If you are a soccer lover, you must have noticed that nowadays, players’ jersey numbers no longer have to correspond to their traditional positions on the field.
This is arguably one of the most conspicuous changes in the evolution of soccer, whereby you can no longer tell the game strategy by simply looking at the players’ names and numbers on a TV line-up.
This trend was first seen during the 1954 World Cup and was not adopted in the Premier League until four decades later. Presently, almost all of the top soccer leagues across the globe have adopted the fixed number system, and therefore a team’s line-up will rarely represent its playing strategy.
In this article, we are going to look at one of the most complex positions to play as well as understand on a soccer pitch, the False 9.
The False 9 position was first mentioned in 1911 and it has revolutionized how soccer is played at the time and even as soccer has evolved to what it is today.
The position can be described as a decoy center forward in a team where the striker is deliberately left out of the formation.
During game play, the decoy striker drops back; often as deep as the midfield line. He drops so deep that he leaves the central defenders without anyone to mark.
As a result, the opponents’ defenders become redundant and confused since their play is often influenced by the positioning of the center forward who is literally not there in this case.
The False 9 position led to the creation of the ‘total football’ concept which various coaches, such as Pep Guardiola, have successfully utilized in recent times.
The defining change in how this position is played and viewed in modern soccer came when he repositioned Lionel Messi to the center of the pitch instead of the right wing and gave him the role of False 9 in Barcelona. They ended up winning that year’s La Liga as well as the UEFA title.
The typical False 9 is not an explosive attacker, instead, he is an articulate and finesse-oriented player who has to drop back and build-up the play from as far back as the midfield.
This is important to maintain possession, instead of waiting for a long, direct ball. This player is also more suited to playing on the ground, rather than grappling for aerial balls with taller and stronger players on the pitch.
Players best suited for this position such as Lionel Messi possess technical capabilities as well as special skills in the areas of dribbling, passing and finishing.
A great False 9 is capable of receiving the ball under high pressure, turning and running past defenders quickly, or feeding intricate through balls to a winger or an attacking midfielder to set them up for a scoring opportunity.
He changes his position dynamically so other finishers in the team can capitalize from the spaces he creates.
Playing as the False 9 is arguably the toughest role in soccer, considering both its technical and sets of skills it requires. The False 9 would be typically the best player on the team in terms of skills in order to attract the attention of defenders and cause confusion for the opposing side.
To sacrifice a true attacker for a False 9 is a risky and expensive game strategy, and if the person taking this huge responsibility is not a world-class player, chances are that its going to fail and expose the team to weaknesses that can be exploited by the opposing team.
This means that there are some skills that every False 9 must hone to be effective.
The only skill you wouldn’t need as a false 9 is aerial prowess and strength, nonetheless, most players who can play this position already have these natural qualities.
The False 9 needs all these skills since the level of risk he takes is by default much higher compared to others in the team during ball circulation.
The False 9 is encouraged to attempt passes and dribbles that are considered riskier than those other players would try. This is both accepted and expected from the False 9 in a bid to create as many chances as possible.
The biggest stumbling block with playing a formation that includes the False 9 player is the fact that finding a gifted person who has mastered all these qualities is almost impossible.
Furthermore, the False 9 position requires support from highly technical players who can maintain possession and reposition themselves in spaces he has created to complement his efforts.
To be an effective False 9, one must be intelligent and aware of the flow of the game which constantly influences their mobility and change in position.
The False 9 must move freely dropping in spaces between the lines in order to put defenders into a quagmire.
You see, in a team with a traditional striker, one of the central defender of the opposing team normally close in on the attacker while the other defender remains behind as insurance, just in case the first defender fails.
By dropping deep, the False 9 presents the defenders with a unique challenge of whether to cover the ‘furthest forward central attacker’ of the opposite team or just mark their zones. In both scenarios, there are disadvantages.
To conclude, the False 9 should be a player who can influence the outcome of matches through innovation and confidence, by being efficient, by creating spaces for teammates and by linking-up players via excellent technical abilities.
When trying to improve the effectiveness of the False 9 within a team, there are a number of drills and training exercises that you may try, both as coach and player.
Furthermore, training practices that combine more than one component would be more useful to the False 9 position.
