From The Penalty Spot: Is this the era of the “false 9″ and demise of “true strikers”?

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Few moments ago, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger bemoaned the lack of strikers in the transfer market. Lamenting on his inability to sight one since the start of the transfer season.

It was as if “The Prof” as Wenger is fondly called, read my mind.

Few days ago I got engaged in this same discussion with a pal, we were relishing the days of Ronaldo d’Lima, Andriy Shevchenko, Raul Gonzalez, Didier Drogba, Alan Shearer, Andy Yorke, Ian Wright, Miroslav Klose, Ian Rush, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and many more to mention. Days when strikers terrorised defenders and defence structures, when strikers could receive a through pass from the  midfield or flank and do something magical with it in a twinkling of an eye.

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Back then, the centre-forward is often a tall player, typically known as a target man, whose main function is to score the majority of goals on behalf of the team. The player may also be used to win long balls or receive passes and retain possession of the ball as team-mates advance, to help teammates score by providing a pass (‘through ball’ into the box). These men did this job well, even to the admiration of their opponents.

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It is no mere chance that a centre-forward usually must be strong, to win key headers and ‘outmuscle’ defenders, the likes of Drogba, Lewndowski or Voller of Czech Republic.

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Back then, to have the presence of Shevchenko as your pointman is an assured goal at the end of the 90 minutes or the aggressive nature of Drogba made the Ivorian a force to be considered when the game kicks off, or even the slick and darting run of Ronaldo or Raul into the 18 yard zone spelt a change in the scoreline.

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Alas, those days are no more, it is as if, the era of this stirkers have gone into extinction, and hence emerges the new strike pattern, The False 9.

The “false 9” is logically named. They are typically deployed at the beginning of the game as a striker. However they do not hang on the shoulders of defenders attempting to run past them as a traditional number 9 would. Instead, they retreat deeper into the pitch.

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This causes problems for the opposing defenders, who are left with a conundrum either they stay in their position and leave the striker with acres of space, or they continue following him to tightly mark, and leave acres of space where they’re supposed to sit for other players to run into. The false 9 is essentially a striker who drops deep, i.e he drifts back into the midfield rather than staying around the penalty box for various tactical reasons.

To utilise this position well, requires complete team cohesion, and intelligent wingers/inside forwards who can track the movements of the opposition and pick the right time to overlap and strike.

This term, the false 9, might be quite new to the football dictionary but the position is quite archaic.

Back in the old days of football,when there were no squad numbers the traditional center forward used to wear the number 9.

So when this player who was wearing the number 9 on his shirt didn’t play in the area of the pitch(or the role) he was originally assigned to, he was no more the “true number 9”. So that’s how the term “The False 9” was coined.

This style of play didn’t just emerge out of the blues, it had been around for a while but it was only of late that it became a trend in the game of football.

For as far as i can recall, the false 9 started way back in the 1930s with the Austrian team, the Austrian national team known then as the wunderteam, and leading the team was the withdrawn center forward Matthias Sindelar.

Sindelar was one of the first strikers who dropped deep to create havoc among defences. Then there was the great Hungarian team of the 50s with Nandor Hidegkuti as the deep lying forward.

But in modern football,the earliest example one can think of is, Francesco Totti for Roma under Luciano Spaletti in 2006/07.

Although, Sir Alex Ferguson tried out a strikerless formation with Tevez,Rooney and Ronaldo with all the three having no fixed positions. Arsene Wenger too with Arsenal deployed Robin Van Persie as a false 9 in 2009. It was vital as it allowed Wenger to field another striker,either Bendtner or Eduardo with Van Persie. But it was Lionel Messi with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona who played it to perfection.

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The 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid was probably the peak of Pep’s Barcelona and Messi was easily the man of the match in that game tearing apart the Real defence with ease.

Ever since then, the false 9 became a trademark in the Barcelona tiki taka game pattern, such that “true 9’s” like Zlatan Ibrahimović,  Samuel Etoo, Thierry Henry and David Villa’s introduction into the team as strikers didn’t really get to blend, these strikers were made to play as supporting strikers, giving Messi the room to create havoc and score, this pattern didn’t bode well with some of the strikers, especially Ibrahimovic and Etoo hence, facilitating their exit.

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Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid is also a case to be considered, the fact that the Portuguese winger seem to have more goal tally than the true 9, Karim Benzema, leaves one to wonder who the real striker is, it is pertinent to note that Benzema seem likely to end up with more number of assist than goals scored in a season, thanks to Ronaldo’s unending quench for goals.

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But Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain line up in the Euro 2012 final gave “The False 9” an official status,it became mainstream. It was when the vast majority of football fans came to know about the position,as for the first time in a big international final,a side started without a striker. Cesc Fabregas a pure attacking midfielder, played as a center forward for Spain against Italy in the final and Spain ran out 4-1 winners.

With this trend fast becoming a norm, one is compelled to ponder on what the likes of Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa, Robert Lewandowski, Emmanuel Emenike, Robin Van Persie, Lukaku, Benteke, Icardi and many more of their type will have to do when compelled to fall back and play the role desired by the coach, allowing the false 9 score the goals, leaving them with higher number of assists than goals.

 

In as much as the true aim of any game for any team, is victory at the end of the 90 minutes, so long as the scoreline tilts in favour of the team, it doesn’t matter which player roars infront of the fans when the goal is scored, it’s what the scoreboard reads that matters. But, I am of the opinion that strikers, “true 9’s”, have an “uneditable” place in the game of football and truth is, when you are opportuned to see a true 9 in the pitch at the peak of his moment, holding down heavy defenders and rounding up goalkeepers, cooly sliding the ball into the net, running out to meet the fans with his arms stretched out wide with an aura of a gladiator, you will feel blessed.

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