The False 9 - Football’s latest evolution?

July 8, 2012 in Euro 2012, International

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A week ago Spain put on a timeless performance to retain their European Championship crown and coast past Italy in a 4-0 win. The triumph was further vindication for many of Spanish football’s recent enterprises; that possession is king, how a strong technical foundation is the first step in moulding young players and that a high work rate in pressing when off the ball is just as crucial to success as when in control of it. Yet amongst the many plaudits and undeniable successes of Spain’s Euro 2012 campaign there lay a quirk, the “False 9″ as it has come to be known. Spain started many of their games without a designated centre forward and that tactical choice was subject to the majority of complaints from fans and pundits alike, the prime suspect in the case “Boring Boring Spain”. At times it seemed the most common explanation was the most logical, Spain’s passing game would begin to grind the further their fleet of maestros edged forwards and eventually simmer out with no apparent focal point. When Fernando Torres and then Alvaro Negredo took to the field however the end result didn’t seem to be much better, but these were men out of sorts and out of form and in the case of Negredo, out of thought. Then it seemed that the added pace and width of the likes of Jesus Navas and Pedro would be the answer, but even then Spain struggled to open up a defiant Portuguese defence in the semi final. Heading into the final it seemed a spirited and disciplined Italian side, who arguably had already out thought and out manoeuvred Spain in  the group stages, would have what it took to serve up real danger and frustration to the Spanish.

But then just when Italy might have had the answer, Spain changed the question. In the aftermath of Spain’s menacingly masterclass which screamed to the footballing world “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!” many reasons were given for the turnaround in Spain’s excitement levels but the most important and significant element was undoubtedly tempo. From the get go Spain set out like a side with a point to prove, as though they had won nothing in their lives, almost as though they couldn’t contain their excitement. Yet the genius of the performance lay in its precise calculation, executed to perfection. Jordi Alba was lauded for his energetic bursts from LB and Andres Iniesta for his outrageous talent yet the front man on the night, Cesc Fabregas, received a small slice of praise.

Which to me is strange because in the final I believe Cesc put on a display which in years to come could be heralded as the moment that “False 9″ become a genuine and legitimate alternative in footballing playbooks. Until now not many teams or players had adopted this role and fewer if any with success, the only man to take up that role and excel has been Leo Messi, Fabregas’ club mate. Quite often with Messi there is no desire to seek explanation to his greatness, just to admire it. Yeah Messi can do it, but he’s Messi. Cesc proved that although he is no Messi and lacks many of the worlds best’s skills, he has the ones which matter when it comes to making False 9 work -  A sure first touch and appreciation of space.

False 9 shifts the focal point of attack, from CF to anywhere and everywhere. The role of the number 9 is no longer to hold play up, to finish attacks and to run in behind defences. Instead it transforms into something more often associated with a play-maker, to create space, to move defenders and to open the doors for others to rush through and create maximum damage. And in the case of somebody like Messi, to exploit those spaces himself. Whilst Cesc does not possess the pace, dribbling or shooting accuracy of a player like Messi, he demonstrated his intelligence in giving Italian defenders a conundrum, whether to follow him out wide or deep and when they did, gaps appeared. The beauty of the False 9 is it requires a perfect structure and set of players for the climate it seeks to create to flourish. Spain and Barcelona have those players in abundance. The spaces and gaps are so tight and only open for a fleeting moment before defenders realise their error and correct themselves, but by the time the alarm bells sound, the fire will have been ignited. The technical ability of almost all of Spain’s players gave evidence to prove the point, that LB Jordi Alba finished like a seasoned finisher and that the minute David Silva headed home testament to the fact that players who can do what they want with the ball only need a yard with which to work with. Cesc was able to create those spaces and the former Arsenal man’s exactness in touch is just an element which is just as crucial as his guile. Cesc is able to cope with the quick tempo, to receive passes zipped into him at pace and bring them under his spell, to turn in tight corners as CB’s tower over his slight shoulders and to pick out passes from the tight spaces he moves into in order to create yards for others.


Andrea Pirlo Cesc Fabregas (C) of Spain battles for the ball with Giorgio Chiellini (L) and Andrea Pirlo of Italy during the UEFA EURO 2012 final match between Spain and Italy at the Olympic Stadium on July 1, 2012 in Kiev, Ukraine.

Cesc departed the pitch and Fernando Torres came on to score and assist himself to take Spain’s lead to an unassailable 4 goals, some argued it demonstrated that a classical CF is still the best bet. And perhaps it is, but not for all, not for Spain and Barcelona as was proved on the night. By then Italy had opened up, desperately and bravely searching for a goal to breathe life into their fading hopes, the spaces and gaps presented themselves to Torres naturally. In those first 45 minutes Fabregas was given the task to coax them out himself, acting as Xavi’s reconnaissance unit in the heart of Italy’s defence.

Whether False 9 becomes a staple of football remains to be seen and much depends on its continued success. When midfielders begin to  peel away from the rigidness of 4-4-2 and play in between the lines, CAM and DM’s became commonplace, it was a natural progression and evolution on the chalkboard. Perhaps the False 9 is next, but it will have to be a necessity. Possession is already  becoming the gold standard between the white lines where teams seek to monopolize the ball. In response Jose Mourinho and his disciples descended on their goal lines with a double-decker bus. Barcelona and now Spain have signalled the latest riposte, a lollipop man who doesn’t quite look the part but has the know-how and foresight to direct the oncoming traffic. It may wither away to become a footnote of this era of Iberian dominance, but if the role gains popularity and begins to prevail, Cesc’s demonstration in Kiev gave proof to the fact that you don’t have to be Messi to make it work.