Camp Nou, September 12, 2017: Barcelona against Juventus in the first group stage match of UCL 2017-2018
After a humiliating defeat by Real Madrid over the course of two legs in the Spanish Super Cup, Barcelona were in sixes and sevens, both on and off the pitch. They might have had a 100% win ratio in their opening seven La Liga games, but those clashes were not that difficult anyway.
But this was their first tough fixture.
Juventus not only knocked them out last season in the quarter-final but also outclassed and outplayed them in both the legs. They couldn’t even find the back of the net once in over 180 minutes, whereas Real Madrid, on the other hand, put 4 past Juve in 90 minutes.
The coveted attacking trio of Messi, Neymar and Suarez were clueless at times against the disciplined Juventus backline. So, the stakes were higher than ever when the side took on Juventus last month. Valverde stuck to his newly-employed tactic of playing Messi as the false 9 while shifting Luis Suarez to the left side and it worked wonderfully.
The Blaugrana thrashed Juventus by three goals to nil and the football fraternity again got to witness its best-ever false 9. What happens in the later stages is another matter. For now, Messi in the false 9 role is creating havoc in Europe and Spain.
The difference between false-nine and the usual number 9
To understand it clearly, we need to know about the usual number 9 role at first. Earlier, when there were no squad numbers, the traditional centre-forward used to wear the number 9.
Back in 1928, when Sheffield Wednesday played against Arsenal and Chelsea played against Swansea Town, the number 9 squad numbers were taken by centre-forwards. From then on, the usual ‘9’ plays on the shoulder of the defence or holds up the ball to bring the others into play. The number 9 is the focal point of all the crosses and attacks and it’s his/her primary role to score or feed off through balls.
On the other hand, the false 9 is an unconventional lone striker or centre-forward, who drops deep into midfield to create problems for opposing centre-backs. The centre-backs are put in a dilemma - they can either follow the false 9, leaving space behind them for onrushing midfielders, forwards or wingers, or leaving the false 9 to have time and space to dribble or pick out a dangerous pass.
The history and rise of the false-nine role
The tactic to cause problems between the lines was popularised by the Danube School in the 1930s. Although a deep dropping striker was common across central Europe in the 1920s, the Austrian centre-forward, Matthias Sindelar, was one of the first strikers who dropped deep to create havoc among defences and to avoid the physical approach and the man-marking style of opponents by bringing his wingers and attacking midfielders into the game.
Then there was the great Hungarian team of the 50s with Nandor Hidegkuti as the deep-lying forward. Both these famous False 9s destroyed English national teams who were accustomed of facing a physical-yet-immobile number 9.
But the recent example of False 9 in modern football came when Luciano Spaletti deployed Francesco Totti to play as a sort-of salse 9 for Roma in 2006/07. However, Totti was more of a creative attacking midfielder who had shooting roles, rather than a striker who dropped deep.
Under Guardiola's positional play theory for Barcelona, Lionel Messi played as a false 9 with devastating effect. Besides, Cesc Fabregas for Spain in Euro 2012 and Robin Van Persie for Arsenal also assumed that role in some matches.
The devastating effect of the false-nine
When the striker drops deep into midfield, it creates a plethora of available passes for the midfielder in possession. Now, the midfield has at least one passing option between the lines of the opposition midfield and defence, created by the shifting of the striker.
And quality players that find space and receive the ball between those lines are bound to create dangers for the opponent. Teams who deploy zonal-marking instead of man-marking will also face problems as the centre back either pushes up to isolate his partner or leaves the forward, giving him ample time and space.
Valverde's vibrant touch
As Valverde has shifted towards a possession-based style, with Messi occupying the central position, the players are congested accurately. The sole focus is on the midfield trident of Iniesta, Busquets & Rakiti? with the help of Messi dropping deep.
Busquets often shifts to a centre-back between Pique and Umtiti, providing extra support in defence, while the two fullbacks overlap at will. As the Barca midfielders drop deep, the opposing midfield inherently follow their markers which creates space for Messi to exploit.
The fullbacks – Alba and Semedo – provide width and the two wingers, Suarez & Dembele, occupy the opposition defensive line and try to find spaces in between. And this is where we see the effect of Valverde’s false 9 ploy.
When the ball is fed to Messi from midfield; the opposition Centre Backs will either push up to man-mark him, which creates space in behind for the wide forwards to attack or consort to their places.
When the latter happens, it gives birth to a gargantuan amount of space for Messi to dazzle into the D-box or to simply shoot. Moreover, Messi has other options of providing diagonal through balls to fullbacks or wingers.
When Valverde first used the false 9 role in his tactic, many thought it was a make-shift arrangement to compensate for the absence of injured Luis Suarez. But even after the striker’s return, Valverde didn’t shift Messi towards the right wing.
Instead, Suarez was deployed in the left-wing role of the departed Neymar. The Uruguayan took up his position as a floating left-winger who drifted into central zones, much like Thierry Henry and David Villa used to do in that role for Barcelona in the golden Guardiola days.
Meanwhile, Dembele or Deulofeu occupy the right wing role that was once donned by Pedro. This 4-3-3 formation with Messi as false 9 also liberates Ivan Rakitic. The midfielder can now play more centrally, much like his days in Sevilla.
Besides, this ploy helps Dembele to cut back from right wing using his pace and trickery. As Barcelona got an apt right back in Semedo, Dembele and Rakitic can focus on their respective duties.
But Luis Suarez is in discomfort. The talismanic number 9 is used to be the central focal point of his team’s attack. In fact, he flourished in this role under Enrique. However, he is not Neymar and, hence, the left wing role is becoming a burden for him.
Although, when he is drifting towards the centre with Messi lying deep into midfield, he is playing more comfortably, but it is still not enough. Suarez has scored just 2 goals and assisted one in 4 La Liga matches so far.
More importantly, he is missing many chances and it seems to be bothering him. In the last game against Las Palmas, we saw a frustrated Luis Suarez ripping his shirt apart after failing to convert numerous chances. Obviously, Suarez now has to work even harder in training to fully adapt to his new role - otherwise, it would cause more frustration for both Suarez and Barcelona.
As we all know, nothing is invincible. Teams started to press higher and deploy 3 or 5 men defences to counter the false 9 tactic. On some occasions, a centre back has the freedom to follow the shifting striker and the remaining back three hold the line.
Besides, a 4-2-3-1 formation with a double pivot will deny any space for the False 9 and with no focal point, the attacking team would seem clueless. It was this very tactic used by Jose Mourinho to congest the midfield by assigning several players to the defensive midfield role - 'parking the bus' to shunt the false 9 out of the game.
Moreover, not everyone can succeed as the 9. Only a player with great vision, dribbling skill, ball control, positional sense and accuracy can excel in this role - someone like Lionel Messi.
But there are not many players like Lionel Messi (in fact, maybe none). So all in all, the false 9 tactic can only be efficient through proper personnel. Guardiola learnt it the hard way when he tried to deploy Gotze as the false 9 at Bayern Munich like he did with Messi at Barcelona.
All things concerned, Valverde's Barcelona playing with Messi as a false 9 will surely score a lot of goals against minnows, but it's the big boys against whom this traditional-yet-unconventional tactic will face its litmus test.
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