In the winter transfer window of the 2010/2011 campaign, Roberto Firmino moved from the Brazilian second division football club Tombense to Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga. In his home country, Firmino played as a defensive midfielder.
But, his fitness level was very bad at this stage of his career as former Hoffenheim sports director Ernst Tanner confirmed: “When he first came to Sinsheim, we did endurance and blood tests. He had the worst results I have ever seen in professional football.” That is why Firmino had to improve his fitness and thanks to his creativity, he played as a number 10 in the central offensive midfield. In Jürgen Klopp´s tactics at Liverpool, Firmino became even more offensive playing as a false 9 and might be the best in his position.
This tactical analysis will provide you with a closer look at how the false 9 is a revolution in modern football.
The number 10
First, let us outline the number 10´s role. The central offensive midfielder was extremely popular in the early 2000s of world football represented by the likes of Zinédine Zidane, Luis Figo and Mesut Özil. The number 10 was the central hub for creativity in a team’s attack.
Often deployed in a 4-2-3-1 formation behind the traditional number nine striker, the number 10 was tasked with breaking down the opposing defence. What he often lacked in physical strength and defensive contributions, he more than made up for with strong technical expertise on the ball and the ability to pick out an exquisite pass.
You can find a complete analysis of the number 10 role in a previous article.
Traditional and modern number 9
Traditionally, the number 9 role in football has been played by out-and-out strikers. The traditional number 9 would stand on the shoulder of the last defender waiting to pounce on an interface pass in behind the opposing defence. He/she was considered the pinnacle of the attack but rarely used in the build-up play. Their role was simple: Exploit space and score goals. Luis Suárez is a traditional number 9. In the image below, you can see his heatmap.
As you can see below, Suárez just moves around the box waiting for through-balls he can run onto and shoot from a distance between 6 and 12 metres. Therefore, he is the frontman in Barcelona´s tactics and he seldom works defensively. Furthermore, this indicates that the Uruguayan is more a goalscorer than a provider.
The false 9 is a different type of player: He/she will often take up the same starting position because he is a number 9. But rather than trying to get in behind the opposing defence, the false 9 will often drop deeper into pockets of space between the opposition’s lines. There, they are less of a goal threat but are a key player in the attacking build-up. In comparison to Suárez, Firmino is working a lot more and drops deep very often as you can see in his heatmap below.
To help in the build-up play and work as a provider for his teammates, Firmino drops deep and in between the lines very often. He also often works hard defensively and stands out because of his fitness and work-rate. As you can see in the following heat map, Firmino is nearly everywhere on the pitch working for the team. Within the box, the Brazilian is quite rarely found.
Number 10 and false 9
As we discussed earlier the traditional number 9 would often stand on the shoulder of the last defender waiting for a defence-splitting interface pass. The number 10 was responsible for playing this pass. Therefore, let us compare the false 9 with the number 10.
In the image below, we can see the more traditional 4-2-3-1 formation with the number 10 behind the striker. As the number 10 receives the ball, he will have his back to goal before spinning and looking forwards. With the team’s centre-forward and two wingers making runs in front of him, he has options. If he can thread a pass through the opposing defence, he will create a goal-scoring opportunity.
In the following image, we can see a situation in the more favoured 4-3-3 formation in modern times with the false 9 as the most attacking player. The false 9´s role is similar in starting position but varies in receiving position. The false 9 will drop deeper into the space between the opposition’s defence and midfield to get on to the ball. This space is free because there is no number 10 in the system.
This creates a difficult decision for the opposing centre-backs. If one of them tracks the false 9, it will create a space in the centre of his team’s defence. Keen to avoid this, the centre-half will often remain in his position. As a result, the false 9 can pick up the ball in between the lines.
The false 9 continually drops off from the defensive line, receiving the ball in deeper areas and finding room to turn and play. For example, Liverpool preaches a possession-based philosophy and having a frontman extremely able in passing and moving is essential for their blueprint.
Firmino can take players on as well as pass— either short or long — and he racks up a large number of touches alongside Wijnaldum and Henderson.
Dropping deep, even to the halfway line, is common, and while that sounds detrimental on paper, Liverpool has two options in attack at this point.
