Too many people calling for a False-9 have no idea what it actually is: Manchester United aren't equipped to play with a False-9
If the False-9 system was simple, there would be a lot more examples of teams successfully using it
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(Note: I started this post a few days prior to Manchester United’s opening match loss against Brighton, so while there may be examples from the Brighton match, it’s not influenced by it)
It started, like it so often does, with an Anthony Martial injury. Just a few days before Erik Ten Hag’s first Premier League campaign in charge of Manchester United was set to kick off it was announced that United’s French striker, who had enjoyed a wonderful preseason, would not be available.
There went one of United’s two established senior strikers. The other one, Cristiano Ronaldo, was involved in news of his own. Ronaldo had missed United’s entire preseason tour. He played 45 minutes in a friendly against Rayo Vallacano a week before the Brighton match but was among a number of United players that left Old Trafford before the full time whistle.
Ten Hag had spoken about Ronaldo being severely behind his teammates in terms of pure fitness and tactical understanding. Add in the leaving early issue, and it was clear Ten Hag was not considering putting him in the starting XI for the club’s first game of the season.
That left United pretty short of options and immediately United fans flooded Twitter with the same phrase, “false-9.” Right away fans were suggesting Bruno Fernandes as a false-9, or Donny van de Beek as the false-9 with Bruno right behind him.
It was incredibly predictable because it’s happened so many times before. Every time one of United’s strikers get hurt - or they lose a few games - fans start suggesting the false-9. When you see the suggestions of who should be the false-9 you can tell the people suggesting it don’t really know a false-9 actually is. That idea was confirmed when a prominent account suggested that Marcus Rashford should play as the false-9.
Over the last few years, False-9 has become a popular buzzword thrown around way more often than an actual false-9 is used. Since team’s playing with a true false-9 is pretty rare, fans now just associate the word with anyone who’s not a traditional striker playing as a center forward. A left winger or an attacking midfielder aren’t actual center forwards so when they line up down the middle that makes them “false” right?
A false-9 has nothing to do with the player who’s lining up at center forward. False-9 is merely a role for how you’re asking your center forward to play. Yes it’s typically played by midfielders or wide players but it doesn’t have to be. If your normal traditional no. 9 has the skillset to play as a false-9 he can do that too.
There are many different variations to the striker/no. 9 position. There’s the “traditional” fox in the box poacher. There’s the smaller players that run the channels, big target men, players that play with their back to goal and hold play up. False-9 is just another variation. Just because a player doesn’t fit the profile of the ‘traditional striker’ doesn’t automatically make him a false-9 either.
So what actually is a false-9?
A false-9 is a system that uses the center forward to disrupt defenses either by drawing players out of position or creating overloads in positions. The main tactic used to do this is having the center forward drop from a high starting position into midfield to receive the ball away from the center backs, usually between the lines.
Centerbacks are used to having one of them mark a striker whose right on their shoulder with the other being around for support. If that player drops into midfield it can create all kinds of havoc with the centerbacks not knowing whether to stay with him or leave the player to stay in their line. Just read every single quote from Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand about the 2011 Champions League final.
The false-9 is played out of a base 4-3-3 formation with the wingers starting high and wide. The center forward dropping deeper aims to accomplish one of two things depending on how the centerbacks’ react. If the centerback stays with the striker, leaving his position, that leaves room for the two wide attackers to make runs into the vacated space, creating quick counter-attack transition opportunities.
If the centerback chooses to stay in his line and doesn’t follow the striker as he drops into midfield then the striker simply creates an overload in midfield, giving his team a four vs two or four vs three advantage in the middle of the park. This allows your team to completely control the midfield and thus the game. You dictate play and create attacks from there.
The player in the false-9 position needs to have exceptional awareness. Before receiving they need to scan the field around them regularly to know where to take their first touch and keep it away from centerbacks behind them. They need to know if one of the runners is open and a quick pass is needed or if they’re in space and need to hold onto the ball. If the centerback doesn’t follow the false-9 deep, then the false-9 just becomes a fourth midfielder, and thus needs to have the skills of a midfielder. That’s why you mostly see players with midfield experience playing this role.
It can’t just be any midfielder playing this role. They have to skew towards an attacking player because finishing ability becomes important. Once the ball advances further up the pitch, the false-9 has to turn around and jump into the play, often making second or third man runs into the box.
The most important factor of all is timing. The false-9 needs to know when to drop deeper into midfield. You have to make sure to start the sequence in the position of a regular number 9 and then drop into midfield. If you drop too early the centerbacks won’t follow you and you’re just an extra midfielder who didn’t create space for the wide players to attack.
The false-9 tactic isn’t new per say. Johan Cryuff used Michael Laudrup in the role when he was managing Barcelona. However it’s not difficult to quickly rattle off the number of teams that were known for utilizing it. Pep Guardiola used it for a year with Lionel Messi. Spain used Cesc Fabregas in that role for Euro 2012. Most recently Liverpool have used Roberto Firmino (and a bit of Diogo Jota) as a false-9 for the past few seasons. At times Real Madrid used Karim Benzema as a false-9 between Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, while Jose Mourinho occasionally did the same with Harry Kane.
There are a few other examples but the list is brief because it’s a very difficult system to play. That leads us to the obvious question, can Manchester United play it?
