The Year of the False Nine

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I reflect on the the most in vogue tactical trend of the year and the marvelous Spanish…

Taking to his platform on the Guardian, Jonathan Wilson, author of ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ discussed some of the tactical trends of the past 12 months. Unsurprisingly possession football and the example of Spain and Barcelona was high up the list.

“Football has undergone a process of bielsafication; pressing and possessing, passing rather than dribbling, intercepting high up the field rather than making last-ditch tackles, are in vogue.”

With ball retention such a high priority, the role of the striker has changed. Although not a new phenomenon, 2012 became the year of the ‘false nine.’ A system showcased by Spain in their glorious pursuit of the European Championship title and perfected by Lionel Messi of Barcelona, who plundered a staggering 91 goals. The ‘false nine’ is in vogue; even Jonjo Shelvey has played there.

Brendan Rodgers has dabbled with the system, using the England international in that position when Luis Suarez was suspended for Liverpool’s trip to Upton Park earlier in the month. Rodgers has been unequivocal in his praise of his Uruguayan maestro, a player who he feels has the capability of playing the role for Liverpool.

Whilst Rodgers and Arsene Wenger, amongst others, have attempted to introduce the system to English shores, it has been more evident on the continent, and found particular success in Spain.

Messi’s ability found a new level when Pep Guardiola converted him to the ‘false nine’ role upon taking up the hot seat at the Nou Camp, but despite his unprecedented goal total, Barcelona failed to replicate their stunning success of recent seasons. In their stead, however, the truest exponents of the system this year were Spain, who popularized the system on their path to glory in Poland and Ukraine.

Shorn of David Villa and with Fernando Torres struggling to find his rhythm, Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque was adamant that he would not betray his side’s tiki-taka football by shoehorning the 6’4” frame of Athletic Bilbao frontman, Fernando Llorente. Hardly an unconventional choice, or one who would sacrifice Spain’s style, but del Bosque’s reluctance to tweak his system was admirable and the result was devastating.

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Spain were criticised in many sections of the media for possessing an overly negative brand of possession football. Wilson cites that the idea of passing was, in its origin, a negative one, employed by Scotland in 1872 to prevent their English opposition from getting the ball. Of course, football tactics have evolved significantly since.

The hallmarks of this Spain side come from the Total Football of the Brazilian and Dutch sides of the 1970s, and the transcendent influence of one of the greatest football philosophers; Johann Cruyff.

The 2012 version of this Spain side is a result of careful, and unprecedentedly successful, evolution. They steamrollered their way to the Euro 2008 crown, but have since learnt to refine their style as sides’ have often set up to nullify their attacking threat. In the 2010 World Cup final, Holland adopted an overly physical and aggressive style to disrupt Spain’s passing rhythm and kick them off the pitch. It almost worked.

In the 2012 European Championship final, Italy made the mistake that the Dutch dared not – they attempted to play the Spanish at their own game. They were duly hammered 4-0.

Spain’s use of the ‘false 9’ system confounded a certain number of British pundits and critics but the final against Italy demonstrated its devastating unpredictability and effectiveness. It was a result of del Bosque’s pragmatism, not just his idealism, and for his side to prosper so convincingly in the absence of the man who had spearheaded their attack to their two previous crowns was impressive.

Its beauty lies in its unpredictability. Some critics found it implausible that Spain would play without a recognized striker, but it was compensated for by the breathtaking interplay between Cesc Fabregas, David Silva and Andrés Iniesta. That two of the leading lights in Premier League football, Juan Mata and Santi Cazorla, were barely afforded any playing time, points to Spain’s unparalleled strength in depth.

Not only were the Spanish exhilarating in attack, they were miserly in defence. The side’s dominance is perhaps best embodied by captain and goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, who became the first footballer to win 100 international matches and has not conceded a goal in the knockout stages of an international tournament since the second round of the 2006 World Cup.

Their impressive defensive solidity often goes overlooked – the settled back five of Casillas, Arbeloa, Pique, Ramos and Alba conceded just one goal in the entire tournament – and it is the cornerstone upon which their recent success has been founded. That defensive linchpin, Carlos Puyol, missed the tournament through injury illustrates the significance of their success.

Malaga's Isco

How the 2014 Spain side will set up tactically remains a mystery; will the ‘false 9’ remain in vogue or fall by the wayside? How will Spain set up personnel-wise? Xavi, the heartbeat of their midfield, will be 34, Puyol 36, and Villa 32. Age is catching up with the experienced pioneers of La Roja, but their successors are part of a never-ending conveyer-belt of talent – Isco of Malaga, Thiago of Barcelona and Iker Munian of Athletic Bilbao, to name but a few, all in their early twenties – to go with a technically majestic up-and-coming core of Fabregas, Mata and Javi Martinez.

That final in Kiev on July 1st was the crowning glory for this irresistible Spanish generation. With the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil just 18 months away, the pressure on them to perform is palpable. No European side has won the World Cup in South America, but you wouldn’t bet against this set of Spaniards, who became the first Europeans to win a World Cup outside of Europe just two and a half years ago.

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