Friday, 22 July 2011


I didn’t actually want the name – at least, not as first choice. For extensive reasons you’d be better off not knowing about, I initially wanted my football blog to be called Transversality (the French for ‘horizontalness’, whence le transversal being their word for ‘crossbar’). I then hoped to call it something like Between the Lines, a favourite phrase of Rafa Benítez’s for the space in which elusive footballers operate, and an obvious pun for writing aspiring to be analytical, insightful. Neither was available. And anyway, the regularity with which the likes of Jamie “Giggsy’s literally on fire” Redknapp and Andy O’Townsend were using the phrase made it about as appealing as leprosy. It was only a matter of time, I thought, before Shearer caught up.

So, after a bit of head scratching, I plumped for False 9. Nice phrase, but what, in relation to football, does it mean?

Put simply, a false nine is a player who appears to be operating as a conventional centre-forward, what the majority of British pundits think of as a “target man” (whence the number 9 in the traditional shirt numberings), but who constantly drops deep to receive the ball, essentially leaving the centre-halves with no-one to mark and thus a tactical dilemma: to pursue or leave him for a midfielder to pick up...

False nine
The term has entered common football language of late due to the phenomenal Lionel Messi’s coruscating displays as a false nine for the all-conquering Barcelona, where he’s flanked by the not inconsiderable talents of David Villa and Pedro (previously, he had played in a wide role on the right, with Ronaldinho on the left and Samuel Eto’o as an orthodox #9).

However, according to the guru of football formations, Jonathan Wilson, Guardian columnist and author of Inverting the Pyramid: a History of Football Tactics, Messi is far from the first to play that (non-)position. In fact, he believes that this sort of strikerlessness was actually a piecemeal innovation that could be seen in prototype form as early as the 1920s in South America, through the Austrians of the 1930s, but that first became discernibly systematized by the great Hungarian team of the 1950s, the ‘Mighty Magyars’ that trounced England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953, then 7-1 in Budapest’s Nepstadion the following year (both of which remain record defeats: home and all-time respectively), with Nándor Hidegkuti in the false nine role, supported by the likes of Zoltán Czibor, József Bozsik and all-time greats Ferenc Puskás and Sándor Kocsis, later to become fulcrums of Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively.

Hidegkuti scores for Hungary at Wembley, 1953

However, let’s not get bogged down in all that just now. Let us allow it to drift into midfield and be picked up by someone else. There will be time for theorizing later. For now it should be noted that the name of the blog was also chosen not solely for its cerebral tone – its hint of a philosophical approach to football beyond pseudo-profound statements about seagulls following trawlers in search of sardines – but also because it permits me to indulge in that most well-thumbed yet never tiresome of formats: the list. Not only that, I have three options as to how many items will comprise the list – nine, for obvious reasons; eleven, for the number of players in a team; or I could go with good old ten, the fans’ favourite, on the pretext of it being, well, a “false nine”…

1 comment:

  1. It's, indeed, a real soccer concept to apply to the game!