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Cantona, Bergkamp, Messi…the ‘False Nine’ is effective but underused

Manchester United’s trident attack of previous seasons, Barcelona’s freely interchanging forwards, and Totti’s top goal scoring year for Roma all highlight the effectiveness of the false nine. Yet it remains a widely underused tactic in football.

Ferguson’s tactical acumen is oddly underplayed in many instances but his use of Ronaldo as a phantom forward away to Roma in 2008 (the game where the ridiculous towering headed goal was scored) is a prime example of tactically confusing the Italians. Their centre backs were bewildered by Ronaldo’s free role and were made redundant in many instances by the lack of a focal point in attack to mark. Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto’o, in 2008/2009, would similarly switch positions and drift creating space for Alves to overlap and Iniesta to come from deep. Even this year, Messi has featured heavily – on paper – down the centre of the pitch but his role is somewhere between an actual striker and an auxiliary forward. Barcelona finished the season with three highly mobile, small forwards (Bojan, Messi, Pedro) without a designated, traditional striker who always occupies the central defenders.

This is not a new tactic; Hungary in the 50s is a famous example of the devastating effect deep lying forwards can have. The Premier League has seen noticeable success for attackers operating between the lines of defence and midfield (Cantona, Zola, and Bergkamp) and this is largely due to the uniform deployment of a flat 4-4-2. Wingers would occupy fullbacks and central midfielders would mark each other leaving a deep lying forward to gain two advantages: the first is a numerical advantage in midfield – this allows slightly more time to receive/an immediate option when in possession. The second is, due to the fullback and midfielders all being occupied, the choice for a central defender to pull out of position. Wenger’s Arsenal in the early 2000s were very adept at exploiting a flat 4-4-2 because Henry drifted to the left and Bergkamp picked up the ball from midfield, who were the centre backs left to mark? One would have to drift with Henry and the other may be forced to step up to Bergkamp, leaving the option for a miraculously curved through ball in Henry’s path – the ploy isolated Henry in a foot race with a defender.

So why is it underused? Well, the examples I have given are all absolutely top players. Players like Ronaldo and Messi afford their managers the option to play without out and out strikers and the tactic is a result of the personnel. Arrigo Sacchi believed in uncorrupted tactical ideals, absolutes even: players needed to adhere to the system he envisaged. This couldn’t be further from the case where actual tactical progression has occurred in football. Brazil switched to 4-2-4 after losing the 1950 World Cup final to Uruguay and their W-M was exploited, Ferguson explicitly instructed his team to always occupy the right back position to counter Henry’s forays, Mourinho saw best how to deconstruct the flat 4-4-2 in the Premier League, which in turn has facilitated greater variation and tactical nous.

Progression remains tacitly reactionary; the ability to react to circumstances and personnel. Bergkamp is not a luxury every manager can have. Dropping any other striker into midfield as a false nine ,or a semi-10, or a phantom forward, or whatever you want to call it, would not have yielded the same results – his vision and execution was (and remains) almost without parallel. Equally, would Bergkamp’s ability have been as highly regarded had there not been the pace and movement of Henry to compliment it so devastatingly? These are not easily isolated or coldly ascertainable singularities. As with everything to do with the game, it is dynamic and dependent on a number of factors all in relation to one another.

A final afterthought is the possibility of a strikerless Holland team in a fortnight’s time. Robin Van Persie remains very much the Dutch amalgam of technical proficiency and versatility and has splendidly played the false nine role for Arsenal. If, and I hope he does, Van Marwijk chooses to deploy Sneijder, Robben, Van der Vaart, and Van Persie we will see the effect of these four playing together rather than a pre-thought tactical imperative from the coach. The natural flow of their movement with regards to one another may create a fluid, interchanging, strikerless formation. And if it is effective, it will still be an underused tactic because it is not very common to have four players as good as these in the same team.

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