The first time in history that numbers were used in football goes back to Europe in 1928. Arsenal played against Sheffield Wednesday on the 25th August 1928 in the then called ‘Football League’. The game was not a significant one but it was the first time that players were assigned a number on the back of their jersey. The numbers could go from 1 to 22 and the number 9 was used for the central striker or the centre-forward.
The purpose of the number 9 position was rather clear. The traditional number 9 is a strong but quick player who can score goals. The type of player who makes himself available in front of the goal without having to be involved in the build-up but who has to be there to finish the play.
A striker who plays as a ‘false nine’ has a different role compared to the traditional attacker. The false 9 plays a similar role on the pitch as an advanced attacking midfielder or playmaker does. A player used as a false nine often drops deep into the midfield giving space to other players on the field.
A false nine is the abandonment of the traditional centre-forward, instead choosing to utilize dynamic midfielders who run from deep, dragging defenders out of position and creating gaps for the wingers. The purpose of this is that it creates a problem for opposing centre-backs who can either follow the false 9 or leaving the false 9 to have time and space to dribble or pass to his teammates.
The first time a false nine was used goes back to the 1930s when the Austrian national team, known as the Wunderteam, used their striker named Matthias Sindelar in a false nine position. Sindelar was one of the first strikers who dropped deep to create space between the opponent’s defense and midfielders.
More recently, the false nine position was popularized by Pep Guardiola, then manager at Barcelona. In the 2009/10 season, the Spaniard decided to use one of his best players, Lionel Messi, in a similar position as Matthias Sindelar played in the 1930s. Pep Guardiola’s tenure as Barcelona’s head coach since then has changed the way modern football is being played.
Nowadays, many teams use similar tactics and choose to opt for a false nine over a traditional striker. Both Roberto Firmino and Mohammed Salah at Liverpool play in a similar role as Messi still does at Barcelona.
Even Karim Benzema, though a lot taller than most of the other false nine players, plays comparably at Real Madrid. The Frenchman plays the role of a silent play-maker with clever movement and unselfish runs to drag defenders away and make room for the other players around him.
The false nine position has evolved since its introduction in the 1930s. The centre-forward dropping off, winger playing centrally, attacking midfielder pushing forward, you name it. On paper, using your striker in this way might look easy, but in practice, it certainly is not. Using this tactic has proven to be very difficult to implement and needs clever players who understand the line-breaking passes and runs the coach wants to see on the pitch.