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Euro 2012: False Nines and Spaniards

The ‘false nine.’ Fancy football tactical jargon. Maybe I do not read up on the game as much as I once did; but apparently it is not as new a tactical concept as I thought. I first heard of it from the commentator of the Euro 2012 match between Spain and Italy, remarking as he did that the Spaniards had lined up without a recognized striker.

One site suggested that it was Francesco Totti, playing for AS Roma in the Serie A, who evolved the role a few years back. Apparently, Pep Guardiola had also used the false nine with mixed results at Barcelona.

Essentially – or as far as I can understand the principle – the false nine is the farthest player upfield in what is a formation without strikers. Spain, for instance, in Euro 2012 has twice fielded a formation using four defenders and six midfielders. Cesc Fabregas, a midfielder, was played in both occasions more or less in the role of the false nine.

In the football shirt numbering system of old, the number 9 was traditionally given to the center-forward. The term is now archaic, but used to refer to the player who spearheaded the attack.

The archetypal center-forward always was a tall and powerful player who could rise to meet crosses and knock down balls punted forward for teammates to chase; or hold the ball up in the target man’s role while waiting for teammates to exploit holes in the opposing defence.

I suppose, in terms of contemporary tactics, a lone striker such as Fernando Torres when deployed is the closest that the Spaniards have to such a center-forward; although England’s Andy Carroll probably is probably a better example of the classic center-forward. Both, I would imagine, are what pundits call ‘true nines,’ i.e. players deployed specifically as strikers.

In contrast, the false nine, while the farthest man upfield, drops down into midfield instead of leading the attack. In the case of Spain, Cesc Fabregas seems tailor-made for the role since he is essentially a midfielder, anyway.

From midfield, he can make runs upfield unmarked; as opposed to a true nine who will naturally be playing with his back to the goal and tightly guarded by physically robust central defenders. This was how Fabregas scored Spain’s equalizer against Italy.

The false nine system, naturally, is not for everyone. Because midfield is more congested than usual, space will be at a premium. To link up play in such cramped circumstances requires the highest quality of technical skills, fitness, composure, patience and peripheral vision on the part of every player on the pitch.

Spain makes it look so easy; but it is anything but. The technically-deficient Irish or Greeks, for instance, will not be able to keep possession quite as fluently.

Decidedly, a team with as many as six skilled midfielders in a false nine formation will be able to keep possession reasonably well, as Spain continues to show us. There is great logic to having better possession stats; a team cannot be beaten if hypothetically it holds onto the ball for the entirety of the match.

However, passes played closer to the opposing penalty area are the ones of greatest risk of being intercepted; since it is close to the box where space is always tightest as defenders collapse closer to each other. Therefore, keeping possession means being picky about which balls to play forward.

It goes without saying that majority of Spain’s passes are backward and lateral, since there is always more space sideways and away from the opposing goal.

The downside to this is that there will be fewer chances at goal; and when they do come, it will be midfielders rather than strikers taking them.

It can pay off, such as when Xabi Alonso scored a brace on the occasion of his 100th cap in the quarterfinal against the dour French. It can also backfire somewhat, such as when Spain had to come from a goal down against the Italians.

It goes without saying that the Italians, who in the past were known for their infamous and strangling catenacchio defensive system, know a bit more about defending than the generous French.

To the neutral, such fluid passing can initially be beguiling. Too much of a good thing, however, can always turn out to be subsequently noxious. In the match against France, for instance, Spain’s almost complete domination of the ball lulled everyone into monotony.

The atmosphere was strangely subdued; and yes the Spanish supporters would once in a while amuse themselves by chanting: “España! España!” To break the monotony, if nothing else.

By this time, the semi-final cast is complete. I pray that the Portuguese and the Italians will not spoil the tournament by actually daring to win and thus set up a meeting against each other in the final.

The Spaniards have come this far by smothering opponents with possession. The question that I would like answered is if they can do the same against the Germans.

The latter, admittedly, have not been quite as elegant; but boy do they play with the German swagger of old!

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