Understanding the False 9 – Do Chelsea fit the bill?

Blog by: Shamir

Jose Mourinho

Jose Mourinho

Tactical innovations have always been fascinating to watch and analyse, and through time they have only helped the beautiful game evolve by giving it different dimensions. Brazil’s famous Magic box, England’s wingless wonders, the Catenaccio and Ajax’s Totaalvoetball are just some of the radical winds of change that swept through the game in its extensive history. Luciano Spalleti’s experiment at Roma might have been only an injury enforced tactical switch, but what followed was to create the basis of some of the strongest teams in the 21st century.

Luciano Spalleti was left with an injury ravaged Roma side in 2006, with no fit centre forward to lead the line in a 4-2-3-1 that Roma were using that season. What Spalleti did, was employ the passmaster Francesco Totti as the furthest man up the pitch, technically making the formation a 4-5-1-0. What this created was a lethal formation (albeit not an original one, as Austria had played with a similar shape in the 1930’s) which posed a lot of tactical dilemmas to the opposing sides.

It is important, first of all, to note how this formation worked. Francesco Totti started high up the pitch, not as a conventional centre forward but as his favoured role of a trequartista, who regularly dropped into midfield to collect the ball as the wide men rushed forward into the space left by him up front.  The defensive midfield prowess of Daniele De Rossi (and later, David Pizzaro) guarded the back line, as Amantino Mancini and Rodrigo Taddei pumped up and down the wings.

The formation worked mainly thanks to the technically gifted Francesco Totti, his sound passing, intelligent distribution and outstanding tactical understanding regularly initiated fast counter attacks from midfield and which he then rushed into the box to finish clinically. The formation worked so beautifully that even when Mirko Vucinic, then Roma’s centre forward recovered from his knock, Totti was still used as the man who would be highest up the pitch, and Vucinic was converted to a left sided wide man to add a goal scoring touch to Totti’s ingenious playmaking. Totti understandably flourished that season, his 26 goals earned him the European Golden boot, as Roma went 11 games unbeaten in the league and demolished Inter Milan in the Copa Italia Final by an astounding 6-2 margin.

So what made the formation tick? Apart from Totti’s brilliance, the fact that a 4-5-1-0 left the opposition centrebacks with no one to mark was a big factor in the formation’s success. The false 9 would drop deep, forcing the opposition centre back to leave his position to mark him, leaving a huge gap behind him to exploit. Totti would then exploit that space to play one of the wide men in.

On the other hand, if the centre back decided to stay back and leave Totti, the passmaster would have enough time and space to orchestrate play, or run at the centreback, which would make him harder to stop. Also, Totti dropping deep effectively made it 6 men in midfield, which made retaining possession an absolute surety, unless they came up against a more technically proficient team (which was what happened when they were drubbed 7-1 by Manchester United in the Champions League.)

The start of this legacy in the modern era, masterminded by Spalleti was then emulated by the two teams that won the Champions League over the next two seasons. First, Manchester United played the 4-6-0 (or the 4-3-3 as some choose to call the False 9), to devastating effect, as Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo constantly switched positions to wreck havoc.

Tevez and Rooney, both workmanlike players, regularly dropped deep to collect the ball like Totti did, and a de Rossi-esque presence in midfield by the name of Owen Hargreaves cleaned up the mess by lending the centre a measure of composure. Tevez’s contract issues, Ronaldo’s departure, Hargreaves’ injuries and the consequent arrival of Dimitar Berbatov though, forced Sir Alex into breaking away from the highly successful system, which won them the Champions League against Chelsea and the League title.

Next up, Barcelona ended up adopting the system, employing a menacing looking front three of Samuel Eto’o, Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry in a 4-3-3. Henry’s early days at Juventus had seen him function as a left sided winger, which became his position in the set up. Samuel Eto’o played down the middle, and Lionel Messi operated on the right hand side, cutting inside or linking up with Dani Alves down the right hand side.

The False 9 became evident only when Messi and Eto’o switched positions, Eto’o would push further up on the right wing, and Lionel Messi would play as the false 9, running from deep and passing to a brilliant midfield consisting the likes of Xavi and Iniesta, 2 of the finest ball-playing midfielders in the game. The highlight of this formation came against Manchester United in the finals, where Eto’o opened the scoring from a wide right position and Messi headed beautifully from the centre of the 6 yard box.

