False 9 Soccer (What They Are and How To Be One)

Soccer has become a highly tactical and nuanced game in recent decades, with philosophies and strict playing styles at the forefront of successful teams. We’re beginning to see new positions emerge in the “half-spaces” on the field. 

A false 9 in soccer is a hybrid position that’s becoming more prominent in the modern game. The false 9 is a deep-lying striker who fulfills a playmaking role. 

The following article breaks down one of soccer’s least understood positions, delving into the roles and responsibilities of an effective false 9. The main areas of focus include:

  • What false 9 means
  • How a false 9 plays
  • Characteristics of a good false 9
  • Best false 9 players
  • How a false 9 fits certain tactics and formations

A false 9 is a great tactic for any team, it pulls the opposition out of position, let’s find out more.

Lionel Messi During The Uefa Champions League Game Between Bayer 04 Leverkusen Vs Barcelona At Bayarena Stadium
Lionel Messi During The Uefa Champions League Game Between Bayer 04 Leverkusen Vs Barcelona At Bayarena Stadium

The false 9 position requires soccer IQ, elite playmaking abilities, and skill. This piece will show you why. 

The False 9 Position

The false 9 position is an attacking role that’s used most often in a 4-3-3 formation with attack-minded wingers. Rather than playing as a conventional, goal-poaching striker, the false 9 looks for pockets of space between the midfield and attack.

This type of positioning and movement not only makes the attacker difficult to mark but also draws out defenders and leaves space for teammates to run into. 

False 9 FAQs

What is A False 9 in Soccer

False 9 Meaning

In soccer, an out-and-out striker is often referred to as a number 9. This is because the main goalscoring threat and leading attacker of the team historically wore the number 9 shirt. A number 9 is known for his or her goal poaching and finishing abilities, and not necessarily for passing, vision, and buildup play. 

The term false 9 is used to differentiate the deeper-lying striker from a more traditional forward.

A false 9 typically plays instead of a regular number 9. Since it is an unconventional position, it is often impossible to tell that a team will line up with a false 9 when looking at a team sheet or formation. 

When the game kicks off, the opposition eventually realizes that the striker is playing a lot deeper. Hence, they are essentially a “false” striker, who’s actually more of a hybrid, free-roaming attacker. 

How Do You Play Like a False 9?

To understand how to play like a false 9, you must first know how a traditional striker operates. In the modern game, most teams play with a single striker in a 4-3-3, 4-5-1, or 3-4-3 formation. While there are other attacking players, the striker is the furthest forward player, keeping the opposition center backs busy, and lengthening the field. 

The striker’s positioning, movement, and proximity to the central defenders often influence how the center-backs play. If the striker is constantly running in behind the defense, the center-backs may play a high line in an attempt to catch the striker offside.

Contrastingly, if the number 9 constantly engages physically with the defenders, pinning them back and calling for low passes, the center-backs often drop deeper for more security. 

When his or her team is in possession, the striker generally gets into goalscoring positions. Strikers make forward runs, looking for threaded passes from teammates. When the ball is in wide areas, the number 9 takes up dangerous positions in the opponent’s penalty box, trying to get on the end of crosses. 

The False 9 Effect

Modern center-backs are used to handle one to two strikers. Since the past few decades of soccer have been dominated by just a handful of formations, defensive structure, and player positioning revolve around the same attacking patterns.

The false 9 takes advantage of this trend, playing in the gaps between defensive and midfield lines. 

To play as a false 9, the striker moves away from the defensive line, receiving the ball in deeper areas, usually between the center of the field and the edge of the penalty box. Once the false 9 receives the ball, he or she is immediately looking to create goalscoring opportunities or attacking phases. 

Depending on the individual’s skill set, this creative play can come via direct runs at the defense, quick passing and movement with teammates, through passes, or crossfield switches of play.

When the false 9 gains possession, it is usually a trigger for teammates to make certain runs. This type of attacking phase varies depending on the team. 

The reason a false 9 can be so effective is that it is hard for the defensive team to determine whose responsibility it is to follow the striker. If the center-back follows the attacker, the defensive line is broken, leaving room for attacking players to make runs.

If the center back stays in position, the false 9 has an abundance of space to attack, giving them momentum in their attack. 

Barcelona 2011/12

Let’s take Barcelona’s 2011/12 team as an example of how a false 9 strategy works. Lionel Messi is not only one of the greatest players to lace a pair of cleats, but he is also an elite false 9. He has everything you need to be a top-class false 9, including intelligence, positional sense, an excellent first touch, dribbling abilities, and vision. 

In this exceptional Barcelona side, Messi usually picked up the ball on the right-wing or in the center of the field. He would either play a quick one-two pass to retain possession or turn toward the goal and make a driving run. As soon as Messi gained possession, the wingers, Alexis Sanchez and David Villa made piercing runs on goal. 

This approach created a three-pronged attack, with options from multiple angles. With a player of Messi’s capabilities on the ball, these types of attacks were devastating.

Messi would draw a defender, then thread a pass to either of his teammates. Or, if the defender didn’t commit, Messi had the ability to take the ball within shooting range and score. 

Under then-coach, Pep Guardiola, Barcelona played a possession-based game, constantly recycling the play, waiting for gaps and opportunities to attack. Messi’s false 9 role was key to this strategy.

Even if he couldn’t penetrate the defensive line with every attack, Barcelona’s high possession style meant that he would inevitably get enough touches to create meaningful attacks.

With midfielders like Busquets, Xavi, and Iniesta orchestrating the attack, the team had no shortage of creative options. It’s no surprise that the same group of players won multiple La Liga titles, Champions Leagues, and Copa Del Reys over a five or six-year stretch. 

