The Football Notebook
The Evolution of the False Nine
Updated: Oct 8, 2020
The False Nine is a deep-lying striker who drifts away from the forward line into the area between the lines. This movement in between the lines creates uncertainty in the defence whether to track and leave a gap in the defence or stay and leave the False Nine free to receive between lines. Should a midfielder drop to mark them, it simply creates another gap in midfield allowing an opponent to run into the space and create attacks.
"False Nine" was popularised during the 2008-2012 era of Spanish dominance on the club and country front. Guardiola’s use of Messi in that role, as well as Cesc Fàbregas for Spain in Euro 2012. However, although you can classify Messi for Barcelona and Fàbregas for Spain in the same role, their responsibilities were quite different; Messi’s were to drag defenders out of position to create space for himself and others, receive, and take on a shot, or create a chance. Fàbregas’s were to drag defenders out of position for Spain to play short passes around; the Spanish side in the Euro 2012 Final was quite peculiar, with no natural attackers; highlighting their need for superb technical ability all round quite well.
Nonetheless, the False Nine was not a modern invention, but rather was one of the 1930s. Matthias Sindelar was the first well known False Nine, playing this role for Austria. Although a dropping centre forward was common across many footballing countries in the 1920s, no single player stood out until him. Sindelar was not a tall, strong, or fast player, and was not static in the penalty box area. Instead, he dropped deep to find space and brought others into the game.
Pep Guardiola used Messi in the False Nine role to fulfil his Positional Play Theory: “it consists of generating superiorities behind each line of pressure. It can be done more or less quickly, more or less vertically, more or less grouped, but the only thing that should be maintained at all times is the pursuit of superiority. Or to put it another way: create free men between the lines”.
Pep told Messi to drop between lines to create passing options as well as open up space for himself and others. The wingers would either come into the space between the lines or stay out wide, all to create a diamond of passing options available to the midfield. Messi’s movement created multiple overloads, allowing Barcelona to capitalise by playing to him or others in between lines. Any player receiving between lines causes many problems for the opposition, because they have time and space, and are in exceptionally dangerous areas.
This may make the False Nine seem like the perfect tactic for any team to use to win matches, but multiple factors led to a steep downfall in popularity and general effectiveness:
1 - The return of counter-attacking systems mean that teams need to be tighter in transition, and a free-roaming attacker will leave gaps in the team's structure
2 - Three and five man defences cut down the False Nine’s space and allow teams to choke space between lines with the extra centre back available
3 - Pressing becoming a prominent feature of many strong sides, and having a False Nine significantly lowers a team's ability to do so
There are still a few pure False Nine’s in world football that perform very well week in week out, but these players are exceptionally talented and have a system which is built to perfection around them, a luxury which many teams cannot afford. Some of these players include Roberto Firmino for Liverpool, Josip Iličič for Atalanta, and occasionally Mario Götze for Borussia Dortmund.
Most strikers of today are an amalgamation of the classic centre forward and the False Nine of a decade ago, combining runs in behind, with movement in between lines, with holding up play, with pressing, with combinations with teammates to bring them into play. They have evolved to suit the modern game better, and are far better all-rounders than the back to goal strikers of the past, and the False Nines of the 2008-2012 period.
False Nines will always be remembered as the role that took the football world by storm, tormenting defences, and often scoring and assisting an absurd amount of goals. Messi in 2012 is case in point, with a ridiculous 91 goals and 22 assists in 69 games. But that's a story for another time.