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 Typically those players are wingers or withdrawn strikers, but in South Africa they have also been playmakers: Mesut Özil, Keisuke Honda, Wesley Sneijder.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);

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);

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

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