How Malaysia can benefit from a false nine system

With Dollah Salleh being presented with something of a striking crisis ahead of the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup, Darren Goon examines the pros and cons of the Harimau Malaya head coach unleashing a false nine at the tournament...

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The beauty of independent thought means that we all deal with problems differently. Facing a striker shortage due to injury/suspension/strop/transfer? Arsene Wenger signed Danny Welbeck; Louis van Gaal promoted a youngster; Brendan Rodgers did a Spurs; while Jose Mourinho brought back the striker who scored the most important goal in his club’s history.

As heart-warming as it was having Didier Drogba lead the line again, Mourinho is probably more infamous for his actions when facing a similar problem in August 2013, when the Special One plonked Andre Schurrle up front for a vital match at Manchester United to protest the lack of forward options at Chelsea. Schurrle was effectively a “false nine”, a position made mainstream by Lionel Messi and Spain’s ensuing striker-less exploits at Euro 2012. But what is this newfangled tactical term?

Fabregas,one of the finest false nines in the world

A false nine is a player who technically operates where a traditional striker would, but with the ability to drop deeper into almost a playmaking position. By dropping into the space between midfield and attack, a false nine could: (a) escape from the defender marking him, and if the defender chooses to follow, he risks leaving space at the back, space that could be exploited by wingers or attacking midfielders cutting inside or bombing forward; (b) collect the ball, turn, and run at the defence at pace, which makes him harder to stop.

When David Villa was ruled out through injury and Fernando Torres was in the midst of another lean spell, Spain gaffer Vicente del Bosque preferred not to plop Fernando Llorente into his tiki-taka-ing side at Euro 2012, opting for Cesc Fabregas instead and resulting in glorious outcomes. Spain have also played David Silva in that position, while Germany have done the same with Mario Gotze.

However, these are huge footballing nations with the infrastructure and long-implemented coaching style to produce footballers of high ability and talent. The Harimau Malaya have neither of those things. One could argue that they don’t even have capable strikers at this point of time.

Who can lead the line at the AFF Suzuki Cup?

Malaysia’s attacking foibles have been well-documented recently. Even Dollah himself has voiced his concerns, with his most recent comment reported in the New Straits Times on Friday, in which he said, “In attack, our strikers have mostly been reserves for their club teams and that also makes things difficult (regarding finalising his 22-man squad).”

Dollah is used to attacking football. Yet, he was fortunate to be blessed with an exceptional foreign striker at each of his major club appointments. At Selangor MPPJ he had Argentinian hitman Juan Manuel Arostegui and his compatriot Brian Fuentes during his treble-winning spell at Selangor; another Argentine, Matias Conti, scored at will as Pahang won the 2013 Malaysia Cup; and Maldivian striker Ali Ashfaq dominated this season as PDRM romped to the Premier League title.

Dollah enjoys working with foreign strikers like Ali Ashfaq

Unfortunately, Dollah isn’t able to call upon a similarly talented striker with the Harimau Malaya and, has to make do with what he has at his disposal, which, frankly, isn’t much.

Safee Sali (three goals all season) is returning from injury; Norshahrul Idlan Talaha (two goals) is short on confidence after missing a penalty in the recent Malaysia Cup final; Abdul Manaf Mamat (six goals) has done marginally better than the two JDT strikers, but the bar has not been set high. What Dollah does have, though, are midfielders.

Safiq Rahim, Badhri Radzi, Hafiz Kamal, Shukor Adan, and Gary Steven Robbat are the five central midfielders in his current 26-man AFF Suzuki Cup training squad; while seven other players are wingers, wide midfielders, or attacking midfielders (including Amri Yahyah). Of all these players, several are in tremendous form (looking at you, R. Gopinathan), while others are versatile enough to play across the attacking positions, like Amri or Indra Putra Mahayuddin.

One might say that some of these players fit the description of what a false nine should be – slight, quick, and in possession of excellent ball control. However, should Dollah choose to go down this tactical path, he might have already lost the most suitable player for the task.

Who can be the false nine?

Joseph Kalang Tie celebrated his first call-up in two years with a brace against Cambodia in a 4-1 win in September, earning plenty of praise and possibly sealing his spot in Dollah’s final squad.  However, it seems that his performance even caught himself off guard, as he had scheduled his wedding ceremony for November 15th, excusing himself from Malaysia’s AFF Cup squad.