Perhaps one of the finest teams to ever grace a soccer field. 

Who Invented False 9?

Due to the wholesale changes to formations throughout the evolution of soccer, it’s hard to pinpoint who actually invented the false 9 position. However, its origins are believed to be in South America. Corinthians (Brazil) and River Plate (Argentina) are said to have used false 9s as early as the 1890s. 

However, most credit the trailblazing Uruguayan national team from the 1930 World Cup for deploying the first-ever false 9. 

The early days of international soccer were dominated by Uruguay, seeing them win Olympic gold in 1924 and 1924, before winning the inaugural World Cup in 1930. Throughout this tournament, Uruguay used Juan Peregrino Anselmo as a false 9. 

While Anselmo played similarly to how a false 9 operates today, the rest of the team looked a little different. In those days, Uruguay played with an ultra attacking 2-3-2-3 formation, as was the norm in the first half of the 20th century. 

The sheer volume of attacking players afforded Anselmo the freedom to roam where he pleased, initiating attacks and linking with teammates. Anselmo scored three goals throughout the tournament but unfortunately missed out on the final due to injury. 

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While the footage is rare from the 1930 World Cup, here is an image of Juan Peregrino Anselmo scoring against Romania.

False 9 vs 10

In soccer, the center forward is often called the number 10. In the early days, soccer players wore numbers according to their positions. To this day, certain positions are still referred to in relation to their traditional numbers. 

Center forwards and false 9s share similar responsibilities, in that they are responsible for orchestrating attacks, creating chances, and scoring goals. They play in deeper areas than strikers, often collecting the ball in wide areas or near the halfway line. 

The primary difference between a false 9 and a 10 is their role in the team’s formation and strategy. False 9s play instead of a lone striker, while center forwards plays with other strikers. Center forwards are much more common than false 9s in modern formations. 

Key Attributes of a False 9

The most important attributes of a false 9 combine the key characteristics of a striker and an attacking midfielder. Most false 9s begin their careers as strikers so their primary traits include finishing, positional sense, movement, and ball control. 

However, they must also be very capable in terms of link-up play and chance creation. A false 9 must have an exemplary first touch, the ability to turn quickly, excellent vision, and sufficient technical skills to execute passes and crosses.

Many false 9s are strong ball carriers, possessing the dribbling abilities to progress the ball between the defensive lines, opening up more space for teammates. 

False 9 Players

Not many players would be described purely as a false 9. In most cases, a false 9 is a well-rounded striker or an intelligent midfielder who has the tactical ability and positional intelligence to fulfill a specific role. Players who’ve taken up the false 9 role in recent years include: 

  • Lionel Messi
  • Roberto Firmino
  • Harry Kane
  • Carlos Tevez
  • Thomas Muller
  • Karim Benzema
  • Francesco Totti
  • Cesc Fabregas

Who Is The Best False 9 In Soccer?

Let’s take a look at three of the best false 9s in the game today:

Roberto Firmino

Roberto Firmino has been one of the most effective false 9s in world soccer over the past few seasons. In fact, he brought a lot of attention to the role due to his integral role in Liverpool’s domestic and European success since Jurgen Klopp’s takeover. 

In possession, Firmino’s movement creates space for runners behind. With goalscoring wingers like Sadio Mane and Mo Salah on either side, Firmino’s deep positioning opened up attacking lanes for teammates. 

On the ball, Firmino displays calm and calculated playmaking abilities through precision passes and clever flicks. He is also very strong in the air and poses a constant threat in the penalty box from crosses. 

Something that makes Firmino stand out among other false 9s is his defensive work rate. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side is a high-pressing team that works tirelessly off the ball to regain possession in the opponent’s half of the field. 

When Firmino plays, he often drops deep to mark defensive midfielders, frequently picking their pockets to set up counterattacks. Although his attacking abilities speak for themselves, his defensive play makes him unique. 

“For people with football knowledge, I’m pretty sure when he finishes playing people will write books about the way he interpreted the false-nine position… I don’t say he invented it or we invented it, but with the way he plays from time to time it looks like it.”

Jurgen Klopp on Firmino, 2021

Lionel Messi

As we’ve discussed, Messi is arguably the best false 9 to have ever played the game. His unique skill set ensures he is devastatingly effective in any attacking role.

Have you ever wondered why it’s so difficult to pinpoint Messi’s position? Well, this is because he plays in the half-spaces, picking up the ball in unconventional positions before driving forward. Messi’s dominance is demonstrated by his goal contributions over the past decade. 

Here are the players with the most goals and assists since 2011:

YearPlayerGoal Contributions
2011Messi77
2012Messi104
2013Messi76
2014Ronaldo68
2015Messi88
2016Suarez81
2017Messi72
2018Messi63
2019Messi71
2020Lewandowski65
2021Kylian Mbappe65
Players with most goals and assists since 2011: Statistics from Sportzpoint

Kevin DeBruyne

Although Kevin DeBruyne plays mainly as an attacking midfielder, he spent much of the 2020/21 and 2021/22 seasons in the false 9 roles for Manchester City. In the absence of Sergio Aguero, City lacked an out-and-out striker, leading Pep Guardiola to set out his team with a false 9 and aggressive wingers. 

DeBruyne is one of the most technically gifted players of his era. He is undoubtedly the standout creator in the Premier League at present. With an elite-level passing range and exceptional vision, he plays the false 9 positions with ease. 

In the 2020/21 season, DeBruyne managed 10 goals and 18 assists in a total of 40 games, rotating roles between midfield and false 9.

He deputized as captain for large portions of the season, leading City to the Premier League title and the English Football League Cup. They also reached the Uefa Champions League Final but lost out to Chelsea. 

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