The Breakdown: The false nine enigma

The term ‘false nine’ has been popular for years now, but still lacks clarification.

Is it simply a striker who drops off from the front to find space away from centre-backs, as mastered by Lionel Messi? Or a midfielder pushed forward into an advanced role, like Cesc Fabregas often does for Spain? Kevin Nolan has also played this role for West Ham and you would hardly compare his physical, hard running style with say, Adel Taarabt, who was used in the same position when on loan at Fulham earlier this season.

The term false nine, then, has come to represent lots of things that could probably just be plainly described as something orthodox forwards would not do or, even more generally, a false nine represents someone who is not an orthodox forward.

That seems a fitting description, then, of the four players who fulfilled this role in the A-League’s final regular season round. Harry Kewell, Alessandro Del Piero, Guilherme Finkler and James Troisi were all used as the most advanced attackers for their sides, but they rarely stayed there, dropping deep into midfield and drifting to the sides to find possession and create chances. Yet this was also a weekend where this movement was also replicated by players like Tomi Juric, Bruce Djite and Besart Berisha, three strikers in the truest sense of the word. It demonstrates the fallacy in football terminology and is a prudent reminder that at the end of the day, the term false nine is a description, not a science.

Beyond minor quibbles of definitions, however, lies a far more pertinent point. The past weekend of A-League action featured several examples of deep-lying forwards. Even a side like Newcastle started with Emile Heskey - probably the closest thing to a classic centre-forward in world football - drifting between the lines to act as a link between the Jets’ midfield and Adam Taggart’s runs in behind. The combination between the two in Round 26 against Melbourne Victory for the latter’s opening goal was an excellent demonstration of the danger a striker can pose if they drop away from defenders intelligently.

Meanwhile, Frank Farina has increasingly preferred Del Piero upfront in a 4-3-3, encouraged by the movement of the wide players in behind when the Italian moves towards the midfield, while Kewell, in his final match before retirement, spent most of a match where he was designated as a forward in deeper positions, encouraging both David Williams and Mate Dugdanzic to run into the space in behind. Their cross-city rivals, the Victory are, of course, the standard bearers for this template, with Ange Postecoglou introducing the concept and it being continued now under Kevin Muscat’s reign.

Even traditional strikers are getting in on the act. Tomi Juric might be best known as a battering ram of a forward but there was sophistication in the way he dropped short into the space between Melbourne Heart’s midfield and defence to find room for long-range strikes. Djite, too, is regarded as a target man but looked most dangerous when he dragged defenders with him into deep positions, holding up play and inviting runners to get in beyond him.

It is a fairly simple piece of movement but it was intriguing how commonplace it was in all five games. Context, too, must be considered. Five years ago the primary function of strikers in this league was to latch onto the end of crosses and battle for high balls, but a deep-lying forward has now become mainstream enough that it was barely remarked upon as each game unfolded.

Why, then, is it so popular? It is, essentially, the principle of overloading - breaking an opposition’s defensive shape by taking players away from one zone of the pitch and moving them into another. If a centre-forward moves deep, he leaves the centre-backs with no one to mark. If the defender follows, as Patrick Kisnorbo, Ben Sigmund and Kew Jaliens, to list a few examples, like to do, he risks leaving space that others can move into. If he doesn’t, the deep-lying centre-forward has freedom, time and space to attack, whether that be with a shot, pass or dribble.

If you pull the midfielders back to protect the defence, as the Central Coast Mariners do with Nick Montgomery and John Hutchinson, you can risk sitting too deep, or conceding the time and space to opposition midfielders who now have no direct opponent. Furthermore it is essentially a sacrifice of some of your attacking penetration in asking midfielders to play such disciplined roles, and it is telling that neither Montgomery or Hutchinson have recorded a goal or assist this season.

As it were, though, against the masters of getting players between the lines, Brisbane Roar, Phil Moss took a decidedly different approach in switching to a 5-4-1, giving his centre-backs an extra man at the back to allow them to step up onto deep-lying attackers, safe in the knowledge there was cover in behind. That Brisbane were able to force one of the most tactically consistent sides in the competition into such a drastically different formation demonstrates their deep-lying dangers.

The obvious conclusion, therefore, is that a deep-lying forwards can be difficult to deal with no matter what way you defend it. That, then, brings us back to answering why it was so fashionable last weekend. One might expect it to be even more decisive in the upcoming finals series.

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