World Cup tactics: After the false nine, the ‘false 10′

The concept of the false nine – a centre-forward who drops deep – is well established in modern tactical thinking, but in the early matches of the World Cup we have seen glimpses of another player, who facilitates the work of the false nine and operates in tandem with him to destabilise opposition defences: the false 10.

With a central striker who constantly looks to play deep or pull wide, teams need players to break forward from deeper areas to exploit the space created by the false nine’s movement. Typically those players are wingers or withdrawn strikers, but in South Africa they have also been playmakers: Mesut Özil, Keisuke Honda, Wesley Sneijder.

The false 10 par excellence is, of course, Lionel Messi. Originally a right-winger, Messi occasionally features for Barcelona as a lone central striker or false nine but in Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Nigeria he played in a free role behind Gonzalo Higuaín. Nigeria’s defenders struggled to pick him up and he might well have scored a hat-trick had it not been for the brilliance of goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama.

To see Messi racing past Higuaín into the penalty area, after a shuffle of the hips or a quick give-and-go, is nothing new, but Özil and Sneijder are not quite as renowned for leading the line. Looking at where they played in their opening World Cup matches reveals that they both adopted more advanced roles than might be expected of players whose principal responsibility is to create:

Mesut Özil average position (Germany 4-0 Australia); FIFA.com

In the 4-0 defeat of Australia, Özil played almost as high up the pitch as centre-forward Miroslav Klose, who frequently dropped deep to allow Özil and wingers Lukas Podolski and Thomas Müller to attack the space behind the Australian defence.

Wesley Sneijder average position (second half, Netherlands 2-0 Denmark); FIFA.com

In the Netherlands’ defensive phase, Sneijder (10) pushed up alongside Robin van Persie (9) to put pressure on the Denmark centre-backs, temporarily turning the Dutch 4-2-3-1 into a 4-4-2. He continued in the role once the Netherlands had gone 1-0 up in the second half and when he did drop deep, he succeeded in dragging the Danish centre-backs towards him, which allowed him to slide through the pass to Eljero Elia that brought the second goal:

Wesley Sneijder (circled in red) drops deep from a high, central starting point, drawing Danish centre-back Daniel Agger towards him and creating space for Eljero Elia (circled in blue) to attack

From a player whose job was to prowl the gap between defence and midfield, threading passes into the penalty area and taking the odd pot-shot from distance, the playmaker becomes a direct attacking component in his own right, pressing high up the pitch, breaking into the space beyond the central forward and capitalising on the disarray provoked in the opposition defence by the movement of the false nine. As Jose Mourinho says of Sneijder: “Is he a midfielder? Sometimes I think he is a striker.”

Related link: The ‘false 10′ – a clarification

45 Responses to “World Cup tactics: After the false nine, the ‘false 10′”

  • This is a really good observation.

    What’s interesting is that the success of the ‘false 10′ seems to rely on having wide players who start wide and then run inside the full-back. Podolski and Muller were particularly good at spotting the gaps left by both Ozil and Klose dropping deep and the centre-backs following them, leaving them space to run in from wide.

    However, when the Dutch had van der Vaart and Kuyt on the pitch, who both played very narrow and tucked-in, they didn’t have any players able to run into the spaces. Sneijder’s movement only worked once Elia was on the pitch who was able to run inside and exploit the space left. I did a bit on the Danish defence and what changed in the first/second half, it might be relevant: http://timhi.wordpress.com/2010/06/15/fourth-day-of-world-cup/

  • Definitely a good point here but I’m not so sure a “false 10″ should actually be considered a false 10 and something separate than a false 9…rather I feel that it’s simply the product and result of using a false 10…if you get what I’m saying. There is no false 10 without a false 9, and a false 9 is useless without using a false 10.

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  • Richard:

    I’m tempted to agree with Brett, above – I think this use of the Number 10 is interesting, but not necessarily a whole new role.

    <blockquote?With a central striker who constantly looks to play deep or pull wide, teams need players to break forward from deeper areas to exploit the space created by the false nine’s movement. Typically those players are wingers or withdrawn strikers, but in South Africa they have also been playmakers: Mesut Özil, Keisuke Honda, Wesley Sneijder.

    Are these players not simply playing in the role of the withdrawn striker?

  • Richard:

    Apologies for the errant quote, try this;

    I’m tempted to agree with Brett, above – I think this use of the Number 10 is interesting, but not necessarily a whole new role.

