In previous parts of this tactical analysis, we already took a look at modern football tactics. In the course of this, we could see that the false 9 is the most difficult position to defend in today´s football. That is the reason why many teams (e.g. Liverpool) play with a system including this role. But of course, it is not impossible to defend against those teams.
This part of the tactical analysis will provide you with guidance on how to defend as a team against a false 9. It provides you with an in-game example of a Premier League match between Manchester United against Liverpool.
Role in the system
The role of any false 9 is to drop between the defensive and midfield lines to get the ball and distribute the attack on the side. Also, any team playing with a false 9 will be switching positions of the forwards. That is simply because a false 9 will need to get some help to get rid of his marker to get back inside the box or to get some space outside the box.
You can find a complete analysis of the role of the false 9 in a previous article.
The right formation
Here is why the 4-2-3-1 formation is the best one to defend against teams with a false 9. Two central defensive midfielders have to stay close to the defensive line. So that, whenever a false 9 get to his favourite position, he will be between four opposing players.
In the end, you need to keep compact distance between the central defensive midfielders and the defensive line to avoid giving the false 9 some time with the ball.
In the following examples, the idea will be clear.
In front of the false 9
The first step to defending against a false 9 correctly is to set both central defensive midfielders in positions where they will be directly in front of the false 9 if he faced the goal.
In the following image, you can see McTomminay and Matić staying close to each other providing no space for Firmino to turn.
Next, the more you keep compact space between the defensive line and the two central defensive midfielders the safer you will stay. It will prevent any sudden runs inside.
In the example below, the two defensive midfielders and the two centre-backs staying compact to prevent lots of space between the defensive and midfield line of Manchester United.
The main aim is to force the false 9 out of his position. So, you can see here, that performing the first two steps correctly forced Firmino out. When this happens, one player has to stay close to him and the other should stay in position. Firmino has to play a long ball to shift the point of the attack.
At least one player should always be very close to him, keeping compact space between the midfield and defensive lines will force him to play miss passes if you could not intercept the ball.
In the image below, McTomminay and Smalling permit no space for Firmino. The Brazilian has no option and is forced to play a miss pass.
Here, Manchester United was defending this counterattack with the same tactics. Out of the two central defensive midfielders, one has to stay very close to the false 9 to avoid giving him time on the ball.
In most cases, the false 9 will be faster than both midfielders. Here, Firmino went for a one-two-pass with Salah and got rid of Matić´s pressure. In such cases, awareness takes places. McTominay must be aware of such quick plays and switch the roles.
The most important point in defending against a false 9 is training on different switching of position situations. Young and Smalling are marking Salah, Matić moves out to mark Chamberlain. One player must be keeping track of the false 9.
So, McTominay knew that Firmino is moving towards the original “striker” position as he kept on looking backwards at him. Now, that he will leave his marker, he asked Smalling to mark him as he won´t be responsible on him anymore.
Therefore, Smalling left Salah for Young and marked Firmino while McTominay went back to his normal central defensive midfield position while keeping compact space.
The opposition will always try to switch positions to disturb your organizations. You must train on such switches of position. In all cases, one central defensive midfielder must always be with the false 9. Here, Firmino was going to get the advantage of Baily´s pressure. So, McTomminay has to protect the space opened by Baily.
Here is exactly what any false 9 wants. Baily went out to press Mané while McTominay and Matić did not cover his position and Firmino was left in space. Now, Liverpool can create a scoring opportunity with just one pass.
That is why, as a manager, you need to set specific roles to the central defensive midfielders about covering the centre-backs when applying pressure. Matić and McTominay were pressing Mané and Chamberlain. Baily took the responsibility of marking Firmino.
Cut the passing lanes
When the opposition is between the defensive and midfield lines, make sure that one central defensive midfielder is blocking the passing lanes to force the false 9 out again.
Here is another example. McTominay intercept a pass to Firmino. Therefore, he cuts the passing lane to get the ball and start a counter.
Avoid asking a centre-back to mark the false 9. During the game, Baily went to mark Firmino and Matić covered his position. When Firmino dribbled Baily, he was able to get the free space between the lines that he was looking for. Another mistake here is, that McTominay is not in a position to help cover as a second central defensive midfielder.
Defending against Messi
Another good example of how to defend against a false 9 could be observed in the Copa del Rey final 2018/2019 between Valencia and FC Barcelona. In this match, Messi played as the false 9. Everyone knows how brilliant Messi can read the game and how tough it is to stop him once he is on the ball. Even if Firmino is a world-class player, the best false 9 might be Messi. Therefore, Valencia stayed very deep and compact defending in a 4-4-2 with two defensive midfielders.
As already mentioned, the false 9 is looking for opportunities to drop deep between the opponents´defensive and midfield line. However, in this match, this tactic was not effective. As you can see in the image below, Messi dropped deep to create numerical superiority. But, this action led to an overcrowded area in the midfield. That is why Barcelona could not play according to their match plan but played out wide to the wing.
Because of the deep midfield line of Valencia, the two centre-backs had no problem to defend Messi. Every time Messi dropped deep, he had to drop between Valencia´s midfield and offensive line. Therefore, the two defensive midfielders were able to mark Messi very close and the defenders could concentrate on shifting and staying compact.
To conclude, you can say that it is extremely difficult to defend against a false 9. Nevertheless, it is not impossible. The 4-2-3-1 formation is best suited to force the false 9 out of the game. But, it needs lots of training. Every player must be aware of the compactness the team should have. Furthermore, you have to train to switch roles during a game or in a certain situation. It might be hard work you have to put in. Of course, a smart and good false 9 will find opportunities in every match. But in the end, the training will help the defensive and midfield lines of your team to defend against such a player.