The role of “False Nine” has a place of honor in the recent history of football and tactics and is inextricably linked in our imagination to the figure of Leo Messi. Actually, there have been other footballers with their own version of the False Nine, even before Barcelona’s Argentine wonder, but Messi’s model under the guidance of Pep Guardiola came close to perfection. Indeed, experts and fans have codified the role around the Argentine’s version. That’s why today we often refer to the position using the Spanish Falso Nueve.

The False Nine is an attacking midfielder with no striker in front of him to refer to. In fact, the space between the central defenders is left free only to be attacked later. Messi is unique in how he positions himself in space, at the right moment to receive the ball with his back to the opposition’s defense. He can then turn on a dime and attack the space that his own move has created.

Leo Messi’s qualities have long made any attempt at imitation useless. However, the role of the forward has changed over the years. Today, a centre-forward is normally more intent on disrupting the opposition’s formation and passes the ball to his teammates more often.

So, False Nines are less common, but there are still players whose characteristics approximate the Messi ideal.

 

Modern False Nines: Roberto Firmino and Lorenzo Insigne

When he was at Hoffenheim, Roberto Firmino already stood out for his versatility, to the point that people began to discuss the role in which he would perform at his best: attacking midfielder, second striker or first-line striker?

Firmino has completed his development at Liverpool, but it is only since Klopp has played him alongside Mohamed Salah that he has shown his full potential. Indeed, the Brazilian was one of the main architects of a season that led Liverpool to the Champions League final, with Salah superb all year, scoring 44 goals in all competitions.

When they lost possession Liverpool played 4-4-2, keeping Mané and Salah up front. The Reds right midfield’s position was occupied by Firmino and not by the Egyptian, only nominally lined up on the right flank. The defensive cover provided by the Brazilian allowed Salah to conserve energy and put Liverpool at an advantage when they regained the ball, with the two fastest men ready to attack deep.

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In possession, Firmino placed himself just outside the opposition’s penalty area to find space to receive the ball behind the other team’s midfielders. His movement sought to create one-on-one situations for his two attacking teammates with the opposition’s defenders.

Klopp’s decision to gradually integrate the Swiss player Shaqiri in the first team has shifted the formation to 4-2-3-1, thus changing Firmino’s job. But whenever his coach opts to return to the original 4-3-3, the Brazilian striker immediately resumes his previous good habits.

Carlo Ancelotti has brought many tactical innovations to Napoli. Of these, the one that has aroused the most interest, and that has also proved to be the most effective, was shifting Lorenzo Insigne from the left wing to the center of the attack. The change of position immediately made Insigne more incisive when his team were on the front foot and brought out his qualities as a False Nine.

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The play distribution by Lorenzo Insigne in the victory against Atalanta in the 14th Serie A matchday.

Insigne moves horizontally along the entire attack to give the player in possession an option to pass. His movement between the opposing lines is intended to provoke a reaction in the opponent’s line-up: if a defender decides to mark someone and thus leave the defensive line, the rest of the team needs to move in compensation. Closing the lines by squeezing up behind a teammate, or with a man who moves up the line, depending on the areas of the pitch.

Insigne always creates uncertainty among opposition defenders, forcing them to react. As with Firmino, his attacking teammates complete this offensive strategy. In the case of Liverpool, Sadio Mané and Momo Salah act as offensive outlets. With Napoli, it is Dries Mertens or Arek Milik who try to finish the action or at least to infiltrate the defensive line in the spaces created by their teammate.

 

Two ways to be a real Number Nine: Gonzalo Higuaín and Mauro Icardi

The way in which a centre-forward now plays the role of Number Nine has changed. Benzema at Real Madrid, Dzeko at Roma, Suárez at Barcelona, and Kane at Tottenham are forwards who drop back to join the fray alongside the midfielders. These players are even good with their feet despite their physical heft.

Gonzalo Higuaín is certainly a modern centre-forward. He played for some years as an attacking midfielder in the River Plate youth teams, behind one or two strikers. Then, as a professional, he has transformed himself into one of the most lethal strikers of recent times, who broke the Serie A scoring record that had stood for 66 years. His youthful experience as a number 10 has improved his catalog of movements and made him unpredictable for defenders.

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Higuaín plays a couple of one-twos with Suso, before slipping in between De Rossi and Nzonzi. Before entering the area, he tries another pass on the ground with the rushing Calabria.

However, Higuaín is above all a team player, who needs to touch the ball several times, who needs the support of the rest of the team to create an attacking move over the last 25 meters. The Argentine moves from the center of his defense, shifting sideways or backward to make his marker follow him. Then, after a one-two with the midfielder, maybe goes out wide to create a channel for the third man to come in; or, with his strong legs, reverses the direction of his run and thus dictates the play deep in the space behind the defender.

On the world scene, there is still room for pure penalty area strikers: Mauro Icardi is the complete opposite as an attacker from the models listed above.

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The graph of Icardi’s average positions shows how much of his game takes place in the penalty area.

Unlike Higuaín, Icardi is rarely outside the penalty area, and on those occasions, his technical precision cannot be compared to that of his compatriot. However, when the action takes place in the last 16 meters of the pitch, he literally becomes someone else. He has a unique ability to push the defense back by running off the ball, to make defenders follow him and then to lose them before popping up again unmarked in front of the goalkeeper.

It is as if Icardi has stripped away all the aspects of his game not strictly related to the end product. He has gradually sloughed off the frills to concentrate on the final act of scoring a goal. Indeed, he is a unique striker in today’s game.

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