Leaving a gaping hole at centre-forward encourages the centre-backs to step forward into space, and while they believe a high line is a good thing, Liverpool begins licking their chops. Mané´s electric pace from the left-wing is an incredible tool when running in behind the defence, and with the centre-backs stepping up, one through ball is all it takes to set him off with a one vs. one. This is also true with Salah on the other side.
Dominating the midfield
The system allows the team to control the game with ball retention. Therefore, the false 9 frequently operates as an additional midfielder creating an overload in central areas. This dominance of the ball helps the side to stay in the offensive half. Furthermore, the increased ball possession lessens the chance to concede a goal.
Once on the ball, the number 9 must rely on their teammates to produce overlapping runs as he/she holds the ball up. In a 4-3-3 shape, these runs will usually come from the two wingers known as inverted wingers due to their tendencies to drift centrally and either the team’s full-backs or midfielders (depending on the system employed by the team).
The image below is an example for these overlap runs in the game against Atletico Madrid. In Liverpool’s team under Klopp, the full-backs Trent-Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson are producing the runs. Salah and Mané move centrally. Crucial for that is Firmino dropping deep and receiving the ball. Because of these movements, Liverpool can break deep defensive lines.
In previous generations, the wingers would usually remain wide on the pitch making runs in behind and delivering crosses. The centre-forwards would remain central and stand on the shoulder of the last defender. In this era, a left-footed player would generally play on the left-wing and a right-footed player would play on the right one. In the modern era, however, this has changed.
Mané (as a right-footed forward) plays on the left and Salah, who prefers his left foot, plays on the right-wing. Why? Because both players like to cut inside moving more centrally. They are not wingers who hug the touchline. They spend most of the match drifting towards the middle of the pitch. That is why they are known as inverted wingers.
Like many central forwards in modern football, Firmino does not stand on the shoulder of the last defender. Instead, he drops deeper to receive the ball in front of the opposition defence before looking forwards to play to Mané or Salah.
Below, we have an example of this season against Watford. Arnold plays a quick ball forward to Firmino. As we can see he has dropped deeper to collect the ball while Mané and Salah are both further forwards and in central positions. After a quick touch of control, Firmino plays the ball forwards to Mané who is making the run into space from here. Liverpool bagged their second goal of the match and closed the fixture out.
While the starting positions of the false 9 and number 10 are different, we can see clear similarities in the positions during the attacking phase of the play. But why has this tactical evolution occurred? After all, if they are similar, why are we witnessing more and more teams adopt the false 9?
As mentioned earlier, the false 9 is a difficult position to mark. When the false 9 drops into a midfield role the centre-half is hesitant to move with him in fear of leaving space in his defensive line. Therefore, it is the defensive midfielder who will often be tasked with tracking the false 9´s movement. However, unless the defensive midfielder drops very deep, he may struggle to track runs making it easy for the false 9 to still find space between the lines.
The false 9 also creates uncertainty. While they will usually drop deeper towards their midfield to influence the build-up play, they are also capable of running in behind. Playing against a traditional number 9 the defenders know he wants to run in behind. But the false nine can exploit space in either direction.
They are also useful in retaining possession. Dropping into the midfield, he/she provides an overload in this key area allowing their team to keep the ball with greater ease and transition up the pitch. This is one of the reasons why teams who like to dominate possession will often use a false 9.
But, as with all tactics in football, there are weaknesses: The false 9 must be one of the best players on the pitch. If they do not possess a diverse mix of technical and physical skills the opposition will likely find it too easy to mark them out of the game. And the opposition’s attack will be largely nullified.
The false 9 role is especially difficult to play against a compact defence. As a player who thrives on finding space between the opposition’s lines, his role will be far more difficult if the opposition drops deeper and tightens these spaces. Therefore, the next article will provide guidance on how to defend against a false 9.
While some teams do still play with the number 10 (e.g. Manchester United), the tactical evolution over the past decade is clear: Teams are turning away from the traditional central offensive midfielders and looking instead to a new generation of false 9s. The number 10 was the most heralded role in football in the early 2000s. The false 9 looks poised to be one of the most exciting roles in football moving forwards.