets of space so he can turn and either run at the central defenders or slide passes through to runners from midfield who have gone beyond him. And even if Messi is unable to find space, he can have a positive impact for Barcelona, drawing opposing defenders out of position, creating gaps for others. In many ways he is like a traditional number 10, with the crucial difference that he has no central striker ahead of him.

For defenders the dilemma is perhaps best summed up by Harry Johnston, the hapless centerback deputed to mark Nandor Hidegkuti on the day in 1953 England was thrashed 6-3 by Hungary to lose its unbeaten home record against non-British and Irish opposition. "To me," Johnston wrote in his autobiography, "the tragedy was the utter helplessness … being unable to do anything to alter the grim outlook." If he went with the man he was supposed to be marking, he left a hole in the defensive line; but if he stayed where he was Hidegkuti was able to dictate the play from deep.

If it’s so effective, then, why isn’t the false nine more common? At the moment, of top-level clubs, only Barcelona with Messi and, at times, Bayern Munich with Mario Gotze, play with a false nine. It’s a system really only suited to a particular type of team, one that expects to dominate possession and needs a central striker who can encourage a variety of angles of attack. The vast majority of teams prefer to have a focal point up front, somebody who can provide an outlet if they’re forced into long clearances from the back, or can get in the end of crosses. Play with a false nine and the danger is that rather than having players arriving from unpredictable positions into the box, you have no one, blunting your attack.

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Even Hidegkuti wasn’t the first false nine, though. That honor seems to belong to G.O. Smith, who played for the (London) Corinthian in the 1890s, scoring at almost a goal a game, but also dropping off and creating. As the prolific Steve Bloomer, a teammate of his with England, said, Smith “transformed the role of the center-forward from that of an individual striker into a unifier of the forward line, indeed the whole team.”

In Argentina in the 1920s, Independiente experimented with a V-shaped forward line. The majority of teams in those days played with five forwards, usually in a W-shape, but they pulled back the central forward, Luis Ravaschino, to play as a “conductor”. Nolo Ferreira did something similar at Estudiantes.

Then there was the tragic Matias Sindelar, the “paper-man” who helped create the “whirl” for which the great Austria national side of the 1930s was noted. Vsevolod Bobrov did something similar in the Dinamo Moscow “passovotchka” side of the mid-forties, before Alfredo Di Stefano, at Real Madrid in the late fifties and early sixties, and Johan Cruyff at Ajax a decade later, brought into the mainstream the notion that a center-forward could stray.

The modern vogue was probably begun by Luciano Spalletti’s decision to use Francesco Totti as a center-forward at Roma in 2006-07, a tactic that produced a string of brilliant displays. The following season, when Manchester United had Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo together, they too often played without an orthodox center-forward, the three constantly rotating, never giving defenders a reference point.

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It’s Messi, though, who has come to define the role – or at least the way of playing it that entails a forward dropping deep towards the midfield. As one of his Barcelona team-mates has shown, though, a midfielder playing in a central striking role is also a false nine, but in a different way. At Euro 2012, Cesc Fabregas frequently played as the central forward for Spain, not dropping deep, but rather using his natural midfielder’s skills higher up the pitch than usual, holding the ball up, laying it off, essentially helping retain possession without necessarily offering too much of a goal threat. That might not have produced thrilling football, but it was integral to the “control” that Vicente del Bosque demanded.

So, for almost 120 years, the false nine has been with us -- but it’s only recently we’ve developed a term for it. And now, as interpretations vary, perhaps further neologisms are necessary.

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