The false 9

The false 9

posted in: football | 0

Necessity is the mother of invention.

It might be a cliché but it is nonetheless true that circumstances, especially negative ones, can be a great catalyst to new ideas and solutions.

And it so happens that necessity is the cause of one of the most recent tactical revolutions in football. Back in 2007 AS Roma, one of the teams of Italy’s capital, found themselves in an injury crisis. The coach, Luciano Spalletti, had run out of forwards. They were all injured. So he had to come up with an alternative.

Traditionally the so called “number 9″ in football is the striker, the most advanced attacking player. The number 9 name is a relic of a time when players on the pitch only wore jersey numbers from 1 to 11 and the striker was usually assigned that number.

Francesco Totti playing for AS Roma - Photo by Roberto Vicario
Francesco Totti playing for AS Roma – Photo by Roberto Vicario

What Spalletti did was to field a “false-nine”, Roma legend Francesco Totti, in the forward position. Totti, at the time, was a trequartista, a player whose role is to play in between the opposition lines of midfield and defence and provide support for the striker(s). One of the uses of a classic number nine is to stick close to the opposition’s central defenders and to either make runs past them or to hold up the ball while the rest of the team fills the attacking space.

Totti, however, tracked back to the midfield to pick up the ball, practically occupying his former role of trequartista but without having any forwards in front of him. This 4-6-0 formation caused serious problems to Roma’s serie A opposition. Roma had more players in midfield and the defenders, used to marking one or two strikers, had no point of reference. Should they follow Totti all the way to the middle of the pitch or stay back? Those that did track him would leave their central defence partner without cover and those who didn’t left a huge amount of space between the lines.

Roma’s new system was very successful. They won 11 matches in a row in serie A and got to the quarter finals of the champions league. However, this system, probably due to Roma’s lack of quality at the back, tended to occasionally implode. While the quarter-final home-leg win against Manchester United was definitely a consequence of this new system (and also helped by Paul Scholes’ early sending off), Roma were made to look like fools in the away-leg, losing 7-1!

But, wait a moment, isn’t football just a game of 22 people running after a ball. Does all of this really matter? There is a widespread belief, especially in England, that it doesn’t really matter what formation players are put in, all that matters is the quality of players. Put 11 stars on the pitch and they’ll figure it out.

But football is much more than kicking the ball hard or running really fast. Think of it as a game of chess, a game of chess with an ever morphing chessboard. Players have to adapt on-the-fly to situations. It’s why very tactically-aware teams can be much more successful than teams that objectively, have better players but no game-plan.

I don’t own this image – Image is from bleacherreport.com

Since Roma’s revolution the false-9 has been adopted by various teams, some of which have had incredible amounts of success with it. Barcelona have won a few Champions Leagues with it (it helps when the false 9 role is occupied by one Lionel Messi) and Spain have also been very successful with it.

Teams have developed various ways of dealing with the false 9. Many adopted formations with 4 lines of players instead of the classic three like 4-2-3-1. Two defensive midfielders occupy the space in front of the back four, reducing the gap occupied by the false-9.

We will probably see the false 9 used at this summer’s world cup. While Spain have been trying out playing with a proper striker, most recently in the friendly against Italy, they will keep playing their tiki-taka football by flooding the middle of the pitch with midfielders. Germany have also played a couple of matches with a false 9 but it remains to be seen if they’ll deploy it this summer in Brazil.

Prandelli, Italy’s coach, has said that Italy has still not played the way they’ll play at the World Cup. For now, he’d rather keep it a secret and not let other teams figure out countermeasures.

It’s going to be an interesting match if Italy and Spain do play each other in Brazil. Last time they met competitively (in last summer’s Confederations Cup) Italy managed to control the game quite effectively and would’ve won if it wasn’t for their profligacy in front of goal (Italy eventually lost on penalties).

-Francesco Busiello

Header photo by Jyon