That boils down to two factors. The first and obvious one is, do you United have someone that would make a good false-9? The second factor is to remember that it’s not just about having the right false-9, it’s about having the right players in all the other positions.
The first and obvious choice for the false-9 role would be Bruno Fernandes. United have used Fernandes as a false-9 from time to time but they’ve never really had much success with the tactic. Bruno is at his best playing as a number 10, making runs into the box off the back of the central striker. By definition that requires a player in front of him.
In theory that would make him good for those late runs into the box, but when Bruno plays as the false-9 it hardly makes it that far. Bruno struggles to catch passes under pressure and turn on them, which is why he typically resorts to his attempted flicks and one touch passes. His lack of patience also sees him dropping deep to get the ball far too early, completely negating the use of a false-9, as it just leaves United a man short further up the pitch.
Donny van de Beek is a similar case. Van de Beek lacks the passing ability of Bruno but most importantly, his greatest attribute is his ability to make forwards runs into the box. He can play behind a false-9 but why would you put him in a role that takes away his best attributes and asks him to do things he’s not good at?
Anthony Martial has a lot of elements of a false-9 in his game. He’s very good at dropping deep to link up play, but lacks that midfield ability that would make him a complete false-9. When he got hurt at the start of the 2019-20 season, Solskjaer deployed Marcus Rashford centrally and asked him to play like Martial - with his back to goal and a lot of elements of being a false-9. It didn’t work at all. When Martial was suspended at the start of the 2020-21 campaign, Rashford once again moved to center forward, but wasn’t asked to play with his back to goal. Lesson learned.
On Sunday against Brighton, United deployed Christian Eriksen as a false-9 but several different factors made the tactic completely ineffective. Eriksen would often drop deep to get on the ball, but that was often negated by Scott McTominay pushing all the way forward.
Throughout the match McTominay would appear as one of United’s furthest men forward. This took away the need for Brighton to drop a centerback to stay with Eriksen and took away any space the wide players might have had to make runs.
When it wasn’t McTominay pushing forward, United were still unable to capitalize on the spaces Eriksen was creating either because they weren’t making the runs properly or because the ball’s just weren’t being played (as Carl Anka excellently outlines). It ultimately ended up being more of United just having a midfielder playing as a striker, so they got none of the benefits of a false-9 and none of the benefits of having a striker.
As I mentioned before, it’s not just about having the right player who can play as a false-9 but about having the right players everywhere else as well. One of those areas is fullback.
If you’re facing a team where the striker is dropping deep and the wide players are making runs inside, what might be a way to guard against this? By having your fullbacks play a bit narrower and follow the runs coming from out wide.
That’s going to leave tons of space for the fullbacks to overlap and attack.
You need an overlapping fullback that can make those runs and provide a threat from the wings. Think of all the teams that used a false-9, now think of the fullbacks. Dani Alves at Barcelona, Jordi Alba for Spain, Marcelo at Real Madrid, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool.
United don’t have the fullbacks that can provide this threat. Diogo Dalot is ok, Luke Shaw is good not great, but he’s much better at underlapping then overlapping. Then there’s the whole thing of Erik Ten Hag spent the entire preseason asking his fullbacks to play more as inverted fullbacks stepping inside as extra midfielders in possession. That’s what they worked on all summer, now you want them to go bombing forward down the wings?
And of course, as it always does, it comes down to the midfield - or in United’s case, the lack thereof. The purpose of a false-9 is either to drag defenders out of position, or overload the midfield and completely control that area of the pitch. To do that, you need players who are good in possession and can control a game.
Manchester United don’t have that. Scott McTominay and Fred are not possession midfielders. Bruno Fernandes isn’t either. Adding a fourth midfielder to the mix isn’t going to suddenly allow you to dominate the midfield when the other three can’t do that.
The result on Sunday was despite United having 63 percent of the possession, they were never in control of the game. Other than the first 8-10 minutes, Brighton were the better team throughout the first half.
The next time your calling for United to use a false-9 I just want you to stop and ask yourself some things like 'does this put the players in their bests positions or am I just trying to get all my favorite players onto the pitch?’ With this current United squad it’s probably the latter. United simply don’t have the personnel to play this system.
Enough with it.
Karim Benzema was often used as a false-9 between Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. Harry Kane played as a false-9 under Jose Mourinho
I understand “desperate times” and no other options. I’m also not saying I’m smarter than Erik Ten Hag. He’s had success using a false-9 in the past which will certainly lead to him keeping it in his back pocket. But unless there’s a sudden change in personnel at United, let’s just say I’m skeptical of it being able to work here.
I agree with a lot of what you say, as a team we don't have the attributes to use a false 9 system properly.
If we want to try it, however, I think an argument could be made for Van de Beek being a decent option. He's always scanning the pitch, loves to link-up with short, quick passes and as arriving in the box is his best attribute, I think he'd be able to pick up the timing. His passing isn't as good as Bruno's but it's not bad and he could pick up the patterns if we practice the system in training. He also has a decent shot on him.
Having said all that, I completely agree with your overall points. Our fullbacks and midfield aren't the right profile and I think we'd need a lot of work to make the false 9 system work since it requires so much discipline. Great piece!