    With a central striker who constantly looks to play deep or pull wide, teams need players to break forward from deeper areas to exploit the space created by the false nine’s movement. Typically those players are wingers or withdrawn strikers, but in South Africa they have also been playmakers: Mesut Özil, Keisuke Honda, Wesley Sneijder.

    Are these players not simply playing in the role of the withdrawn striker?

    • Tom:

      I think a lot of this boils down to the difference between a withdrawn striker and an attacking midfielder. You would expect a withdrawn striker to play in the general vicinity of the centre-forward, but attacking midfielders tend to play a bit deeper and spend much less time at the point of the attack.

      Ozil, Honda and Sneijder are all classed as midfielders in FIFA’s official squad lists, but the diagrams above show that they were effectively playing as second strikers. I don’t think it’s a brand new role, but it is a role you might not expect these particular players to adopt.

  • LW:

    Tom – Would this be similar to what Arsenal was doing early in the season with Cesc and van Persie? I recollect reading that Wenger had Cesc positioned closer to van Persie than in the previous season. With RvP’s movement and Cesc’s goal tally, I was wondering if it was similar to what you are referring to.

    Nice site, btw. I’ve enjoyed reading your articles over the past few months.

    • Tom:

      Thanks LW. Yes, Fabregas certainly adopted a similar role with Arsenal last season. If anything, he seemed to be pushed even further forward during van Persie’s absence through injury.

  • [...] Leo Messi is the paradigmatic false nine, this World Cup is introducing us to the false 10 — the playmaker who “facilitates the work of the false nine and operates in tandem with [...]

  • Brugal:

    This is how i play FIFA 10 in PS3 (PSN: J_C_BEAST75) works like a charm. I pick Inter and put Millito on top with the tactics arrow pointing up with HIGH attacking role, then Sneijder a tad behind him but with the arrow pointing back to defend but with HIGH for attacing role. It works like a charm to draw players and slip a pass to Millito to put low drives.

  • Roberticus:

    Curiously Tom, Kaka was already paving the way for this role as far back as 2004 for Milan.

    He is much too direct and goalscoring to be a traditional enganche despite playing in the 3/4 position. I think it was Baresi who best summed him up saying that Kaka was “a second-striker playing in the clothes of a playmaker” or something to that effect.

  • RiberyHenryAnelkalololol:

    Tom,
    J’adore votre siteweb?
    Ou est-ce que je peux trouver ces images sur FIFA.com?

  • But isn’t the this false 10 position a modern trequartista? Looking to find space where ever possible by playing between the lines. Using fantastic skill and ability to run and draw defenders out, supporting many aspects of attacking for a sides. Messi and Forlan have both been amazing examples of this so far in the World Cup.

    • Tom:

      I think the difference here is that these players aren’t really playing between the lines; at least, not as much as you’d expect them to. Sneijder and Honda were effectively playing as forwards and spent little time in the areas you’d expect a conventional playmaker or trequartista to operate in.

      I’d argue that Sneijder only managed to pull the defenders towards him on Kuyt’s goal because his starting position was so high. Had he been playing as a traditional, deep-lying playmaker, they wouldn’t have felt obliged to follow him.

  • Filipe Nunes:

    I thought Pelé, Platini, Zico have played that role in both national sides and clubs before. Here in Brazil the concept of the ‘N. 10′ role might be different, though. We call it ponta-de-lança. Kaká and Alex (Fenerbahce – slightly more of a playmaker but also run towards the box looking to score) are the most talented pontas-de-lança Brazil have recently produced. But there are many other examples throughout the years. Most recently I’d say Maicosuel (returning home after unsuccess in Germany’s Hoffenheim) and specially Diego Souza caused the most impact playing that same role respectively in Botafogo FR and Palmeiras. Sorry if I misinterpreted but it seems that what you call false 10 is actually what we see as the actual N. 10.

    • Tom:

      Thanks for your comment Filipe. As Roberticus alluded to above, I’m aware that in Brazil you have a slightly different interpretation of the number 10 role. In Europe, we tend to associate it with languid midfielders like Gianni Rivera, Zinedine Zidane and Juan Roman Riquelme.

      Of course, fielding more dynamic players – such as Pele, Kaka and Zico – in this role will see them get forward more. What struck me was that players like Sneijder and Ozil, who are considered midfielders rather than forwards, spent so much time in the kind of position we tend to associate with withdrawn strikers.

  • [...] World Cup tactics: After the false nine, the ‘false 10′ “The concept of the false nine – a centre-forward who drops deep – is well established in modern tactical thinking, but in the early matches of the World Cup we have seen glimpses of another player, who facilitates the work of the false nine and operates in tandem with him to destabilise opposition defences: the false 10.” (Football Further) [...]

