During the last World Cup, I wrote a piece positing a theory about an emerging tactical role that I called the ‘false 10’.
With the concept of the false nine still liable to provoke mirth among those irked by the supposed ‘over-intellectualisation’ of football analysis, I was concerned about inviting scorn upon myself for introducing another ungainly term to the tactical debate, but I was pleased that the piece provoked a healthy number of comments on this site and that the idea has been tentatively picked up, from time to time, by other writers and bloggers.
However, there appears to be a bit of confusion about what exactly the ‘false 10’ is. In my original piece, I said it was a playmaker who confounds the expectations of the opposition defence by breaking beyond the nominal tip of his side’s attack and posing a direct goal threat in his own right. The key point is that the ‘false 10’ spends more time playing alongside and in advance of the number nine than an attacking midfielder would ordinarily be expected to. “A second striker playing in the clothes of a playmaker” was one suggested definition from the comments beneath my piece.
In an article evaluating the tactical trends of 2011 written for The Guardian in December, Jonathan Wilson cast the ‘false 10’ as a playmaker who actually spends a significant amount of time foraging for the ball in his own half. “This year has also seen the advent of the term ‘false 10’, a coinage that feels a little clumsy,” he wrote. “There is as yet, though, no other term for a player who operates as Wayne Rooney did towards the end of last season, playing off a front man as an orthodox 10 would but coming deep to help win possession.”
While the Rooney example does indeed highlight a role for which a specific name has yet to be assigned, it does not chime with my initial observations about the positions adopted by players like Wesley Sneijder and Mesut Özil during the World Cup. Where Rooney unsettles his opponents by going backwards, Sneijder and Özil surprise defences by going forwards – at least, further forwards than you would expect for players habitually referred to as ‘midfielders’.
In the 2011-12 season, the player whose profile most closely fits the bill of the ‘false 10’ is Cesc Fàbregas. In Barcelona’s new 3-1-4-2 configuration, it is he who can most often be found breaking beyond the forward line from midfield and bursting into the penalty area. Indeed, in the early part of the season, while operating in a hinterland between his colleagues in midfield and attack, Fàbregas managed to score five goals in his first seven appearances. With his well-timed runs, intuitive movement and accomplished finishing, there is no truer example of the false 10.