Football Tactics: 4-3-3 with a false 9 formation
Overview of the 4-3-3 with a false 9 formation
In terms of shape and implementation, this formation looks like a hybrid between the 4-4-2 diamond formation and a conventional 4-3-3 formation with a targetman.
It is usually a formation designed to get the best out of special players like Lionel Messi and Mario Gotze, who thrive in confined spaces because of their finishing, close ball control and low centres of gravity.
The formation comprises four defenders; two central defenders and two full-backs. In central midfield, there is usually a holding midfielder sitting at the base of a central midfield and two advanced central midfielders.
Up top, there will be two forwards who will press the opposition defensive line and a false 9, who assumes a more withdrawn role through the middle.
How it works
This formation works best with technically adept central midfielders who can control the game by dominating possession. That dominance of the ball in turn helps the side to keep play in the offensive half, which creates the conditions in which the false 9 can thrive.
When the team has possession, their full-backs are usually the primary sources of width, which prompts them to leave the defensive line and make runs forward for that purpose. The centre-halves have to push play into the attacking half by holding a high defensive line.
In central midfield, the defensive midfielder sits in front of the centre-halves as a defensive shield. The other central midfielders usually work as ball players and have a key role in ball retention, while the two wide forwards run the channels and stretch the opposition defence to create pockets of space in the final-third for the false 9.
When defending, the wide forwards have to track back with the opposing side’s full-backs while the false 9 may function as a transitional player. The full-backs drop to the defensive line while the three central midfielders deal with the threat from central midfield in front of the back-four.
This system usually allows the team to control the game with ball retention because the false 9 frequently operates as the fourth central midfielder, linking up play and helping to outnumber most teams in central areas.
Most central defenders and holding midfielders are physically imposing players who relish aerial duels and coming up against powerful strikers, but they dread a diminutive false 9 because their balance, sharp turns and close ball control makes it difficult to tackle them without committing fouls in dangerous areas.
This ultra-offensive formation can be exposed in different ways on the break because both full-backs usually commit high into the offensive half to stretch the opponents’ defensive shape, while the other central midfielders roam very high to ensure the smooth movement of the ball from side to side.
That leaves two centre-halves – possibly on the halfway line – and a holding midfielder as the only defensive shield. If the opposition can contain the pressure on their defence, they will have ample space to exploit during quick changeovers with simple long balls and pacy transitional players.
Which teams have used the 4-3-3 with a false 9 formation successfully?
Pep Guardiola assembled one of the best Barcelona teams ever with this system. They won a treble in 2009 when they started using this shape. Messi was, of course, the false 9 in the year he won his first World Footballer of the Year award.
Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o were the two furthest forwards who operated on the sides of Messi. Dani Alves and Eric Abidal were the full-backs supplying good width in attacks, while Yaya Toure assumed the holding midfield role.
Xavi Hernandez, who is arguably the best Spanish player ever, was at his peak and completed a lot of passes in the middle of the park, which allowed Barcelona to dominate possession against every side they faced, while Andrea Iniesta complemented Xavi with his incredible ability to open up even the most organised defences with accurate crucial passes.