What is a ‘False 9’ in Soccer? (Explained)
Throughout the history of soccer, tactical innovations have continually pushed the game forward as each generation of coaches has looked to gain an advantage over their opponents.
While the 'False 9' has been used to great effect in recent years by Guardiola's mesmerising Barcelona and Del Bosque's Spain who won Euro 2012, the role surprisingly dates all the way back to the 1920’s and 30’s when the Uruguay National Team used it during a World Cup.
Out of fashion for many decades, it has resurfaced of late and players such as Messi, Firmino, and Totti have all played the role to devastating effect.
Dropping into space, drawing defenders out of position, and hitting the opponent with a dazzling dribble or dangerous through ball.
Operating neither as an out and out number 9 or as a playmaker number 10, the false 9 is an interesting and unique role in soccer.
But what does it actually involve and how did it come about?
Let's take a look at what is expected of players playing in the false 9 role, some of the pros and cons of using it, and how Guardiola's team swept up all trophies before them using a false 9.
What exactly is a “False 9”?
A false 9 is a deep-lying striker who operates between where a traditional number 9 centre forward and a playmaker number 10 would usually play.
While the false 9 lines up at the start of the match in the position normally taken up by the centre-forward, their approach and what is expected of them is quite different…
Hence the name, “false 9”.
In contrast to the traditional number 9 who is the furthest player up the pitch and acts as a focal point for the team, the false 9 operates much deeper and there is not as much focus on them to hold up the ball or be on the end of every ball into the box.
The attacking player in this role drops deeper than most strikers to set up attacks, and this is very troublesome for the opposition's centre-backs who must then decide whether to track the false 9 and stray from their position or drop off and give them space in which to operate.
Both options have their downsides...
If they follow the false 9 they risk getting dragged out of position which in turn opens up space in behind them for their opponents to exploit.
But if they don't pick them up, the false 9 has more time on the ball and space in which to operate and they can either attempt to dribble past the defence in front of them or pick out a dangerous pass.
While the false 9 role may sound somewhat similar to that of an attacking midfielder or support striker in the number 10 role, there are a number of differences.
The latter, for example, always has a striker in front of them and they usually sit in the 'hole' between the opposition's midfield and defence. Using their vision, creativity, and fantastic passing ability to open up goal-scoring opportunities.
Although they do operate in roughly the same parts of the pitch, the difference is that the false 9 drops into this space to impact the game while the number 10 is free to float around, keep the ball, and instigate play from deep if necessary.
Now that we know what a false 9 is, when did it first come about and what are some more recent examples of teams playing with one?
The Origins and the Revival of the False 9
While a traditional number 9 is expected to lead the line, battle against centre-backs, and put the ball in the net more often that not…
As early as the 1920’s teams were already using strikers who dropped deep to create havoc and impact the play further away from the goal.
The most famous early example of this type of striker is Matthias Sindelar, a slender and technical player who dropped deep to avoid bruising battles with huge centre-backs.
Instead, he would bring the rest of his attacking teammates into play with the space he created through his movement and passing ability.
He played for the fantastic Austrian National Team of the 30’s which earnt itself the nickname the wunderteam since it played such brilliant soccer.
While the 'Danube School' helped popularise the role in central Europe, the false 9 was also used by teams such as River Plate in Argentina and the Uruguay National Team.
One of the most famous teams to use a false 9 was the Hungarian National Team of the 50’s which played such breathtaking soccer while relying on Nandor Hidegkuti to drop deep and influence play.
As aforementioned, the false 9 role fell from popularity for a number of decades until Spaletti revived it and began using it again in 2006 with Roma.
With Totti taking on the role, the Roma team played fluid attacking soccer thanks in large part to the Italy legend's creativity and vision.
The most famous recent example of a team using the false 9 role is of course Guardiola's Barcelona side which played such spellbinding soccer with Messi dropping deep and then dribbling at the opposition or playing one of his unerringly accurate through-balls.
We'll take a closer look in a bit at how Barcelona played with a false 9 as it is such a fantastic example of how the role can be put to devastating effect if used properly.
Since its revival, the false 9 has also helped Spain to win the European Championships in 2012 as Vincente Del Bosque used Fabregas in the role, effectively playing with six midfielders rather than any out and out striker and overwhelming the opposition with their quick moves and passing skills.
Over the last few years Liverpool has also used Firmino in a similar role as he drops deep which allows Salah and Mane to exploit the gaps that appear further up the pitch.
So now that we know the history of the role and how it came to be revived over the last decade, what are some of the pros and cons of using the false 9?
The Pros and Cons of Using a False 9
Players playing in the false 9 role generally need to have great movement, very good dribbling skills, brilliant vision and passing skills, as well as a fantastic understanding of what is expected of them in their role.
Without these key attributes, they are unlikely to make a success of the role.
