The likes of Messi, Hazard and Firmino have all been deployed as ‘false nines’ at their respective clubs, but what does the role actually entail?
The concept of the ‘false nine’ comes and goes, with Eden Hazard even having taken up the role briefly under Maurizio Sarri.
The prime example of the false nine, however, dates back to 2009 with Lionel Messi under the tutelage of former manager Pep Guardiola at Barcelona. Essentially, the number nine – on paper – takes up the centre-forward position, but in the game, they drop deeper in order to pull the centre-backs away from the goal. In doing so, spaces are opened up between the lines of the wingers to get closer to the goal, enabling them to score.
In the late 2010s, Messi played alongside the likes of Alexis Sanchez and David Villa, who are capable strikers in their own right but positioned as wingers on the team sheet. During those years, Messi would drop deeper down the pitch to link up with Xavi and Andres Iniesta, therefore making defenders confused on who to mark.
This allowed Villa, Sanchez and Pedro to move through the back line where the space had been freed up to score.
Traditionally, the role of the false nine only works when wingers or wide forwards are implemented in the role. Ideally, the false nine has their dominant foot on the outside so they don’t have to cut inside and cause congestion down the middle. Doing so provides width, and keeps the false nines as the most advanced players on the pitch.
Messi fit perfectly in the role of the false nine instead of that of a traditional forward – say, the number seven or actual nine – as he is not a typically physical player. He does not tend to press high, and he does not usually excel in the air to win headers, which are some mandatory qualities that a traditional striker should have. The benefits of a false nine, then, is their ability to dribble quickly and smoothly, providing assists and balls down the box.
With the Argentine especially, he never hesitated to dribble past opposition players – enter his phenomenal solo strikes. These years under Guardiola were regarded as the finest in Messi’s careers, and the tactics paid off handsomely in goals and silverware.
Ex-Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque deployed Cesc Fabregas as a false nine during Euro 2012, forming a front-three of David Silva and Iniesta that came at the cost of former Chelsea forward Fernando Torres – a move that paid off.
Typically a winger, Hazard was used as a false nine by Chelsea boss Sarri for home clash with Manchester City during the 2018-19 campaign. It was the first time he chose to play Hazard as a false nine since being appointed Blues manger, and the decision worked as it threw Man City, including Guardiola, off guard.
Though he did not have as much possession on the ball, Hazard put in a standout performance, providing assists for both goals. He first delivered the final pass for N’Golo Kante’s first strike, and then provided the corner that David Luiz into a goal that enabled Chelsea to seal a 2-0 victory.
Sarri had already successfully transformed Belgian winger, Dries Mertens, into a striker at former club Napoli.
Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino is another classic example of an ideal false nine, with even the likes of Sergio Aguero having dipped in and out of the false nine role at Man City.
Upon Firmino’s arrival at Anfield in 2015, he was typically deployed as a forward on the wing or in behind Christian Benteke under former coach Brendan Rodgers. Under Jurgen Klopp, however, he has been mainly utilised in a deep-lying forward role which has enabled him to become one of the breakthrough players of his side.
In his debut season on Merseyside, Firmino scored 11 goals and assisted a further 10 more as Liverpool finished as finalists in the League Cup and Europa League.
The arrivals of forwards Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah have only improved his game and taken it to new highs. With the duo mainly used as inverted wingers, Firmino starts high up on the filed but then drops deeper to pick up the ball, or simply to attract a centre-back attentions to expose the defence and send one of the other attackers through on goal.
With this, the opposition defence is unable to sit as deeply as they like, as in doing so, they risk one of Liverpool’s attackers running at them and exploiting the space. But then, if they man-mark Firmino repeatedly, other space is left open for Liverpool’s wingers to take advantage of and score.
What is a Number 10?
The role of a number 10 is different than that of a false nine, more an attacking midfielder or a second striker.
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The number 10 is the offensive playmaker, setting the tone of attack as well as distributing the ball to put the other attacking players in the best position to score.
There has, however, been two definitions of a classic ‘number 10’ throughout football history. The modern day number 10 is an attacking midfielder and playmaker or puppeteer of the team. They are essentially the most creative person on the pitch, positioned behind the number nine and possessing good dribbling techniques, strong vision and excellent passing.
The likes of Pele and Diego Maradona are classic number 10s, with Philippe Coutinho during his time at Liverpool or Mesut Ozil during his prime years more modern examples.