JKT was impressive against Cambodia

It’s a shame, as he possesses all the attributes to become Malaysia’s first false nine. A speedy, diminutive playmaker with exceptional vision, it is fitting that he has already been bestowed the title of “the Messi of Sarawak”. Primarily left-footed, the 27-year-old is comfortable on either wing, and is equally adept centrally, either as an attacking midfielder, or a second striker. Such positional variety makes him a tricky customer for opposing defenders, who can’t predict where he’ll pop up next.

Theoretically, Joseph could play as the main attacker, supported by two wingers who can cut inside when the Sarawakian drops deeper to cause mischief in midfield. Safiq Rahim, who went forward quite well during JDT’s Malaysia Cup campaign, scoring four times, could then bomb forward more regularly, knowing that Joseph can provide over if required.

Despite starting on the left wing against Cambodia, Joseph frolicked in a free role and starred with two well-taken goals that came from a central position. For his first, he was the furthest Malaysian forward as he successfully haggled a Cambodian defender for possession and finished off the post, while he displayed his pace on the break and technical ability for his second goal, breaking through the middle to latch onto Bobby Gonzales’ neat through-ball.

He combined well with his other versatile forwards, Fakri Saarani and Indra Putra, who are both able to play on the wing or as a support striker. It is this kind of fluid attacking ability that so pleases Dollah, as exhibited by his PDRM side this season. The Cops frequently played with a 4-4-2 that featured Bobby and Ashfaq up front, supported by Charles Chad Souza, but all three forwards were able to rotate and switch positions when necessary, and they combined for 55 goals in all competitions.

But with Joseph taking himself out of the picture, who’s next in line to be a false nine? Terengganu’s Nor Farhan Muhammad’s seven league goals from the wing/second striker position has him in with a shout, but the Super League’s highest-scoring local this season didn’t make Dollah’s 26-man preliminary squad. Wan Zaharulnizam Wan Zakaria? Skilful, but he’s too small. R. Gopinathan? Lightning quick, but his talents are better utilised on the wing. After factoring everything, our vote goes to Amri Yahyah.

Amri Yahyah as a false nine?

Despite his age, he is a possible candidate. Pushed out to the wing at JDT, he remains one of the most consistently reliable performers. He’s lost a yard of pace in recent years, but his experience and build-up play could see him become a false nine of the Fabregas ilk, one who plays like a target man who receives the ball on the ground – not from the air – and is ever ready to spring advancing teammates with through-balls or provide more angles for the midfield passers.

Another potential false nine is Baddrol Bakhtiar. The Kedah captain is capable of functioning on both wings, as well as in an advanced midfield position. A good passer of the ball and deadly from distance, Baddrol also netted nine times this season, including a long-range goal in the aforementioned Cambodia friendly – not a bad return from midfield.

Why “no” to the false nine system?

For all its exciting unpredictability, the false nine remains a risk. One that smaller teams like Malaysia might not be able to pull off, even if national team staff manage to produce and train a footballer to fill such a role.

The false nine has blurred the lines between position, and principle. It’s no longer about slapping a label on players and telling them where to play, but allowing them the freedom of movement to think for themselves and analyse the motions of a match to decide where best to operate, and when.

As such, being a false nine isn’t just about technical ability (though it does help), but also footballing intelligence. In addition, his teammates would need to have their roles in the team clearly defined and be familiar with each other, something that Spain benefit from due to their reliance on players from Barcelona’s midfield (and because Xabi Alonso’s really smart). When one goes forward, another takes his place, and so on.

Tactically, it is often used as a weapon to break down stubborn, defensive sides that sit deep and put men behind the ball. Malaysia, being Malaysia, tend to cede possession and do most of the deep defending themselves during international friendlies, thus the need for a false nine is questionable.

Nonetheless, the use of a false nine should be seen for what it is, an expansion in options for Dollah and the Harimau Malaya, rather than a complete departure from the norm – playing natural strikers up front. Malaysia could benefit from tactical variety and the ability to switch things up when necessary, particularly in such a trying state of goal-scoring emergency.