Which means you really need the right player if you are going to attempt to play with one.
The team is set up in a way that confuses defenders and leaves gaps for players to exploit.
With the false 9 coming short, the team creates lots of different passing angles which helps them to retain possession and move their way up the pitch, transitioning from defence to attack as they go.
When receiving the ball between the opposition's defensive and midfield lines, the false 9 can then either choose to drive at the defence, dribble, look for a dangerous through-ball, or take a shot at goal themselves.
This time and space on the ball for the false 9 can spell the difference between victory and defeat and so the opposition often need to compromise their game plan to deal with the player.
Either by pushing a defender up on to them (which creates problems at the back), or by making sure a defensive midfielder is always on hand to cover them.
With players running past the false 9 into the gaps and space that they've left behind, it can be a nightmare for defenders to defend against.
While there are lots of pros to using a false 9, there are of course a number of downsides too.
By sacrificing the focal point of the team for the increased fluidity and flexibility that it gives, teams can lose a valuable outlet if they ever want to go long or stretch the play.
The play can also get overcrowded in the middle of the park if the opposition play two defensive mids or presses up high to compress the space in between the defence and midfield, thereby diminishing the area in which the false 9 has to operate.
Well-organised teams will also find it easier to deal with a false 9 and some teams that use it find it hard to get enough players in the box to really threaten the opposition over the course of the game and get enough shots off at goal.
As such, they may dominate possession through the passing angles and options that it brings, but they may not create enough goalscoring opportunities to really threaten.
Should you use it?
The fluid nature of the formation means that the false 9 really needs to have the right attributes to succeed in the role otherwise it risks being a jumbled mess.
Soccer tactics are ever changing however and already we are seeing fewer teams using a false 9 and this is for a number of reasons.
Firstly, many teams are now implementing a pressing game which means that they need players high up the pitch to close down the opposition's defenders and midfielders and stop them from playing it out from the back.
Secondly, a back three or five is now very much back in fashion and so it is now no longer as effective to play a false 9 against this type of defence.
Finally, more and more strikers are incorporating parts of the false 9 role into their game so that they can both push up high and hold the ball up or drop deep and instigate play if necessary.
To give you an idea of how a team can successfully play with a false 9, let us now take a quick look at Guardiola's Barcelona to see how it worked in practice.
Guardiola's Barcelona: Messi as a False 9
While Messi is certainly one of (if not the) greatest players of all time, in 2009 Guardiola recognised how his talents could be used to devastating effect in a false 9 role.
Messi was moved into the central position and used his incredible vision, dribbling skills, and intelligent movement to spearhead one of the greatest teams of all time to numerous trophies over the next few years.
Away from his wide wing position where he normally played, Messi could impact play in the centre of the pitch, create confusion in the opposition's defence, and overwhelm them numerically in midfield alongside Xavi, Busquets, and Iniesta.
By drifting into space between the lines, he offered up another passing angle which helped the team to retain possession as someone would always be open to pass to.
Once the ball came into him, Messi could then turn and drive at the opposition, pass the ball on to another team ate advancing up the pitch, or look for a through ball in behind the opponent's fullbacks for Barcelona's wingers to run on to.
As Messi dropped deep and drew defenders out of position, Iniesta would push up past him and the wingers would make runs into the space that had been vacated.
With the numerous passing options available to them in the centre, Barcelona would easily keep possession and look to play a dangerous ball into one of the players making a run.
As the opposition were unsure of whether to press Messi and his teammates in the centre, cover the runs that the attacking players were making, or try and block any attempted through-ball from getting past…
They were often left in two minds which Barcelona exploited to devastating effect.
With brilliant dribblers such as Iniesta and Messi on hand, they could also easily dribble their way past an opponent or two and again overwhelm them numerically, often finding themselves on the edge of the box where they could either take a shot or look to slip someone through.
Over the course of his four years at Barcelona, Guardiola won fourteen trophies with many of them coming with Messi playing as a false 9 as they swept away everyone before them both in the domestic competitions and in Europe.
No one could deal with Barcelona's intoxicating brand of soccer.
Guardiola would try and use the false 9 again when at Bayern Munich but found that Mario Gotze just didn't have the same abilities as Messi which goes to show that you really need the right player if you're going to attempt using a false 9.
A deep-lying striker, the false 9 can wreak havoc on an opposition's defence with their fantastic movement, great vision, and passing abilities.
By dropping off they confuse the defenders and draw them out of position for their teammates to exploit the gaps that have been opened up.
When operating between the lines, a false 9 needs to have great dribbling skills to help them keep possession and teams need to have great chemistry if they hope to make the role a success.
While there are lots of positives of playing with a false 9, you really need the right player in the role to make it work.
Further Reading: 11 Soccer Positions Explained (Roles and Responsibilities)