When we think about modern football, we think of the advanced formations from the ever-present 4-4-2, to the introduction of the inside forward, and to the extremely popular 4-3-3 variants. Football is an ever-changing scenario and with the likes of Guardiola / Mourinho / Laudrup – all young, aspiring, technical managers, new formations and systems will arise as quickly as others are dropped.
“Football has undergone a process of bielsification; pressing and possessing, passing rather than dribbling, intercepting high up the field rather than making last-ditch tackles, are in vogue.”
So, what’s the newest hype in the world of football tactics? The 4-6-0. The false-9. The false-9 has been about for decades and has been modified and strategised into a fluent and capable formation. But, why are we only hearing of it just now? When you think of the false-9, everyone jumps to Barcelona and Spain instantaneously. However, the tactic has been mastered by Roma for many a season, alike little do many know, Manchester United have also recently succeeded in this formation. United won the Premier League and the Champions League using Carlos Tevez as a centre-forward who regularly dropped off or pulled wide, creating space for Wayne Rooney coming from deep, or for Cristiano Ronaldo cutting in from the right.
As if the false-9 needs any introduction, but here it is.
The false-9 is essentially a position in which the lone striker drops deep, often as deep as the midfield line. Deep enough to become almost a ‘fake forward’, if you will. A F9 sits much deeper than a natural centre-forward, who would plonk himself across the opposition back four and look to exploit the gaps between the full-backs and centre-back. The F9 comes very deep, leaving the central defensive pairing with no-one to mark. Naturally, a centre-back feeds off the striker, judging his positioning and movement accordingly to the centre-forward's, however, without one, they become stagnant. Instinctively, as it is ground into them through daily drills and tactics, the two centre-halves embark forward to get as realistically close to the forward-man as they can. This obviously causes the full-backs to press on accordingly if they haven't already done so. I should also mention, for the false-9 to be successful, the team executing it, pretty much needs to be one of a ‘total football’ system (Total football - is the label given to an influential tactical theory of association football in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team). So, with the back-four pressed, and the false-9 prepared, the anti-pressing countering begins.
Who arose the ‘total football’ hard-balling formation into today’s modern game? Mr Pep Guardiola.
The, now former-Barcelona manager, has changed the face of possession football with the induction of this tactic into the undoubtedly best ‘traditional’ footballing side in the world. He is a proven virtuoso in his field, and his mastery of the “false nine” is just one in a long line of genius tactical adjustments.
Guardiola has created an ever-present team of ‘total football’ enthusiasts with the false-9 leadership of Lionel Messi. Other managers have dabbled with the system, trying to modify it into British shores, with Arsene Wenger having come close before and Rogers toying with it this season. However, the only general success has been on the land of Spain.
Messi’s ability found a new level when Pep Guardiola converted him to the ‘false nine’ role upon taking up the hot seat at the Nou Camp, but despite his unprecedented goal total, Barcelona failed to replicate their stunning success of recent seasons. In their stead, however, the truest exponents of the system this year were Spain, who popularized the system on their path to glory in Poland and Ukraine.
Last year, Spain won the Euros with a complete domination of the tournament through this system. With Villa out and Torres out of rhythm, Del Bosque didn’t want to disarray Spain’s tika-taka footballing system with the induction of the giant Fernando Llorente and took on Guardiola’s initiative of the false-9. Obviously, Messi cannot play for Spain – sadly, so Del Bosque opted with Fabregas. He was majorly criticised by the press to an extent of ‘negative football’ creation and the dismissal of a forward brought terror upon the international game. Spain took the tournament by storm and slaughtered the lambs of Italy 4-0 in the final.
So, how has Guardiola almost ‘perfected’ this tactic?
Guardiola decided to push Messi into the false-9 role in the 10/11 season, and with the induction of Spanish-act David Villa, the formation would become obsolete. Villa would act as an inside forward, while Messi would drift away from the opposing defence. The result was total confusion, and opponents took almost an entire year to figure out how to combat it. By default, it’s famous because it’s Barcelona, it’s organised because it’s Guardiola and it’s perfect because it’s Messi.
We all know it’s a success in Spain, but can it be in English football?
Traditionally, English football, is bode of its simplistic tactical shapes, and has struggled with players who don’t stand where they’re supposed to, which in part explains the success of the likes of Eric Cantona, Gianfranco Zola and Dennis Bergkamp. Just by operating in the grey area between the opponent’s defensive and midfield lines, they caused confusion, and created new, unfamiliar angles of attack.
As you can tell from those three names, the English players themselves aren’t particularly suited to the adversely enhanced role of a false-9. However, Rooney has lately picked into this role and combined his brute English culture, alongside his foreign compatriots at United into a somewhat adapted version. Much more traditional than the Spanish and much less audacious than that of Barcelona’s, but the figuring and function on paper, is quite similar.
So, there is chance for British teams to adjust this tactic into play and no doubt by next season, one or two will take from Barcelona and try inducting it into their systems.
Gene manages and writes for ManToManMarking