In the post 4-4-2 era, strikerless systems are becoming more and more ubiquitous. In the Premier League in particular, modern tactics have seen a shift away from recognized centre-forwards being the focal point of the attack. Instead of one man to bang in the goals or hold the highest position on a football pitch, several men are shifting in and out of a striker role, usually with one ‘false nine’ situating themselves halfway between a ‘ten’ and a true ‘number nine’ role. Last season’s UEFA Champions League final between Chelsea and Manchester City saw two teams without a recognized striker face off, and Liverpool dominated the latter part of the 2010s in the Premier League and Champions League with a number nine who was much more of a number ten, and wingers sharing the goal-scoring responsibilities instead. So with that, we take a look at how to play with a false nine, the role of a false nine, and why this tactic is becoming so commonplace in the modern game.
THE ROLE OF THE FALSE NINEEmbed from Getty Images
The false nine, as indicated in the introduction, is a player who’s position is often described as somewhere between a ‘nine’ and a ‘ten’. In truth, it’s almost always a midfielder converted into an attacking midfielder, who is then given the responsibility of starting higher up the pitch and moving in deeper to pick up possession. The main function of the false nine is to produce overloads in central areas, allowing greater ease in breaking lines and playing through the thirds. The role of the false nine becomes particularly important during build-up and progression phases of the game, often arriving late to the party in creation stages. Rather than pushing the opposition defense back like a Chris Wood styled target-man, the false nine actually pushes the opposition defense forward, allowing others to seek space in the gaps that appear. For a team like Manchester City, it’s often central midfielders like Ilkay Gundogan, Kevin de Bruyne or Bernardo Silva who seek that space and float higher. For a club like Liverpool or Chelsea, playing with a false nine often pushes wingers into advanced positions, where they can sprint in behind.
We then see the primary role of the false nine in possession as twofold. Firstly, they must be capable of dropping in deep and seeking space lower on the field than a striker normally might. In moving in that manner, they allow their team greater ability to break an opposition block, and play through the thirds. But simultaneously, they allow new pockets of space to open up, which can be exploited by other danger men. As a result, false nines usually aren’t the most dangerous goal-scorers in the team. A deadly goal-scorer like Harry Kane may shimmy toward the ball in their own half, but still situate themselves in traditional striker positions over the course of the game. True false nines rarely ever stay as the highest positioned player in possession phases, and that is perhaps not only one of the role’s defining characteristics, but where it gets the name.Embed from Getty Images
At this point, you may be wondering – if a false nine is never in a number nine’s position, why aren’t they just classified as a number ten?! It’s a fair question to ask, especially given that teams operating with a false nine rarely deploy a true ten, utilizing formations like a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 instead. So to answer the question – I believe this comes down to the false nine’s role out of possession. Illusionary nines are almost always the highest member of the team out of possession, or at least in line with the other highest members in the team’s pressing sequences. Crucially, this tends to stay consistent through the phases. In City’s 4-3-3 for example, their defensive shape may shift into various configurations of a 4-1-4-1, 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1 when in a low to mid-block. Other than the back-four, the one consistent element to their approach is in having one highest player, usually readying themselves to counter. That man is almost always the false nine. So it’s not as though false nines never operate in the role of a striker. Instead, they more frequently operate in a number ten’s role in possession, and a number nine’s position out of possession – giving it that false nine title.
HOW TO PLAY WITH A FALSE NINEEmbed from Getty Images
As showcased by the likes of City, Chelsea and Liverpool, playing with a false nine can be an incredibly effective tactic. However, teams operating in this sort of strikerless system need to have the right style of play to match. Teams operating with a false nine typically keep the bulk of the possession, and prefer making short, incisive passes. Long passes up the field can still be useful for clubs like City and Liverpool, but these high balls become more horizontal and diagonal in nature, rather than up toward a target man to hold up the play and bring others into the game. As we already noted, the role of the false nine (in possession) is about providing greater connectivity in between the lines of their own team, as they look to situate themselves in between the lines of the opposition. They aid their teams’ short passing game by dropping deep, away from a typical striker’s position, providing a dilemma for the opposition’s defense. The one or two players tasked with tracking the false nine’s movement must then make a split-second decision between staying or going, much like The Clash.
