The False Nine tactic is not widely used but the teams that are using it this season have been giving opposing centerbacks headaches. Two teams clearly using this tactic are Barcelona and Manchester City, which suggests that the false nine has to be an exceptional attacking player for the tactic to succeed. The false nine presents opposing centerbacks with a unique challenge and they often have to pick their poison when dealing with this kind of player.
The Centerback’s Dilema
Centerbacks are used to having at least one striker to pick up when defending. When playing against a traditional center-forward , one of the centerbacks gets tight and closes down the attacker while the spare man covers the space and acts as insurance in case his defensive partner gets bypassed.(the pressure-cover system) A false nine drops deep into midfield to receive the ball leaving the centerbacks with a conundrum. If both centerbacks follow the false nine into midfield to retain the pressure-cover system then they will leave too much space in behind. This effect is shown below.
This space can be exploited by midfield runners and allows the false nine to deliver dangerous through balls. This is especially dangerous if the centerbacks lack pace and are not used to playing high up the pitch. This false nine effect often forces teams to play a high line against opponents they would normally defend deep against, all in an effort to maintain the normal defensive pattern. If only one centerback follows the false nine while the other stays behind then a large gap develops between the two centerbacks, breaking the defensive shape and making it very easy for opposing midfielders to attack this space.
If on the other hand both centerbacks chose NOT to follow the false nine into midfield, they will be allowing him to receive the ball and run at them or shoot at goal. Against an excellent dribbler like Messi this is a recipe for disaster. The centerbacks are left with no one to mark and become somewhat useless.
Some teams try to use a holding player to defend the hole but the false nine often drifts wide or moves even deeper into midfield to receive the ball. Using a midfielder to mark a striker is awkward for most teams and often leaves gaps elsewhere so this is a high risk strategy. Sevilla tried it with Zokora marking Messi early in the season but Messi escaped him easily by starting out on the right flank and switching positions with Pedro, which forced Zokora out of the hole. Once the holding player is bypassed the centerbacks have to deal with a quick striker running full speed at them with the option to shoot, dribble or pass so the original conundrum remains.
The False Nine tactic has shown some success as it forces opposing centerbacks to deal with situations they are not comfortable with. Against the false nine, both man marking and zonal marking have their downsides and the centerbacks have to pick their poison. Unfortunately, this tactic requires exceptional players such as Tevez and Messi for it to work so it is unlikely to be used widely. When it does work, it is devastating and it is my opinion that managers need to start coming up with better game plans to deal with these kind of players.