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What is a False 9 in Soccer?

Published date: November 17, 2021

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There are many tactical innovations in the modern game of soccer. Of these tactical maneuvers, the false nine has gained much popularity in the last decade. This isn’t a surprise since it has shown a lot of success for soccer teams, both in clubs and international games. 

Many famous teams have depended on this maneuver to increase their winning chances. In this article, we’ll see where this maneuver originated, tracing its origins through the history of football, and we’ll see how it has been used since then.

What is a False Nine?

A false nine is a center forward who moves the ball from a high starting position into deeper positions, often dropping into a central position to receive it. The main aim of this football tactic is to get the ball away from the center backs of the opposing team. Doing this draws players out of their positions and disrupts their defense. The false nine is more of a playmaking role with the goal of opening up space for teammates to exploit.

Where does the Term Originate from?

Many believe that the Corinthians club first used the tactic in the 1890s. Their center forward, G. O. Smith, preferred to pass the ball to a winger, presenting other players opportunities to make their marks. This tactic was different from the regular playing style, involving strikers playing as high as possible. 

River Plate Club, in the 1920s, adopted a tactic similar to that of the Corinthians and called it “conductor.” The conductor did the same thing as a false nine in a five-man frontline. 

In the 1930s, the tactic was used by Hugo Meisl, who was the coach of the Austrian national team. The center forward, Matthias Sindelar, was a technical player who was used as a dropping center forward. This is the maneuver frame we’re used to. Sindelar was the team’s focal point while his attacking teammates also flourished. In the 1950s, the Hungarian team used Nándor Hidegkuti and Péter Palotás in the same way.

Modern coaches and players of this beautiful game called this maneuver the “false nine.” But the name comes from the idea that the striker potentially has the number nine on their jersey but moves into other “false” positions. These are positions you would not usually find a striker, which was how the term was coined.

FC Barcelona is an example of a modern football team that has successfully utilized the maneuver countless times. The team has used several players to draw out the opposing team’s players to create a clear shot. 

In-possession responsibilities of a false nine

One of the biggest responsibilities a false nine has is timing movements away from the center backs to recover the ball between the lines. The center backs should be able to receive the ball both during periods of possession and during counter-attacks.

By moving into deeper positions, the attacking player creates a dilemma for the center backs of the opposing team. They become unsure if they should follow the forward to the midfield or stay in their positions. If the timing of the false nine is right, the maneuver can cause a bit of havoc.

A great false nine needs to be exceptionally aware and should be able to scan the field regularly. This will ensure they know where to take the ball to avoid pressure, especially from behind, and facilitate moving the ball between their teammates.

A false nine fills holes in positions, and to do this well, being versatile is essential. A false nine has similar key attributes to those of a deep-lying striker. They should have great turning and dribbling skills to take advantage of the space between the lines. A false nine is often under defensive pressure, and so a good one should have excellent ball skills and be proficient at making quick runs.

Soccer formation tactics and strategy on a blackboard

Out-Of-Possession Responsibilities

When the team is in possession, the false nine sho0ws their versatility, but when the team is out of possession, they perform the duties of a regular striker. When counter-pressing, their main defensive abilities are important.

This player gives their team a numerical advantage. They can potentially be used to outnumber the opposition and regain possession of the ball. When defending for long periods, the false nine usually takes a position as a central player. This typically means screening passes or pressing the center backs.

Pros and Cons of Using a False Nine

As with every other football tactic, using this position has its advantages and disadvantages. One of the benefits of using this tactic is that it creates spaces in the backline of the opposition’s defense. 

If the center back of the opposing team presses, it creates gaps for a wide forward or an attacking midfielder to run into. When a central midfielder of the opposition team drops to screen the false nine, a teammate who is a central midfielder can occupy the vacant space and get a pass from there.

For this football tactic to work, it requires a player who has great football skills and has no problem performing under pressure. Without those qualities, a false nine is useless on a football field. 

Another disadvantage of utilizing this maneuver is that it eliminates the immediate threat to the opposition’s backline. With no pressure, they may not feel the need to drop or cross into the field’s middle. 

Who are the Best False Nines in Recent Years?

Pep Guardiola popularly used Lionel Messi as a false nine due to his great dribbling skills, which he used to penetrate, and his ability to receive between the lines. When followed by a center back of the opposing team, Messi could dribble away from the pressure and find teammate wingers. 

Cesc Fàbregas was used as a false nine when he played for FC Barcelona and Spain. He was mostly used as a false nine because of his ability to receive and pass the ball under pressure. Fàbregas could also create more overloads in the field’s center, giving his team more control. Teammates like Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta faced less pressure when receiving passes from him.

Other examples of falses nines include Karim Benzema while under Zinedine Zidane in Real Madrid, Roberto Firmino under Jürgen Klopp for Liverpool, Carlos Tevez under Sir Alex Ferguson for Manchester United, and several other players.

Final Thoughts

The false nine tactics are great when used correctly by a player with the key attributes. It can be used to disrupt the opposition’s defense, giving you enough space to maneuver the ball. Like any other football tactic, utilizing this maneuver has pros and cons. Still, many coaches have mastered it and use it so that it only benefits the team and gives us entertaining football.