If they stay (i.e. hold position), they allow the false nine to receive with acres of time to get their head up. If they ‘go’ (i.e. follow the false nine), they open space that can be exploited by other players. Staying seems like the better option. For one, it pushes the player away from goal, without opening up any new spaces in behind. For another, what are defensive midfielders for if not stopping central penetration? For another another, even if the defender follows, there is very little likelihood that they will stop the counterfeit nine from receiving. Given the type of talents that often play in this role, it’s not uncommon for defenders to follow the false nine, only to be immediately beaten by a piece of skill or a drop of the shoulder. So for a short-term, in the moment action, staying certainly seems like the better option. But this withdrawn approach is certainly not without faults. The main problem with the defender’s decision to hold position is that it allows the strikerless team to continue progressing up the pitch, where they will usually work in to out, advance into wide areas, and then allow the false nine to arrive late into the box. Clubs like Manchester City score many of their goals through these kind of passes into the penalty area. Pundits may moan about the lack of a target man to finish off chances, but City’s approach is still effective. As the likes of Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva race into the box to tap in chances, they draw attention from the top of the box where the false nine can seek those vacated spaces. Target men rarely get the time of day in the box anyway, often surrounded by several defenders compacting space. In fact, they rarely touch the ball in attacking phases. So for a possession-based team that enchants their fans with a near-zero difficulty level at progressing up the pitch – why not involve the striker deeper on the pitch?Embed from Getty Images
So how exactly do these strikerless teams involve their double-dealing centre-forwards deeper on the pitch? Well, in many ways. For starters, the false nine operates primarily in central areas, but they may shift right to left with the movement of the ball. City and Liverpool’s false nines will regularly drift toward the side of the ball, whether the team are passing through build-up, progression or creation phases. Like an attacking midfielder might do in a 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-1-2, their team’s defensive midfielder receiving the ball is often a trigger for them to trickle toward the ball, with their back to goal. Bounce passes (one touch backward passes) are often the method of choice upon receiving, either back toward the initial passer, or to a third man. But they may scan over their shoulder to see opportunities where they can spin in behind, either due to a lack of pressure from the opposition, or too much pressure from the opposition. False nines typically draw a high number of fouls, and dribble significantly more than other strikers as they carry the ball up the field at speed. Concomitantly, they pass the ball with a degree of elegance that can be used for switching play, breaking lines, or keeping the team ticking. That last one is of particular significance, given that much of their movement, and even much of their passing, is backwards and toward their own goal.
As the centre-backs and defensive midfielder circulate the ball, a player like Phil Foden will continue to descend toward the ball on sideways and backward passes, may even bounce one or two of their own into the mix, and then immediately burst forward when a teammate progresses forward. Essentially, false nines facilitate safe passes, which can allow other players to make riskier ones into the space that has opened up.
With all of these examples of what can be accomplished with a false nine, you can already begin to see why it is so difficult to stop. The false nine’s role isn’t just about dropping in for a cup of tea, and then arriving late to the after-tea-party. It’s about completely undoing an opposition’s defensive structure, breaking free of the shackles of everything the opposition has worked on over the course of a week, and eventually, scoring a goal. No matter how many times the pundits may cry.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Following its popular use for Vicente del Bosque’s Spain at Euro 2012, the role of the false nine has continued to evolve in the modern era of the Premier League, accompanied by a shift in mannerisms, behaviors, and positional patterns of strikers on a football pitch. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have been two of the dominating forces in world football since the mid-2010s, and both have operated throughout that time without a recognized out-and-out goal-scoring striker. For any possession-based team attempting to emulate Klopp and Guardiola, deploying a false nine presents a unique and innovative way of breaking the opposition down, and reaching new levels of performance. Some tactical experts have suggested that in the future we may see a formation without a striker at all, but truthfully, we may already be there.
So there it is! How to play with a ‘false nine’ like Guardiola and Klopp. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Theories, more from our Tactics & Analysis sections, and follow on social media @mastermindsite. If you like this kind of content, be sure to check out our subscription options, and check out our friends over at FootyLingo. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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