The Question: Why are teams so tentative about false nines?
If players who appear to be playing centre-forward, but drop deep, are so dangerous, why don't more teams trust the system?
When one team does it, it's happenstance. When Barcelona follow Manchester United in doing it, it's coincidence. Add in Roma as well, and it starts to become a pattern. Teams who use a "false nine" – that is, a player who appears to be playing centre-forward, but drops deep – seem, however successful they have been, not to trust the system.
The season before last, United won the Premier League and the Champions League using Carlos Tevez as a centre-forward who regularly dropped off or pulled wide, creating space for Wayne Rooney coming from deep, or for Cristiano Ronaldo cutting in from the right. The following season, they brought in Dimitar Berbatov, a more orthodox centre-forward, and reverted to a more traditional way of playing.
Last season as Barcelona won the treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League, they often switched Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi so that, instead of playing in what might be considered their natural positions, Messi played centrally and Eto'o on the right. Messi naturally dropped deep, disrupting the opposition's marking. In the summer, Barcelona replaced Eto'o with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a player who, for all his quality, is not going to be able to operate on the right wing and so liberate Messi.
Roma at least had a 7-1 defeat at Old Trafford to point to as an explanation for abandoning the false nine after they had – broadly successfully – experimented with Francesco Totti as a centre-forward who dropped deep, but for United and Barcelona the reasons for abandoning a successful shape are less obvious.
Where did the false nine come from?
In England, the centre-forward tended traditionally to be a big target-man figure – what Brian Glanville characterised as "the brainless bull at the gate". His job was, essentially, to meet crosses. Elsewhere, though, where skill was prioritised over physicality, he soon became something rather more subtle, and there is evidence to suggest that by the 1920s it was not uncommon for centre-forwards in central Europe and around the River Plate to drop deep.
The first England came across was Matthias Sindelar in a friendly against Austria at Stamford Bridge in 1932. England ended up winning 4-3, but there was a widespread recognition that Sindelar, a slight but imaginative forward, had unnerved England by moving into midfield, looking to make the play as much as to finish chances.
In Argentina and Uruguay at the time, it was common for the two inside-forwards to play very deep, and it would be strange if there hadn't been some kind of experimentation with a centre-forward dropping off as well. Certainly by the time of River Plate's fabled La Maquina side of the late 40s, the nominal centre-forward, Adolfo Pedernera, often dropped off, with Angel Labruna, the inside-left, becoming the main goal threat.
English teams continued to be perplexed by forwards who refused to stand still and let themselves be marked. Vsevolod Bobrov unsettled everybody he played against on Dinamo Moscow's 1945 tour; Alfred Bickel's performance was the main reason for England's defeat to Switzerland in 1947; and in 1951, in what was technically only a representative game, an England XI lost 3-1 to an Argentina XI, their centre-half, Malcolm Barrass, having been dragged out of position by the Argentinian centre-forward José Lacasia.
England's manager Walter Winterbottom, acknowledging the problem, held a team meeting to try to come up with a counter-measure for the full international that was scheduled for a few days later. "Some people wanted to have a man following him," he said, "dogging his footsteps, but Billy [Wright] quite vehemently wanted the centre-half to stay back, in position, and let someone else pick off Lacasia.
"We decided that [Harry] Johnston, the centre-half, would go with him in the early part of the match, with Billy and Jimmy Dickinson [the two wing-halves] covering the gap in the middle, then Johnston would fall back in favour of someone else so that the Argentina team would not quite know if we were going to persist in man-to-man marking. But the match was washed out by rain after 20 minutes play so that the issue was not really joined."
Two years later, Johnston found himself similarly bemused by Nandor Hidegkuti, as England were beaten 6-3 by Hungary at Wembley. "To me," he wrote in his autobiography, "the tragedy was the utter helplessness … being unable to do anything to alter the grim outlook." Fabio Cannavaro admitted something similar after Real Madrid had been beaten 6-2 by Barcelona at the Bernabéu last season.
Why is the false nine so hard to combat?
Man-marking barely exists at the top level of the game any more, at least not in open play, but even with zonal marking the game falls into certain patterns. When 4-4-2 meets 4-4-2, for instance, essentially the two centre-backs pick up the two centre-forwards, the two central midfielders deal with the two central midfielders, and the wide-midfielders pick each other up, with the full-backs behind should one wide midfielder get beyond the other one.
One of the keys to tactical success is to break those patterns in a way that is advantageous; at its most basic level to overman in key zones. If a centre-forward drops deep, he is moving away from the centre-backs who would naturally mark him. If the centre-back follows, he risks leaving space that can be exploited by wide players cutting in, or by midfielders coming from deep. But if he sits off, the deep-lying centre-forward has freedom, time and space either to pick his pass or to turn and run at a defence so he is arriving at the centre-back at pace, which makes him far harder to stop.
