The first time that numbers were used in association football in Europe was in 1928. Sheffield Wednesday played Arsenal and Chelsea played Swansea Town at Stamford Bridge. The numbers were assigned by the field location and the number 9 happened to be a central striker or the centre forward.
The traditional number 9 is supposed to be a sturdy, physical, and quick player. Their task at hand is simple, to be the focal point of attack. The number 9 is expected to score goals, be at the end of crosses, be available to passes, and attack the through balls.
In general, #9 has little or no role in the build-up but he is there to finish the play. Thus, he always plays on the shoulder of the defence and is almost stationary during build-ups. The criteria to become a good #9 is to be clinical in front of goal, have a good aerial ability, have a good duel winning ability, have enough presence of mind to position well for the ball.
Origins of the false 9
The term false-9 was made popular by the dynamic duo of Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi back in the 2009-10 season. However, the origins of a false nine could be traced back as far as the 1930s.
Matthias Sindelar was probably the first of people to play as a false 9. The physique of the Austrian wasn't compatible to play as a physical striker thus he acted as a false nine playing for Austria in the World Cup.
Sindelar was known to have good creativity and dribbling. Hence he dropped deep to get some space and brought his teammates more into the game. Another player of similar stature is Nándor Hidegkuti who played for Hungary in the 1950s.
England's centre half Harry Johnston's helplessness while facing the deep-lying Hungarian forward could be seen in England's 3-6 loss at Wembley.
How does a false 9 function?
So what exactly is a false 9? A false nine is a tactic adopted by teams who necessarily are not having a dedicated striker. Although, Barcelona did use the false nine even when the likes of Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry were at the club.
The player starting as false nine would initially be at the centre in the front side of the pitch. While the build-up starts he would drop deeper into the midfield to take part in the build-up process.
What does it create then? It creates two to three essential things. It provides a numerical advantage in the midfield and increases the number of passing options. The false nine dropping into the midfield will create several triangles which can be exploited to move forward while passing.
The next and the most obvious thing that it does is to put the central defender in a dilemma. Either the central defenders should follow the false nine and man-mark him, not allowing him to take part in the build-up. This creates a hole in the defence where the winger can move in and the defence is split open with one good through ball.
If the full back moves in to cover for the defender, then the winger or full back of the opposite team can acquire the wide space in the opposition half and has freedom move into the box from there.
Famous false 9s of recent times
Various teams have experimented with the false 9 and the most successful in history has to be Lionel Messi. Pep Guardiola, who saw Messi's technical abilities had a bright idea to utilize his destructive self rather than being stuck in the wing.
Pep's idea was based on gaining positional superiority created by rapid passing and rehearsed movements. This helped the Barcelona side drag many defences out of shape, including the Real Madrid side that they defeated by lopsided margins during that time.
Lionel Messi's creativity in the middle was visible in the 5-0 win in the El Clasico, where he was heavily involved in the goals despite not scoring himself.
Another example of a successful false 9 was Francesco Totti back in 2006/07 season playing for AS Roma. Luciano Spaletti deployed the midfielder in the forward region of the pitch to utilize his good dribbling skills.
Totti was a midfielder moving up the pitch rather than a forward dropping deep though. This was nonetheless a great move to add to the attacking flair of the team and saw Roma finish second both in the table and also in the scoring charts.
Cesc Fabregas featured as a false 9 when Spain did not have a dedicated striker under Del Bosque in Euro 2012.
Recently, Eden Hazard and Roberto Firmino both have been seen playing in the false 9 roles, often dropping deep to create for the other wingers. Other notable and less known false 9s include Carlos Tevez at Manchester United, Robin Van Persie at Arsenal, Ezequiel Lavezzi at Lazio etc.
Robin Van Persie's role in the 2009/10 season at Arsenal was pretty unclear although he often dropped in deep to create.
How to counter the false 9?
Each tactic would have a counter, wouldn't it? The counter to false 9 might not be as engaging or enthralling that you could outplay a team using it, but it sure works. One of the ways to counter the tactic is to let one of the central defenders to mark the false 9 and trust themselves to play a three-man defence.
The wings then also have to be attended to by directly or indirectly. You can either overcrowd the midfield allowing only as much space to pass laterally or you can pick the winger up and pressure him in the wings.
Another tactic which can be employed is the use of a double pivot in front of the four-man defence. This leaves no space in the defensive line to exploit and one of the pivots can handle the false 9. If the pressing is commendable, this can also create a chance to break open in the counter attacks.
The false 9 is intended to drag the opposition out of shape and then exploit them. If used against stubborn teams who are willing to take a draw and won't be dragged out of shape, the tactic is worthless as such.
The counter to false 9 is very boring but it turns out to be effective.
Why don't more teams use the false 9 if it is so effective?
There can only be damage limitation to a false 9. Even if you employ everything that actually could be done, a devastating false 9 will find a way to destroy you. Lionel Messi is one of the very few who has each and every skill that a false 9 needs.
If he gets marked, he knows how to deal with him and leave him behind. If he gets double marked, he knows how to get the ball to other players. But one important thing that we should notice is that Messi has been sub-par playing false 9 for Argentina, where the quality of wingers and midfielders doesn't match that of Barcelona.
So it takes a great player to be an excellent false 9 and it also takes a great team to make the best use of him. Messi's skill set combined with the dribbling that he uses to get past markers, the dangerous through balls that he played between the lines, the driving and shooting ability from even outside the box etc. makes him the perfect player to complete the role.
His teammates Xavi and Iniesta also had a gameplan between themselves when the pressure on Messi increases. Both of them could pick out the place where there is less pressure or they could both dribble into the free areas too.
In many of the football teams, you wouldn't likely find a person who could thrive in that role. A mixture of scoring, passing, and dribbling is unlikely to be found, especially when each and everything needs to be perfect.
Also, teams won't find it easy to complement the false 9. Argentina against France at the World Cup was simply a game where the midfielders did little or nothing to complement the false 9, it happens in most of the teams.
Not every team can offer pace in the wings and creativity in the midfield. That is why we remember only one name when it comes to false 9, it is not surprising, it is the only one who made as big an impact.
Can we see more false 9s in the future?
The way that things are poised currently we cannot see many players in that role. Roberto Firmino and Eden Hazard might continue to play on that role occasionally but none of the teams would do it for an entire season or so as Barca and Roma did.
There is a need for compactness in today's game which cannot be achieved when using the false 9. The wingers and wide players have to be on top of their games when using the tactic.
There is a rise in pressing and variations of pressing. The Gengenpress from Jurgen Klopp has never really come across a dangerous false 9, but it would have given insights into the weaknesses of both tactics.
But hopefully, we could see young and creative players like Fekir, Eriksen, and Dybala play the role successfully in the near future.