How the false nine helped Manchester City create numerical advantages and the real nine allowed Chelsea to stretch defences.
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From false full-backs to the importance of adaptability, we examine some of the main talking points from the 2020/21 UEFA Champions League technical report.
Here we focus on how Pep Guardiola deployed two false nines in a 1-4-4-2 formation during last season's Champions League, a decade after Lionel Messi assumed the false-nine role under him at Barcelona.
The purpose is to create numerical advantages in deeper positions and may have been used as a result of Manchester City not having an 'out-and-out striker' in their squad. In comparison, Timo Werner was praised by the technical observers for his movement in behind to stretch opposition defences, as seen in the build-up to Chelsea's goal in the final.
Guardiola doubles up with false nines
The false forward – or false nine – has been in currency for some time. Messi filled the role at Barcelona in a 1-4-3-3 set-up under Guardiola a decade ago, dropping off to ensure numerical superiority in the middle of the pitch and playing his part in that famous passing carousel. Ten years on, Guardiola deployed not one but two false nines in a 1-4-4-2 as Manchester City reached their first Champions League final.
"We need to highlight the incredible coaching that Man. City had with Pep Guardiola's vision of not using a No9 and becoming a team that can score goals," said Roberto Martínez of the approach of his compatriot. "I think Man. City this season played a lot better without a nine than with one."
As explained by Martínez, the deployment of a false nine serves two functions. The first is to create a numerical advantage through the player going to the ball, rather than in the other direction to the goal. Against a low block, a clever player "will find spaces to be free, as centre-halves are not going to go all the way" in following them, he said.
It helps, of course, to have a player with the gifts of City's Kevin De Bruyne who can work between the lines, linking play and feeding runners. "You know he's going to get the right space and the right decision and is going to turn and apply that forward pass," added Martínez, with intelligent movement a requisite as otherwise "you don't get enough players in the final third".
Patrick Vieira reiterated this point, saying: "What we need to highlight is the cleverness of those players because when there's a false nine dropping, the other players have to understand how they have to attack the space, and when you have De Bruyne and [İlkay] Gündoğan, for example, you need to explain to them once and they understand. It's a plus for a manager to have this quality of player that allows him to be really creative."
The second function is to apply pressure off the ball. While attesting that every forward must "know what you do in the line of pressure", Martínez suggested that the players in the false nine role at City offered an intensity and energy that centre-forward Sergio Agüero, with his age and profile, could arguably no longer muster.
Messi the original false nine
Playing as a false nine for Barcelona against Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16, Messi had Ousmane Dembélé and Antoine Griezmann stationed on either side. With Messi now more inclined to fall farther back, Griezmann moved inside to take the central position and Jordi Alba pushed up into the left side of the attack.
To hurt the opposition, though, runners are required, and against Paris it was Frenkie de Jong, breaking forward after Messi had dropped back, who earned the penalty from which Ronald Koeman's side scored.
And the real nines?
If the tactical ingenuity of Guardiola's double false nine was one of the campaign's notable innovations, the movement of a genuine front man, Chelsea's Timo Werner, also caught the eye of UEFA's technical observers. As he showed in the final, when his run took Rúben Dias with him in the lead-up to Chelsea's goal, his intuitive running was integral to Chelsea's threat with their offensive transitions.
Roberto Martínez said: "I think this is an element that we don't show enough to young players when we develop them. Everything is [about] the player coming to the ball, everyone wants to get onto the ball. But how effective is it to have a player whose only thought, in the moment that the team regains possession, is to stretch a pitch?"
John Peacock made the point that development coaches should not neglect teaching traditional attacking approaches. Against a high line, for instance, it is the conventional No9, like Werner, who can run in behind.
Similarly, Packie Bonner observed that a natural centre-forward is more likely to take up certain positions and make certain runs within the penalty box, such as to the front post or to take a centre-back out of position. He cited an example in the final following a Kyle Walker cross into the box, saying: "You could see the goalkeeper coming easily to pick it up as everybody was almost at the edge of the box."
Martínez went on to express his concern that, in academies, the focus of work "is between the boxes", with concepts based on possession, which means that not enough genuine centre-forwards, such as Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski and Romelu Lukaku, are coming through – making Erling Haaland's emergence a notable exception.
"More and more, you have got fewer No9s that make a difference at senior level in one v one situations," he said. "So when you have a No9 who is well defended by a player who is stronger than you and better and quicker, it's very difficult to dislodge a back four.
"And then it's easier to carry on with what we do in academies – everything is between the boxes and possession exercises and building players that don't make mistakes, but keep the ball. We're taking that real street footballer out of our players."