  • interesting stuff as always, I’d love to hear your analysis of the Mexico attacking style which I found fascinating – 2 wide advanced strikers with Franco as a deep lying centre-forward. I wondered if this formation might help England get the best out of Wayne Rooney.

  • [...] man. He plays a role too far behind Van Persie to be a second striker, too free to be a play maker. Tom Williams reckons it’s a ‘false 10′ role. Whatever, it works, and Sneijder would cause problems to [...]

  • [...] the World Cup got underway, Football Further blog noted the changing role of the ‘number 10’ with an article that put forward the idea of [...]

  • Hey this is really good World Cup tactics. it’s fantastic!!!!!!!!and it’s the nice site and i am enjoy your site.

  • [...] of the central attacking midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 evolved into something more closely resembling a turbo-charged Brazilian-style number 10 such as Kaká or [...]

  • [...] World Cup tactics: After the false nine, the ‘false 10′ [...]

  • [...] World Cup tactics: After the false nine, the ‘false 10′ [...]

  • Rorious:

    I love this article/observation. The false 9/false 10 combination is essentially the same as the much vaunted 4-6-0/strikerless formation said to be the future of football.

  • [...] Much like he did at the World Cup, Özil brought invention and incisiveness to the Real attack by playing in a loosely defined role in support of the central forward. It made him difficult to track for the centre-backs but too deep to follow for the defensive midfielders, enabling him to infuence the game in different areas by drifting across the pitch laterally in search of space. [...]

  • [...] coined by the journalist Tom Williams for his Football Further blog, the expression, the “false ten,” may at first sound like a term concocted in the [...]

  • [...] position. Tonight this was accompanied by the advanced role that de Zeeuw occupied, playing like a ‘false nr. 10’ by moving into the striker role. At times this left the compact Auxerre defense in uncertainty and [...]

  • [...] for Spain, Müller was deployed on the right side of a 4-2-3-1 for Germany and Sneijder played as an advanced attacking midfielder. In club football, Ronaldo normally plays on the left side of a 4-2-3-1 for Real Madrid, with [...]

  • [...] done roughly the same thing with Robin van Persie at Arsenal for the last two seasons. It fits with Tom Williams’ astute observation last year that to go with a false nine, we may have a false [...]

  • [...] 5-0 Villarreal: Guardiola switches to a 3-4-3 (diamond) and Barca run riot | Zonal Marking 2) World Cup tactics: After the false nine, the ‘false 10′ 3) La Croqueta: 3-3-1-3, Ajax, Johan Cruijff and Louis van Gaal: the love affair. There is [...]

  • [...] The False Ten is another evolution of the classical enganche, but while the box-to-box playmaker has dropped deeper, the false ten has instead pushed further forward, to become the de facto forward when the false nine has dropped deep, the false ten is a creator, but also a scorer and has to make alot of forward runs, especially in counter-attacks because the carilleros can make it forward in a structured attack but not in a counter attack, due to their defensive role as shuttlers. The False Ten is again a fairly common anachronism, although not quite as popular as the false nine, for a more detailed analysis by the excellent Football Further blog, see here. [...]

  • [...] every sense of the word. Caldwell, then, plays more of a traditional playmaker role than the more hypermodern “false 10.” (As an aside, their actual jersey numbers are 10 for Mattocks and 15 for Caldwell -Not sure how [...]

  • Mark:

    Tim Cahill for Everton springs to mind although Everton don’t play a false 9, just a false striker full stop in Saha.

  • [...] elsewhere. Here, Aguero could play in the hole and make darting runs into the box. (the role Tom Williams called the “False [...]

  • [...] Messi. Their relationship is brilliant, and Fabregas has perfected what Tom Williams outlined as the ‘false ten’ role after last summer’s World Cup – providing the direct runs to exploit the space created [...]

  • [...] 파브레가스는 톰 윌리엄스(Tom Williams)가 지난 월드컵 이후 언급한 ‘false ten’의 역할을 완벽하게 소화해내고있습니다 – false nine에 의해서 생긴 공간을 [...]

  • [...] the last World Cup, I wrote a piece positing a theory about an emerging tactical role that I called the ‘false [...]

  • [...] and Rooney’s subsequent moves into the resulting space regularly creating a false nine and false ten tandem unlike any in [...]

  • [...] of the opposition full-backs and centre-back and use their trickery to keep the ball until my False Ten gets his engine going and sneaks in behind the defence who have doubled up on my inside forward. [...]

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