Traditionally, the number nine is the leading striker – focal point of a team’s attack and expected to shoulder the goal scoring burden by clinically disposing of crosses or passes that comes his way in the box. However, we have seen a resurgence of sorts in the utilization of false nines in modern football, led by the Euro 2012 champions Spain. They conquered their third consecutive major title of the nation’s golden era by deploying midfielder Cesc Fabregas in the false nine role to great effect throughout the tournament. Instead of staying up front, the ‘false nine’ is only a central striker on paper, but in reality, he often drops deep into midfield to link up plays and draw central defenders away for their wingers and attacking midfielders to exploit, creating problems for opposition defenders. The following is our ranking of the top five false nines in today’s game.
Paulo Dybala has played in all positions across Juventus’ front-line as Massimiliano Allergi continues to pinpoint the Argentinian’s best position in his squad. Although mostly deployed as a second striker, he has been played as a ‘false nine’ especially in his earlier years at the club and even at Palermo previously. He has excelled in the role, averaging a goal every two games and many more assists to boot. His close dribbling, intelligent movement and ball skills makes him perfectly suited for the role, while not boasting exceptional pace or strength, he is a more than capable retainer and runner with the ball. With all the attributes to follow in compatriot Lionel Messi’s shoes, and with the latter’s admission that it is difficult to play with Dybala on the same team in the national setup, the similarities in position and play style of these two ‘false nines’ are there for all to see.
The Italian attacker has been a loyal servant of Napoli, helping the team establish themselves as consistent title contenders in Serie A. He plays the ‘false nine’ position in an attacking front three featuring Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens much akin to how Roberto Firmino operates in Liverpool’s famed attacking trio. Although he has also sometimes been deployed as one of two strikers in a 4-4-2 formation, partnering either Mertens or Milik, his role very much remains the same. His nimble footed nature, class touches coupled with his vision and passing ability makes him a conduit of the team’s fluent attacks, often dropping deep to receive the ball and bringing his teammates into play either with short interchanges or a lofted through ball. It is little wonder that for a striker, he has average more assists than goals in four of his past six seasons with Napoli in the Serie A.
While fans are often raving about the goals of Sadio Mane or Mohamed Salah, it is Brazilian Roberto Firmino that is the bedrock of Jurgen Klopp’s fearsome attacking front three. As a false nine, his quiet link up plays with Mane and Salah often go unnoticed, as he does not have the goal scoring exploits or prowess of a leading striker. His close control, intelligent off the ball movement and one touch plays gel the Liverpool’s fearsome attacking trio. His unselfishness makes him the perfect ‘false nine’, often dropping deep to receive the ball and always looking to release his speedier teammates on the break. His neat flicks and backheels are often what unlock stubborn defences in the final third. When Firmino is not firing on all cylinders, so does Liverpool. Such was the case at the start of the season with Liverpool’s scrappy 1-0 wins over the likes of Brighton and Huddersfield. Firmino’s role as a ‘false nine’ at Liverpool cannot be understated.
The Belgian attacker remains the most important figure at Chelsea in recent years, often taking the team on his shoulders at times, as the team’s sole front man. With misfiring strikers in Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata, Hazard has continued to be deployed in the ‘false nine’ role this season with great impact under Maurizio Sarri up till the arrival of Gonzalo Higuain. Known for his mesmerising dribbling, speed, trickery and packing a fearsome shot, the combination of all these traits whilst operating as a ‘false nine’ makes him a thorn in any opposition defence. Opposition centre backs are often drawn out of position as Hazard receives the ball deep and embark on one of his dazzling runs, allowing him to either finish off the move or lay it off for a teammate. He has consistently notched double figures in goals and assists whilst deployed in this role under Conte and now Sarri. Whilst he has made known his reservations of being deployed as a ‘false nine’ previously, his quality as one cannot be doubted.
The man and the legend himself. Lionel Messi is undoubtedly the master of the ‘false nines’. First utilised in this role by then manager Pep Guardiola in the all-conquering 2008/2009 Barcelona team that won both the La Liga and Champions League, Messi has not looked back since. His phenomenal close dribbling ability, impeccable touch and control topped with incredible spatial awareness just makes him impossible to contain, and he showed his best form when deployed in this flexible role, leaving opposition centre backs confounded. The link up play with Xavi and Iniesta when Messi dropped back was mesmerising to watch during the Guardiola era, and the sight of Messi picking up the ball from the halfway line, beating a bunch of defenders and scoring a stunning goal was not too rare of a sight. It was no coincidence that Messi won four of his Ballon d’Or titles from 2009 to 2012, playing as a ‘false nine’ under Guardiola. Although mainly operating either side of a traditional striker in Suarez, Messi still remains the best ‘false nine’ in today’s game, and possibly the best pseudo-striker in football’s history.
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