How the “False-9” Evolved over the years

There have been a number of interesting tactical trends at the World Cup(2018), and one of them is the general absence of two man striking teams. Edinson Cavani and Luiz Suarez of Uruguay constitute probably the only pure team of two strikers in the tournament. While 4-4-2 has made something of a comeback from its heyday at the standard tactic in football well in to the 2000s, this is largely as a defensive measure. The 4-4-2 allows two compact banks of four for defence, as shown by Iceland, Burnley, or Athletico Madrid, and gives good coverage of the whole pitch. However, many of these 4-4-2s are more like 4-4-1-1s, with one genuine striker, and a shadow striker or attacking midfielder playing off them. Increases in pressing and the fitness of teams meant that withdrawing a second striker to more of a play-maker role makes sense, because it increases a team’s defensive solidity. This means that while the low block looks like there are two men playing up top, only one of them is a genuine striker. The other player is there to provide a creative transition from the low block, to carry the ball into wide areas on the counter and look for the ‘genuine’ striker, and fill back in midfield if required.

Of course, many teams only use one striker anyway. The 4-2-3-1 is still very popular, even if its limitations against low blocks have been exposed at this World Cup, as has its reliance on a really good, energetic, and tactically aware defensive midfielder in the double pivot. 4-2-3-1 gives teams a variety of attacking options, and only requires one striker who can hold the ball up to bring others in or, in the case of Timo Werner at Germany, run beyond the playmaker. The three playing behind are there to create and cut inside, and so while they get into striking positions, generally they are not strikers. There is the odd exception, like Mario Mandzukic playing wide at Juventus, but these are rare and don’t generally imitate the two-man striking team. This system is supposed to give greater defensive solidity, too, as the attacking three can fall back into a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-5-1 easily. These same considerations apply to a lot of three-man defensive line teams. The 3-4-3 uses one striker and two wide players; the 3-5-2 can have two pure strikers, but generally tends to see at least one dropping off to play more as an attacking midfielder.

A good example is England’s fluid 3-5-2, which effectively sees one ‘pure’ striker, Harry Kane, playing with Raheem Sterling, who drifts wide or drops off, ahead of two attack-minded midfielders. The aim is to create space through movement, or to create overloads between the lines to allow quick exchanges and putting players through on goal. This movement, as well as the defensive considerations of more players who can drop off, is the key.

Teams now try to attack by working in the spaces between lines, hence the idea of a false nine striker dropping off and allowing movement from inside forwards towards the goal, and attacking midfielders getting into the box beyond one main striker. Given all that, the reason that Uruguay have persisted successfully with Cavani and Suarez is largely down to their qualities and their extraordinary work-rate, as well as that of the midfield that plays behind them. Oscar Tabarez’s system requires both strikers, it’s rare to have two strikers that can also fit this, and that’s why Uruguay are the exception at the last World Cup and not the norm.

4-4-2 disappearing mostly with trends of 3 man midfielders, the rise of CAMs and CDMs, with GOATs started playing on wings becoming more of scorers instead of assisters, and fullbacks becoming wingers, and with the rise of the world famous False-9 tactics, In traditional football the strikers dons the number 9, however in a formation where the number 9 player didn’t play in the area of the pitch(or the role), he was assigned to, he was no more the “true number 9”, the term “False 9” was coined .

The false 9 is a deeper lying striker, who drifts away from the centre backs into a danger area between the lines, creating uncertainty in the defence about whether to track or stay. While the term was popularised by Pep Guardiola’s use of Lionel Messi in the role with Barcelona and Cesc Fabregas’ similar function for Spain at Euro 2012, the idea that a striker can cause havoc between the lines was ground breaking. The likes of Messi, Hazard and Firmino have all been deployed as 'false nines' at their respective clubs. In the late 2010s, Messi played alongside the likes of Alexis Sanchez and David Villa, who are capable strikers in their own right but positioned as wingers on the team sheet. During those years, Messi would drop deeper down the pitch to link up with Xavi and Andres Iniesta, therefore making defenders confused on who to mark. Typically a winger, Hazard was used as a false nine by Chelsea boss Sarri for home clash with Manchester City during the 2018-19 campaign. It was the first time he chose to play Hazard as a false nine since being appointed Blues manger, and the decision worked as it threw Man City, including Guardiola, off guard. Though he did not have as much possession on the ball, Hazard put in a standout performance, providing assists for both goals. He first delivered the final pass for N'Golo Kante's first strike, and then provided the corner that David Luiz into a goal that enabled Chelsea to seal a 2-0 victory. Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino is another classic example of an ideal false nine, with even the likes of Sergio Aguero having dipped in and out of the false nine role at Man City. It’s really amazing how once used Pep’s most effective tactics is now being used against him and he’s caught off guard, this makes football truly an unpredictable game.

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