False nines, Fugazi and false idols

TFN editor Greg Johnson reckons there’s something false about how football fans have come to use that very word…

People get very upset about others wanting to try and be clever or more ambitious with their language. It’s not fear. Too often when people whine, complain and criticise it’s put down to some sense of terror or jealousy, but that’s not the case. Instead, there exists a strange desire to manage how other people use the words we know, use and perhaps, in our heads at least, own to some extent. Seeing someone else misuse or mangle our special words, or try to bring in new terms into a semantic field we’ve already decided is settled, can conjure up great feelings of anger and entitled from those who object.

Take the talk of “false nines”. For some, it’s enough to set the old eyes rolling back and trigger dismissive scoffs of derision about people of a certain pretension, or whom are attempting to gain a level of knowledge or insight that their critic believes is above their station. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a “false” No. 9. In fact, once those embittered antagonists get over their own spite and consider the label, it makes sense.

Lionel Messi made the role famous sure, but it existed before him. Francesco Totti is often credited as the true modern innovator of the role. In reality it is just an extreme, formalised development upon the idea of a forward dropping back, to lure defenders out of position. This isn’t new information, but it bears repeating if we are to talk about definitions and their usage. If a No. 9 is your typical striker leading the attacking line and roughing up defenders, then in a system whereby the lead striker exhibits the opposite kind of behaviour, dropping back to abandon the front and confuse defenders, then “false” works. They are playing as a False Nine; a decoy striker of sorts who creates gaps with their movement rather than filling them. In this instance, “false” is almost a prefix to signify the role to be the opposite of what you would usually expect, or an inversion of an orthodoxy in a very specific way.

Yet the success of Messi and the proliferation of the term, “False Nine” has brought with it linguistic problems beyond an annoyance of others who dare to seek new further clarity and information, or who put names to fresh developments. “False-” has taken on a life of its own, the nadir of which perhaps came last year when Corriere dello Sport labelled Mesut Ozil as a “False Seven” after impressing for Arsenal against Napoli.

A False Seven? What does that even mean? Ozil didn’t de-construct or invert the traditional role of the winger against the Neapolitans. It was as if the prefix had been donned to denote that he had performed well in a clever and skilful manner. While it’s true he looked inspired as his team’s pivotal creator, there was nothing false in what he did. It was an example of a buzzword used without meaning or understanding to say something as disappointingly simple and common as “good”.

In the world of music, there exists a similar phenomenon for cannibalising a nice, honest mechanic of the medium’s labelling habits when it comes to naming genres as being “post-” something.

Again, on paper, there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying a band, song or album is “post-hardcore” or “post-rock”. It’s a prefix that is meant to suggest that the subject is taking the fundamental aspects of the sound it is attached to in order to mix up its existing formula to create something new out of old clichés or re-purpose its stylistic tools for new ends. Look back at the common ground shared by seminal hardcore punk band Minor Threat, led by DIY doyen Ian MacKaye, and his later band Fugazi; widely credited as one of the first “post-hardcore” bands as we know them today.

Like “false-“, it’s easy to see what happened with “post-“. In the case of Fugazi, and “post-rock” bands such as Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the prefix is sometimes treated as a sort of stamp of intellectual quality to suggest their output is more learned and sophisticated than the earlier source material. Considering how post-rock, and in some examples of post-hardcore too, the artists tend towards a more considered and almost orchestral approach to composition with greater, more technical musicianship, it’s easy to see why. It’s a similar story with “post-punk” and how some of the bands that survived the late 70s, and many of the acts that came later inspired by those halcyon days of three chords, the truth and a wall of spit form the crowds.

But that’s not always the case, and it certainly shouldn’t mean that “post-” is a prefix that should just be applied to any band that stands out within a genre for reasons of quality, artistic ambition or for having the guts to innovate. If you can be bothered to waste time looking up such things, cast your eyes over the listings of bands who today fall under the “post-hardcore” bracket. The extent and broadness of the classification is mind-boggling to the point that it appears to be a genre without any real meaningful definition to it at all. It’s going that way with most styles of music. Soon after Dub Step arrived on the scene a few years ago, “post-Dub Step” popped up within certain quarters sounding pretty much exactly the same but produced by artists that their fans and promoters wanted to appear to be edgy, intelligent and new. It’s true that there is a selection of producers who may well come under such a banner today, but at the time that such a term was first coined, perhaps in jest, it was redundant.

That’s the problem with people misusing “false” in football. To return to the start of this piece, there’s nothing wrong with people stretching their lexicons, even for the sake of it, but there has to be meaning to jargon if it is going to be used. False Nines make sense. It’s a somewhat elegant distinction for a newly emerged type of role that works as a short hand for many to understand without having to explain the mechanics with every deployment.

As with any successful franchise though, the sequels usually fall short of the original, and that was immediately the case with the False Nine. False 10s soon appeared; a distinction that isn’t completely baseless but is also extremely tenuous and circumstantial to the point where both Messi and Marouane Fellaini have been described as playing as one. If a False Nine subverts the role of the goal-scoring, line-leading striker, what does a False 10 do and mean, linguistically? Are they meant to be anti-playmakers in some capacity, taking up space in the hole as a destructive presence, or scoring goals rather than creating them? Put the tactical definitions to one side a second. What is “false” about what they do that is directly oppositional and related to traditional role of the No. 10, in the same way that the False Nine relates to the No. 9?

There is a place for the False 10, albeit with a heavy dose of salt and certain disclaimers, but its emergence opened the doors to a monster. We now have a situation where not only has the False Seven already been let free by some careless strokes of Italian fingers upon a keyboard, but in which the world has to suffer talk of “False Threes” because some idiot just realised full-backs can cut inside.

Ultimately, such careless and meaningless use of such words only works to further hamper attempts to talk about football with any depth. It’s a blight that only adds ammunition to the curmudgeons who’d prefer it if the scope of language and debate is kept light and narrow so that it can be defined and dismissed on terms they feel comfortable with.

In short: stop getting “false-” wrong!

@gregianjohnson; @the_false_nine

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