The holding midfielder could pick up the deep-lying centre-forward, but that has knock-on effects elsewhere on the pitch. When 4-4-2 meets 4-4-2, if a centre-forward drops back into midfield, he effectively gives his team three men in there against two; there is overmanning. Equally, a midfielder restricting his attacking role to pick up an opposing centre-forward risks surrendering territory, so his team end up playing too deep, inviting pressure.
Why has the issue arisen again?
English football, with its simplistic tactical shapes, has traditionally struggled with players who don't stand where they're supposed to, which in part explains the success of the likes of Eric Cantona, Gianfranco Zola and Dennis Bergkamp in the 90s. Just by operating in the grey area between the opponent's defensive and midfield lines, they caused confusion, and created new, unfamiliar angles of attack.
Back then, though, teams tended to play with a more orthodox central striker ahead of the deep-lying player and so, while they proved difficult to combat, they were easy to conceptualise as a strike partnership (they were not false nines so much as orthodox 10s). One centre-back picked up the orthodox forward, and the other had a certain licence to follow the deeper-lying one, secure in the knowledge he had a central defender behind him, and that, if the wide midfielders were doing their job, at least one of the full-backs was likely to be free to tuck in. The trend towards a single central striker, though, has taken us back to a situation similar to that of the early 50s.
When a back four meets a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, the full-backs, even ignoring the increased attacking role they have in today's game, have a clearly defined role in negating the opposition wingers. They are less likely, in other words, to be able to provide cover. But worse, if the false nine drops deep, there are two centre-backs left redundant. One can follow the false nine, but the other is left isolated, with space all around and the full-backs too busy with their own concerns to help him. He can be attacked from wide or from deep, and he has no support.
That is the position in which Harry Johnston found himself in 1953, with the cherry-red blur of Laszlo Budai, Sandor Kocsis, Ferenc Puskas and Zoltan Czibor swarming all around him, and the player he thought he was supposed to be marking off directing things in the far distance, wandering forward at will to score three times. And it was the position in which Cannavaro found himself in May.
So why do teams turn against it?
Why, if false nines are so dangerous, do teams who have used them successfully then turn away from them. It is, frankly, rather puzzling, and there is no easy answer. Neither Roma nor Manchester United seem to have intended to use what remains the most radical of tactical innovations; both were forced into it by injury. Similarly, Barcelona had intended to replace Eto'o before the start of last season – who knows what Pep Guardiola's plan may have been had he been able to.
The move towards the evolutionary avant-garde at United, perhaps, was inspired by Carlos Quieroz – who had dabbled with a form of strikerlessness with the Portugal youth sides who won the World Youth Cup in 1989 and 1991. With his departure went the impulse to innovation. Had Tevez's contract situation been less fraught, the urge to bring in Berbatov may not have been so strong.
In all three cases there are specific circumstances that make the move away from the false nine understandable if not entirely explicable. But there is also the simple fact that playing a false nine is a risk. When it works, it can be devastating, but it doesn't need much to go wrong to become stodgy or toothless.
Hungary, for instance, looked almost unstoppable for much of the early 50s, but there were occasions when it didn't quite click. Sweden held them to a 2-2 draw in Budapest shortly before the Wembley game by sitting deep, disrupting their passing by weight of numbers. The following year heavy pitches not conducive to passing football contributed to Hungary's defeat to West Germany in the World Cup final and the defeat of Honved, who provided the bulk of the national team, to Wolves in a floodlit friendly at Molineux.
A tall centre-forward who can hold the ball up – as both Berbatov and Ibrahimovic can – gives another option. He can be an outlet ball from defence and, by offering an aerial threat, also prevents opponents from simply sitting deep. Kocsis, of course, was such a noted header of the ball that he was nicknamed Golden Head, but he was more a finisher of chances than somebody who could take the ball on his chest and hold off a defender while waiting for support.
United may have been less aesthetically pleasing last season, but they were defensively sounder, something at least in part down to the greater ease with which they held possession. This is largely a matter of degree: Berbatov and Ibrahimovic are not the brainless bull at the gate type of forward; both can drop off and create play as well as leading the line. They offer flexibility of style, but not quite the fluency of movement of the players who went before.
Both sides are still capable of overwhelming weaker teams (or even respectable mid-table teams) – as Barcelona did to Zaragoza on Sunday and United, eventually, to Wigan earlier in the season, but the emphasis has been shifted towards solidity. Which leaves Arsenal, as ever, to carry the standard for risky, free-flowing football. Robin van Persie may be a more natural leader of a line than either Messi or Tevez, but he is the falsest nine European football has at the moment.