Tactical Trends and the USA: The False-Nine

CARSON, CA - OCTOBER 17:  Chivas USA fans hold up the number 9 in support of U.S. National Team player Charlie Davies during the MLS match between the San Jose Earthquakes and Chivas USA at The Home Depot Center on October 17, 2009 in Carson, California. The Earthquakes and Chivas USA played to a 2-2 draw.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

Yesterday, Chicago Fire striker Brian McBride announced he would retire at the end of the season. McBride, who stepped down from international competition in 2006, was the first American striker to make a name for himself in Europe, utilizing his strength, intelligence, aerial ability, and work rate to carve out a legend at London’s Fulham. His success as a target forward – along with excellent careers from a few other Americans – paved the way for the current generation of US stars. McBride’s importance to US Soccer is quite ironic in light of one of the most recent tactical trends. At the highest level, target forwards like McBride may be relics.

Strikerless formations

In the past few years, being able to maintain possession has become the most important aspect of top flight soccer, and, as a result, many managers have started to replace a striker with a midfielder, meaning many clubs have come to use some type of one-forward formation. This strategy came to international attention this past summer when three of the four World Cup semifinalists employed a 4-2-3-1.

But even before the World Cup, a few squads were going a step further: they didn’t play any strikers at all. While there technically may have been a striker on the pitch, the manager instructed him to drop so deep into the midfield that he was no longer located in the area a striker typically operates in. The players who fill this role are referred to as a false-nine (nine is the jersey number traditionally worn by the center forward).

The numerical superiority the false-nine brings to the midfield further reduces the possibility of giving up possession. Additionally, if an opposing center back follows the false-nine into the midfield, the wingers have more room when they cut inside.

Among the squads that have experimented with this tactic are Spain (champions of the 2010 World Cup and the 2008 Euro), the Netherlands (runners-up at World Cup 2010), Manchester United (2008 Champions League victors), and Barcelona (2009 winners of just about every trophy known to man).

Clint Dempsey deployed as a false-nine. The box represents the area where a striker normally lines up.

The false-nine in the US

For this strategy to succeed, a team needs a player who is just as comfortable in the midfield as he is in the penalty box. Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t have a lot of players with the necessary skill set. America’s best pure striker, Jozy Altidore, does not have the required technical ability and vision. Charlie Davies – the gringo who actually wears  wears the number 9 – isn’t fully-fit, and even if he was, Davies lacks the creative instincts necessary to guide an attack. Clint Dempsey, however, does fit the bill. In fact, he’s spent his entire career platooning between striker and outside midfielder.

But while Bob Bradley does have the necessary personnel to attempt this new formation, it’s possible America’s most accomplished striker wouldn’t approve.

Gringos, what do you think of the move to strikerless formations? Will it become a widespread trend? Would Brian McBride approve of a formation that eliminates his position?

3 Comments Post a Comment
  1. bensten says:

    The irony is that when you have two strikerless formations facing off, the midfield gets yet more crowded–is the advantage of the false 9 lost? Do you counter it with a “false” false 9 and actually encourage your striker to push forward?

    If this is a trend, player versatility will become more important than ever for a long, successful career. We need strikers who can control, hold and pass and midfielders who can pounce and sniff out goals. Dempsey is a pretty good model but I hope the trend didn’t come too late in his career.

    • Blake Owen says:

      A few analysts think the next trend might be the reintroduction of the free-ranging sweeper. He’d be able to combat the false-nine and step forward when his side is in possession.

  2. Rivelino says:

    excellent, thanks

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