What is a ‘False 9’ In Soccer

A role heavily popularized by Guardiola’s Barcelona was first introduced to the mainstream soccer world in the early 2010s. Throughout the whole past decade, there were many different strategies used by various coaches, but there wasn’t a single one that was as influential and as popular as the false 9 strategy. 

There were many cases in which various coaches tried to emulate Guardiola’s specific style of play, but failed. So, what is so special about this specific strategy/role? We will try to focus on various aspects that made the term false 9 synonymous with excellence. 

What is a ‘true 9’?

Traditionally, the number 9 has always been soccer’s center-forward. The origin of the number comes from two games played in 1928 – Sheffield Wednesday against Arsenal and Chelsea against Swansea Town.

The 9 took up the central, most advanced position in 2-3-5 formations. While numbers vary across continents in defense and midfield, number 9 is almost exclusively used by strikers all across the world.

A ‘normal’ or a ‘true’ number nine is the player who leads. The player who either plays on the shoulder of the defense or is holding up the ball and looking to bring up the midfielders or deep-lying striker into the game.

The whole point of playing a false 9 is to score, to get on the end of crosses or feed off through balls. That means that traditional number 9 is a central attacking role leading the line and playing against center backs. By doing so, the number 9 is trying to find space behind the opposing defensive line to score.

So, what is a ‘false 9’?

To understand the modern usage of false 9, we have to take a look at the origin of the role. Many would agree that the first time that false 9 was ever implemented was in the 1930s by Matthias Sindelar, an Austrian striker who had this role in the national team.

Even though the dropping center forward was somewhat common in both central Europe and  South America a decade before, in the 1920s, Sindelar was the first one who brought it to the center of attention.

As he wasn’t built as a ‘proper number 9’, Sindelar was somewhat forced to drop deep into the midfield to create space and bring his forwards and wingers into the game.

Another example of a false 9 from the mid 20th century would be Nandor Hidegkuti, who played for the Hungarian national team. Hidegkuti’s time to shine came when Hungary played against England on several occasions. The traditional physical number nines that England had at the time could not compare to the more agile and, to some extent, versatile Hungarian.

If we take a look at the current state of a false 9 and its modernization in the past 10-15 years we will notice that the man responsible for the ever-growing popularity of this role is the aforementioned Pep Guardiola.

Guardiola’s positional theory would be best summed up as creating superiorities between lines of pressure through rehearsed movements and rapid passing

Instead of using a striker as the central point of the whole strategy, Guardiola’s idea was to utilize Messi’s ability by instructing him to drop deep into the midfield while his wingers came inside or stayed wide depending on where the ball was at the moment.

By doing so, the player in possession, in this case, the midfielder, would have several passing options. Having a central striker dropping back to the midfield opens a huge space between the opposing midfield and defense and creates several triangles and diamonds that let the attacking team have a huge number of passing options.

Another case of the popularization of false 9 in the 20th century would be Luca Spaletti’s Roma in the mid-2000s. The focal point of Spaletti’s Roma was Francesco Totti who was some sort of a ‘modern-day false 9’ before the actual ‘modern-day false 9’.

Totti was in this case more of a creative attacking midfielder with striking duties rather than a proper striker who dropped deep into his own midfield. 

Spaletti’s influence made more and more tacticians interested in this kind of strategy that would become widespread in the early 2010s. By having a false 9, teams could easily exploit the potential of overloads between the opposing midfield and defensive lines.

How does the overload work?

Even though the majority of the modern teams have switched from man-marking to zonal-marking, playing against a false nine is still not an easy task. By having a false 9 who drops deep into his own midfield, the opposing defense becomes vulnerable since a CB (center-back) will most likely follow and mark the striker. That means that the opposing FB (full-back) now has to cover for the CB and by doing so, leaves an open space on either of the flanks. If the FB decides not to cover for the CB, the defending team now has a huge hole in the center of the defense.

If the CB decides to stay and not follow the false 9, the attacking team now has more space to either create an opportunity by passing to wingers who are now making runs between the lines or even shoot from the distance.

In the past couple of seasons, we have seen a drop of teams forcing a false 9 role solely because there has been an increase of managers switching to 3- or 5-men defenses. By doing so, the overload that would usually be created is now quite limited. Three CBs combined with two wingbacks create a safer defensive line that is not as vulnerable as a defensive line that consists of only four players.

Many other world-class ‘real nines’ have started to drop deep into their own midfield and somewhat copy the false nine role. This only shows the huge influence that false nine has had on modern soccer over the last decade. There is a possibility that in the near future we will see a rise of more technical number 9 that could adapt to both the false- and the real nine role.

Pros and cons of playing ‘false 9’

Every single strategy in every single sport has its benefits and disadvantages – just like the false 9. If we focus on the pros, we will see that having a forward who drops into deeper positions and creates gaps in the opposing backline is a huge advantage to the team in the attacking phase.

Depending on the defending team’s aggressiveness, the attacking team has many options between the opposing lines. Both the midfield and the forward who dropped back now can easily control the play by either holding possession and creating a slow build-up or passing the ball into the now open space.

One of the biggest cons here would be forcing the false 9 strategy without having the proper player for the role. Since there aren’t that many players who could play at the same level as Messi (or be close to it), it’s really hard to have a proper false 9 who utilizes his potential to the fullest. A good false 9 should always be a skillful player who is both great with the ball and performs well under pressure.

Another con would be playing against the ever-growing popular 3-at-the-back strategy, which doesn’t let a false 9 have enough space, and isn’t as vulnerable as the usual 4-at-the-back formation. Keep in mind that when playing with 3 players at the back, the two wide players usually act as wingbacks which means that they help the defense. Combined with at least two CMs or two CDMs, the team now effectively defends with 5-7 players. This strategy has managed to nerf the once unbeatable false 9 role.

Can anyone play the false 9?

As previously mentioned, the false 9 should be a skillful and creative player who performs well under pressure. There’s a reason why teams who utilize this strategy tend to dominate while the ones who are not so good at it struggle to score. That reason is that not anyone can play as a false 9. 

If we for example take a look at a typical English striker, or a typical ‘number 9’, we will notice that that player tends to be fairly tall, strong, and someone who is a proper aerial threat. Messi, for example, is none of that. But what Messi excels at is his creativity and ability to organize the whole play. The typical number nine can’t quite do that, but if the situation was different, and a typical tall and strong striker shared at least some similarities with the likes of Messi, the soccer as we know it would probably be a lot more different than what we are used to.