Barcelona’s formation demolished most of their competition that season, Messi (38), Eto’o(36) and Henry (12) shared 100 goals between them. Barcelona won the Champions League, La Liga and the Copa Del Rey in Guardiola’s first season in charge. The magnitude of their results too were indicators of their attacking strength due to the change in formation, as sides who finished 2nd (Real Madrid, beaten 6-2), 3rd (Sevilla, beaten 4-0), 4th (Atletico Madrid beaten 6-1), 6th (Valencia beaten 4-0), 7th (Deportivo La Coruna beaten 5-0) and 8th (Malaga beaten 6-0) were smashed comprehensively. Again, the acquisition of Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who prefers the centre) and the sale of Eto’o to Inter altered that system. But after Francesc Fabregas signed for Barcelona, the False 9 was once again Barcelona’s to use.

Cesc Fabregas is used as a 'False 9' by Spain and Barcelona

Cesc Fabregas is used as a ‘False 9’ by Spain and Barcelona

 

So if the False 9 is such a devastating tactic, one wonders why it isn’t employed often by top European sides in the modern game. The truth is, the requisites for playing such a tactic require numerous aspects, i.e. a player with outstanding technical attributes, who is versatile enough to play as a false 9, a midfield which can retain possession using short passes and a defensive midfielder capable of slotting in at centre back to allow the wide men and full backs to push forward.

Spain and Barcelona have both employed this tactic as they possess all the aforementioned characteristics, Xavi and Iniesta’s almost telepathic short passing, Sergio Busquets tackling and winning back possession in front of the back 4 (he can also play at centre back) and Cesc Fabregas acting as the False 9, both for the Catalans and the national side.

Interestingly, another top European side who fits into this scheme of things (but does not play the tactic) is Chelsea. The Blues are known to break at speed, which is as mentioned above, one of the characteristic features of a false 9 tactic, and also possess the personnel to execute such a plan. Chelsea’s employs a 4-2-3-1, and interestingly in the first two matches this season, almost all goals have come from the midfield (except Ivanovic’s header and Antonio Luna’s own goal.)

Chelsea’s average pass length this season has been around the 18 meter mark, which is similar to the Spanish national side’s average of around 20 metres. Chelsea’s Juan Mata is known to be a technically exceptional player, and can also play as a centre forward, which makes him a contender for the false 9 position. Also, considering the scintillatingly quick wingers available to Chelsea, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne could exploit any space created by Mata’s movement, and as we have seen the past season, Mata has more than the required skill to play the killer pass.

Down to centre midfield, Ramires might not look like the best bet to fit the defensive midfielder’s role, but David Luiz surely does. Considering Luiz is a centre back, he could easily slot alongside the two centre backs, to allow Ivanovic/Cole/Azpilicueta to push ahead in a bid to give the formation an added attacking impetus.  The new recruit in their ranks, Dutch midfielder Marco Van Ginkel can also play in that defensive midfield position, as he possesses the composure and passing range to move the ball around in a six man midfield. Interestingly, Jose Mourinho’s other recruit, German winger Andre Schurrle, also likes to drop deep to collect the ball, and like Eto’o at Barcelona can easily operate on the wing or at centre forward.

Although it seems an enticing proposition, there are a few hurdles to playing the False 9 at the Bridge. Romelu Lukaku’s strength and finishing prowess would find no place in the formation, as the Belgian lacks the finesse required to play at such a tactically astute position. Fernando Torres seems (on paper) as a better bet in the formation, but Torres has received constant criticism for lacking the ability to play with his back to goal, which raises doubts on his ability to conform to the requirements of a false 9.  Past experience too wouldn’t be such a pleasant reminder, as Roberto Di Matteo’s decision to play Eden Hazard at centre forward backfired horribly against Juventus at Turin, as Juve ran out 3-0 winners after Juve’s tight defensive line and swift counters outwitted the Blues.

Jose Mourinho though, is a man of surprises and to rule out a possibility would be unwise. Considering Chelsea have the men to play it, will Jose take the risk of finding a strategy that Roman Abrahimovic has hired and fired to find? The season is only 2 games old, but the option is there to be explored. If it does work, Chelsea’s side could truly match the attacking antics of some of the finest Champions League winning sides of this decade. But that decision, is the Special One’s to make.

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