The False 9Football can almost be a bit like fashion. When I was growing up the most popular formation was a four, four, two. The two strikers were vital to the team with one being a strong player who could hold up the play while being very good in the air. Then the other, the number nine almost, loved to run in behind the defence and be the penalty box poacher, with goals first and foremost on their mind.
Over the years things have changed, to a point now where it’s most common to see one striker, someone leading the line on their own, pressurising defenders while being good on the ball. These strikers are expected to score goals, but over the last couple of years this has started to change.
Teams are now scoring more goals from all over the pitch. Midfielders, like Fernandes, are scoring twenty plus a season. Decent numbers for strikers themselves.
Wingers like Sterling, Rashford, Salah and Mané are all scoring in the twenties, if not more in some cases! We’re also seeing goals scored from full backs more often. Just this week Joao Cancelo of the blue side of Manchester and Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold have scored great goals.
The goal scoring responsibility has become more shared around.
I’m sure over time things will begin to change again, with new techniques and tactics, meaning that two main strikers will play, however at the moment it is mainly one with that role changing and being flexible in itself.
The first time that I heard of a false nine was in the days of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona. Lionel Messi would play in a withdrawn role, getting on the ball in the centre of the pitch, while causing havoc for the opponents' defence.
Lately the false nine is beginning to be used again. Pep, since Aguero’s lack of game time this season, has used Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne as the main forward. At Liverpool for the last few years there has been Roberto Firmino, not necessarily positioned as a false nine, but a striker who drops deep to get on the ball.
Kevin De Bruyne has spent much of this season in the false nine position.
These players can be influential and the false nine position can really cause some difficulties for the opposition's back line.
If you’re a player and you’re looking to play, or understand, the position then what is most important is that we realise the value of the player’s movement in this false nine role.
Starting as a false nine means that you are able to drop deep more often than a normal striker does, getting on the ball more frequently. But it’s not just about what you do on the ball.
The best false nines are a real pain to the defence. Typically there will be two centre backs. If the main striker is dropping deep toward the midfield then who do they mark?
This can be a very weird concept. Centre backs all throughout their footballing careers have had someone to mark; what do they do when there is no-one?
You may think they would have an easy game, but in a lot of cases it’s the defender's instinct to step out and try to squeeze the player in the false nine position, putting pressure on them when they receive the ball. Doing this can work, especially if the defender reads the game well, however, if they are a fraction or two behind the play then there is a real problem for the defence.
The space the defender has left behind them by stepping to the false nine position is very dangerous and could just open the door for the inverted wingers to make their diagonal run in behind, latching on to the through ball.
This shows how important movement is in this false nine position. If the player moves away from the centre backs it can then cause big problems in the opposition's back line and their positioning.
What’s handy about this position though is that you can also be of great effect when you receive the ball. If that defender hasn’t followed you into midfield you will have more space and time on the ball. This is largely due to the fact that you may have just created an overload in the midfield area. Once you receive the ball, turning to face the back four, you’ll realise that there is a great opportunity to break forward and attack.
Centre backs really dislike seeing the attacker face them with the ball, preferring instead if the attacker were facing their own goal.
If you can receive the ball on the half turn, look up and see the options forward, then you have a great opportunity to be a threat to the opposition's goal. It may be that you have the space to notice the wingers run, or even the opportunity to get on the ball and dribble at the centre back.
The false nine position can open up a lot of doors.
Movement is the key though. Drop off to receive the ball with the aim to drag defenders out of their position; do this and space opens up for you and your team-mates. If the defender doesn’t follow you then you can still have the upper hand. Be aware of what is around you by scanning, see if you can receive the ball on the back foot and turn to face the back four. Once you’ve done this you’ll realise what options you have, giving you a great opportunity to create, and even take, goal scoring opportunities.
The false nine is an incredibly interesting position that seemed to be quite odd when it first was introduced. But now we can really see the benefits of the role, either to drag opponents out of position or to get your talented players on the ball.
But the most key aspect of the role is the movement. Move, be aware, and then execute the technical skills to be a false nine that thrives in this withdrawn role.