The False Nine’s tactics aficionado Simon Smith discusses the varying uses of strikerless formations…
Watching AS Roma destroy Internazionale last week was one of my highlights of the season, because it felt like a win for the underdog. I’m not saying that I prefer the Romans to Inter, or even that I wanted them to win, but seeing a team who sold their best defender and forward reborn through a collective strategy is hard not to enjoy. If the experiment with Zemen ended in tears, Garcia has been refreshingly simplistic in the way he makes attacking football look natural, instead of requiring a season long revolution. The most obvious change to the attack has been the reintroduction of Totti to centre forward after a season as the trequartista.
Just two days earlier, Sam Allerdici grabbed the headlines by adopting a similar strategy to demolish hot favourites Tottenham Hotspur 3-0. Are we to believe that this is because he was influenced by Serie A, or is the more cynical view that this was a desperate throw of the dice born out of Andy Carroll’s injury more accurate? Increasingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly following Barcelona’s success, the false nine is being used to describe systems in football matches in all the major European leagues. The real question is whether this is because the formation is more commonly used, or whether the term is: and to answer this, we need to look at strikerless formations in the pre Guardiola world.
Michael Cox calls the 2007 Roma side the seventh best tactical team of the last decade, the key feature of which was Totti’s deployment as the false nine. But genius though the move turned out to be, it would be wrong to say that it was a deliberate strategy; much like West Ham, the Roma of six years ago were bereft of attackers following an injury crisis and the decision to start Totti up front was therefore largely forced. In a sense there are some parallels between this and the adoption of a strikerless formation in East London: the real tell will be what happens next. In Rome, when Mirko Vučinić was fit and available for selection again, he was deployed in a wide role to allow Totti to remain the central attacker.
Whether Carroll will be used in a similar manner seems unlikely – he is clearly more of a traditional number nine to the versatile Montenegrin – but it will be interesting to see whether the formation is repeated at West Ham, especially when they have more fit striking options. Roma this season are somewhat in a similar boat, in that Totti’s central positioning has been largely dictated by selling Osvaldo to Southampton. However in knowing they were going to start the season bereft of striking options, it does imply that Garcia was intending to use Totti in this manner. In other words, Roma have not been caught by surprise.
If the circumstance of Roma and West Ham’s adoption of striekrless systems seems somewhat similar, it should be noted that the execution was largely different. The false nine has become a catch all term for a formation in which there is no recognised striker, and this is something that I feel is a little too broad. Jonjo Shelvey’s performance up front for Liverpool against West Ham last season might have been a greater influence on Allerdyce’s thinking than Roma. Described as a false nine by most match reports, in terms of how he played, Shelvey was a classic number nine: winning aerial balls, holding play up, trying to beat the defenders and got shots away. Instead of playing a more technical or tricky player in the role, Rogers went for his most physical midfielder.
I’m not about to argue that the deployment of Diame as the tip of West Ham’s midfield was the same. Certainly he is their most physical midfielder, and perhaps playing Kevin Nolan – a player used many times in the hole by Allerdyce – would have been more typically false nine. But neither did Diame properly play what we might dub the “real nine”. He often won aerial balls and held them up for other players to run onto, but he spent much of the game drifting deeper to be alongside Morrison, making the midfield less of a diamond and more of a square. This makes the execution of the strikerless system slightly, only very slightly at times, more false ninified than Liverpool’s use of a real nine.
If the use of no strikers is becoming more common, the differing executions can be placed on something of a spectrum: on one extreme you have Shelvey as a “real nine”, followed by Diame’s performance verging on more central part of the scale, followed by something like Fabregas in some performances for Spain, and at the other end something like Messi circa 2010 or Totti this season. On this scale, the extreme false nineness would be literally playing a midfield with nobody in front of them, while Mark Hughes’ horrendous use of Christopher Samba up front for Blackburn is off the scale at the other end of the non-striker playing as a “real nine”.
What really separates Rudi and Sam is the use of other players around the central attacker, and this is where the similarities between the two start to end. In 2007 Totti was used in front of five midfielders. Vučinić was used as a winger, and though he at times drifted narrower when Totti dropped deep, the key feature of this side was the run from deep areas to overload the centre backs. Last column I salivated at length over that talent of arriving on the edge of the box from deep that Aaron Ramsey has; Luciano Spalletti was blessed with three players who did this regularly in Perotta, De Rossi and Pizarro. The threat, therefore, was central for much of the game, and Roma lined up in a 4-5-1 that became more of a 4-6-0 when Totti dropped deeper.
Allerdyce deployed his players with four central midfielders, all in central areas, in a 4-2-4-0 when Diame was deep. The two wide players, much like at Roma, tended to stay wide in order to provide crosses for the central players to meet, and Morrisson and Diame played just ahead of Noble and Nolan. That is of course crediting West Ham with a greater degree of creativity than they produced in the first half: much of the time the system seemed just to be an attempt to stifle Spurs with four midfielders.
Nonetheless if there is a Roma team that bears resemblance to West Ham it is certainly Spalletti’s and not Garcia’s. Against Inter, and for most of the current campaign, Roma have lined up in a 4-3-3 that becomes a midfield diamond with two forwards who cut central from wide when Totti drops deep. The real difference between this and the other form of strikerless formation is the wide players, both pacey forwards this season instead of what might be dubbed wide midfielders. Much has been made of Gervinho in particular as a player reborn after two frustrating years Arsenal, but those who saw him frequently might not be so surprised at his performances. The formation suits him well and it is becoming increasingly clear that he is a wide attacker and not a winger or striker; therefore switching to a league in which this sort of player is recognised in their own right has helped him almost as much as leaving England, where these players are often forced into being touchline-huggers or poachers.
If this seems like a pedantic point to pick, the difference between Spain and Barcelona should enlighten why the positioning of the wide players changes the nature of the false nine so much. At their best in 2010-11 the Catalans played Messi as the false nine with Pedro and Villa as the two wide players, neither of whom are midfielders. In having a slightly more direct outlet, Messi dropping deep created an a times slightly Italian seeming 4-3-1-2 depending on where Pedro and Villa played. Spain on the other hand, especially at Euro 2012 when they took Guardiolism to the absolute extreme of possession football, played with Iniesta and Silva wide of Xavi, Busquets and Alonso. The result of this was that when Fabregas up front dropped deep, a tight and possession obsessive midfield 4-6-0 was created without direct outlets. n that Summer Iniesta proved to be the player most willing to dribble at the defence and as a result was Spain’s player of the tournament; Jordi Alba’s impressive display from left back can also be somewhat explained by his directness.
Of these two adaptions of largely the same group of players, what Roma are doing this season is largely like the former. Possession centric, certainly, but not sterile or blunt at any point. Perhaps the narrowness of allowing the wingers to drift inwards would be exposed in another league, but for now Roma are reaping the benefits of their bravery. Meanwhile West Ham have been more like the latter in terms of their greater width and lesser depth when the forward line drops deep. While this sort of formation has been presumed to be the zenith of the false nine for some time now as both Barca and Spain added more midfielders and detracted forwards, the use of Neymar as a constant advanced outlet for longer balls by Gerardo Martino hints at a return to the lineup more like 2010 than 2013.
While Totti continues to defy age in his return to the false nine, it remains to be seen whether West Ham will continue to player their strikerless formation of a different kind. The difference between the two though is not that Totti is more of a forward and that Diame a midfielder, but the way they interpret the role. That’s why Shelvey, a midfielder, is not more a false nine than Alvaro Negredo was for Spain this week.