These include passing exercises, functional exercises, positional games and small-sided games.
Functional training refers to practicing that is focused on the demands of a position or a role, either for an individual player, or for a unit, e.g. attacking or midfield.
For instance, a coach may simulate a functional training session for defensive play, focusing on how two defenders work together in the defensive zones. Functional practices should be held in the area of the pitch where that scenario is most likely occur during a real match.
Functional exercises create repetition with the actions necessary to improve technical skills of the players. On that note, you should practice functional training exercises for a short time only, since based on repetition, they can grow boring easily and provide poor learning results.
Passing exercises done on specific areas of the pitch where complex movement happens are crucial to keep the False 9 at his best.
This will simulate passing patterns that might occur during a game and the technical actions recommended for each role and position.
Passing training can be fully rotational or position-specific with no rotation for all the players to experience different positions.
Normally, the players are started off without an opposing team to familiarize with the moves before the opposition is introduced to make things more practical.
Positional games are training exercises designed to simulate specific movements that are present within the game, using a small group of players.
These games work on the fundamental ball possession ideas which involve constant repetition and many passes.
The team playing with a ‘False 9’ position requires technical midfielders who are capable of retaining possession and planning the game from the central third of the field.
The midfielders must be able to find the False 9 while he falls back deep to receive the ball. When the False 9 is retreating deep into the middle third, an overload in the middle area is created, which helps retain possession and allows the team to remain in control of the game.
As a result, teams utilizing a False 9 will usually seem to have a numerical advantage over their opponents in every part of the pitch. Some teams have gone ahead to change the roles of other players from central strikers to wingers or from midfielders to defenders, just to compliment the functions of the ‘False 9’ within the team. Others have used technically gifted midfielders as fullbacks to help with the build-up from the back.
This rotation of players in teams playing with a False 9 gave rise to a brand of football commonly referred to as ‘total football’, which is imperative to the success of the False 9.
Total football is a tactical game theory whereby any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in the team on a need-to basis. This type of play creates a fluid system where no outfield player is constrained to a particular role, making them a potential midfielder, attacker or defender.
The goalkeeper is the only player expected to remain in position and even they can be involved in the build-up of the play.
In ‘total football’, a player who relocates from his zone is replaced by another player from the same team, hence maintaining the organizational structure intended for the team. This formation works best with central midfielders who can dominate possession and keep the play on the offensive half, giving the False 9 the perfect conditions to thrive.
Furthermore, the total football play enables the team to command the game by keeping possession because the ‘False 9’ will often act as an extra central midfielder, helping to outnumber the opposing side and linking up play in central areas.
In the 1930s, the Austrian national team, also known as the Wunderteam, utilized a decoy center forward called Matthias Sindelar. Sindelar was one of the first central attackers to drop deep into the middle third just to build up play and wreak havoc among defenses.
The great Hungarian team of the 1950s led by Nandor Hidegkuti as the False 9 also successfully deployed this strategy.
In recent years, the False 9 and total football concepts were popularized by Fransesco Totti who played as a False 9 for Roma successfully.
This prompted many managers around Europe to experiment with the strategy.
These include Sir Alex Ferguson who employed a striker-less formation using Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo with all the three lacking a fixed role/position.
Arsene Wenger also tried the False 9 position with Arsenal when he utilized Robin Van Persie as a deep lying striker in 2009.
When it comes to planning and executing the False 9, none did it best than when Lionel Messi was playing under Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. Messi’s abilities to drop deep, move quickly and play defense splitting passes to the wingers was imperative for Barcelona’s huge success during those days.
The False 9 position never went mainstream until the success of Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain line up in the Euro 2012 which gave this position/role its official status. In the team, Cesc Fabregas a complete attacking midfielder, acted as a decoy center forward against Italy in the final where Spain destroyed Italy 4-0.
Other famous players who have successfully played as a false 9 include: Johan Cruyff, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Wayne Rooney, Alexis Sanchez and Carlos Tevez.
The False 9 position offers a commanding and entertaining way of playing soccer, however, on its own, it does not guarantee success.
It should be part of the whole team’s formation and strategy, and teams that use the false 9 also need to adopt the total football concept for best results.
Even after a century, the position still remains popular and a valuable tool that coaches can utilize in applicable situations.
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