The term “false 9” refers to a player playing in a lone-striker position who drops deep to search for the ball. The intention is to draw opposing central defenders with him and create a diversion for team-mates to move into space behind the defensive line and exploit chances to score.
Teams utilising a false 9 are often erroneously described as playing in a 4-6-0 formation, which on face value may look like a negative way to set-up for a game. The reality is quite different, and when working to its full potential, the system allows for the team to dominate midfield possession, get forward in numbers and take advantage of space and chances created.
Once upon a time, the number on the back of a player’s shirt suggested the position on the field he would play and had little to do with image rights. In those days, the number 9 was the archetypal “out-and-out” striker, representing the team’s biggest goal threat. The introduction of squad numbers means that the original significance of a shirt number may now be lost; in fact, the false 9 in question will almost always covet his team’s number 10 shirt indicating he is the team’s most technically gifted, creative player and heartbeat of the side.
Very few players possess the full range of skills required to play in the role. A false 9 requires excellent dribbling skills, ball control, and the ability to pick accurate short passes, as well as exceptional vision, creativity and awareness in order to turn midfield possession into attacks. A defender’s nightmare, the false 9 is very difficult to man-mark due to his movement around the field. If teams choose to follow him too closely, they risk being drawn into his deception; if they leave him space, he will run at them with speed causing fear and prompting errors.
The first false 9 was reputedly 1930s Austrian star Matthias Sindelar. Known as the “Paper Man” due to his slight build, he is recognised as one of the world’s best pre-war footballers. Sadly, little if any video evidence of Sindelar survives but reports from the time suggest the Austrian was a master at creating confusion among opposition defenders.
In 2006, Luciano Spalleti’s Roma were credited as being the first modern side to use a false 9 and did so quite by accident. Facing an injury crisis, Spalletti was forced into selecting midfielder Francesco Totti as his forward. The results were impressive, Roma were able to get as many as 6 men forward at any one time, overwhelming defences and going on a run of 11 consecutive victories.
Since Roma’s success, the footballing equivalent of the chaos theory found admiration and a new home in Spain. The false 9 position has been central to the success of the tiki-taka system which provided a platform for Spain and Barcelona to achieve success through free-flowing, attractive football. Lionel Messi for Barça and Cesc Fabregas’ role for Spain’s la Roja are perhaps the most prominent exponents of the position. Robin van Persie, in his time with Arsenal often deployed similar diversion tactics to create opportunities for team-mates.
No tactical system is fool-proof and teams who press quickly, share marking responsibilities and ultimately reduce the ability for a false 9 to get on the ball and create mischief, will have most success. A deep-lying defensive midfielder can be employed to negate the space he operates in regulating his effectiveness. If all else fails, teams can always hold a deep, well organised back-line and limit the opposition’s attackers to pot shots from outside of the box.
Totti, Messi and Fabregas who perform the role to perfection, are a joy to watch and a real threat to defences, however their ultimate success or otherwise, depends on how well their team-mates can adapt to playing in a system where they have no attacking focal point to aim for.
The best players in the world are admired for their ability to make complex moves appear to be simple. The false 9 is a player capable of the extraordinary, bringing poise, grace and flair to the field, capturing the imagination of supporters the world over.