Could a “False-Center Back” Be Coming To World Soccer?

Since tactics became a legitimate aspect of soccer thinking in the early 1900s, a cat-and-mouse game has ensued in the decades that followed, with defensive innovations being created to counteract offensive ones and vice-versa.

The catenaccio perfected by Helenio Herrera’s Grande Inter teams, and adopted by other Italian sides, in the 1960s shutdown opponents and dominated the game. Year later, catenaccio itself was largely neutralized by the “Total Football” pioneered by the Dutch. With the advent of aggressive pressing and zonal marking, Total Football in its purest form was then cast aside, but is now seeing a modified rival thanks to Pep Guardiola and Barcelona. 

Another example of this phenomenon is the proliferation of the classic “Number 10” playmakers, in the mold of Diego Maradona or Roberto Baggio, who exploited the gap between the opposing midfield and defense to great effect. Reacting to this, defenses soon packed this space with defensive midfielders (“destroyers”) giving rise to the “Makelele role.”

In turn, teams of the early 2000s moved players who would have been orthodox “Number 10s” to the outside, giving them space away from stacked central midfields (Michael Cox’s website Zonal Marking has more on this development). For example, consider the positioning of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi (early in his career, at least).

In the second half of the most recent decade, the tactical development that has the world talking is the advent of the “false-nine,” or a player who is deployed as a traditional striker, but drops into the midfield. This could have the effect of drawing out opposing center backs, creating space at the back for advancing midfielders and wingers coming inside. Alternatively, if the center backs sit deep, the defense runs the risk of a giving a player such as Messi an inordinate amount of space; obviously not a desirable situation for the defending team.

The False-Nine has been put to use by Roma, with Francesco Totti playing in the role, as well as Manchester United, but its most notable practitioner has been Guardiola’s Barcelona, with Messi being utilized.

Given its effectiveness, it stands to reason this position will begin to grow more common (this article from The Guardian ponders why this has not already occurred). Of course, it probably will not become universal in its current incarnation, given that it requires a special player, one with pace, creativity, and finishing. Messis and Tottis are not exactly easy to find.

Still, an expansion of its use seems likely, necessitating adequate defensive tactics to stop, or at least contain it.

The dilemma at hands largely revolves around center backs being left with no one to mark, as the nominal striker they would normally defend is dropping deeper. They are thus left redundant and leave their team with deficiencies elsewhere (notably in the midfield).

In Inverting the Pyramid, the Bible of soccer tactics, Jonathan Wilson draws the connection with this situation and the plight of the three-man central defense. “If there is no centre-forward to mark,” he writes, “the second centre-back in a 4-4-2 would seem as redundant as the third in a 3-5-2 playing a lone forward.”

Wilson is referring to the decline of defenses with three center backs due to proliferation of single striker formations. Looking at this development further can help us see why and how defenses need to adapt to striker-less formations.

Against two strikers, the central defenders in a 3-5-2 have specific roles. Two center backs mark the strikers and one stays back, playing the space behind the two.

When one striker is pulled back, and placed either on the wings or in the midfield, the three center backs have only one player to mark, and this is where the problem is. If one man-marks and one plays the zone, the third is redundant, and thus would be better served playing elsewhere.

See the image below. The green and red team has three center backs playing one striker. This leaves the opposing fullbacks unaccounted for and will lead to midfield deficiency (Again, refer to Zonal Markin for more on this).

So let’s take the concepts at play here and apply them to teams facing a false-nine. Again, the problem with a 3-5-2 against a 4-2-3-1 is a spare center back is left with essentially nothing to do. A team lining up with two center backs against a false-nine faces almost the same problem

Even if one center back is left back to occupy the zone, the other is left with no one to mark, as the lone “striker” has dropped into the midfield. Once again, see the image below. The poor green and red team is once again at a disadvantage.

Could the “redundant” center back man-mark the false-nine and follow him across the pitch? Theoretically yes. However, considering the positioning of Messi and Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney, the defending team runs the risk of having one if its central defenders dragged from the penalty area to midfield, far too high up the field. Also, this could potentially expose the other center back to a barrage from marauding wide players.

So what is a defense to do?

Leave it to Jose Mourinho to find a solution which could serve as a prototype for future efforts to contain Messi-type players.

Enter the false-center back.

Ideally, this would be a sort of center back/defensive midfielder hybrid, defensively adept with the pace to track the false-striker. This player would line up deep, but in front of the backline, with license to come forward and track his man (hence a “false” center back; a false striker lines up in an advanced position and drops deep).

Use of a player in this role could accompany a three-man defense; not a three-man central defense, but rather one with only one center back and two fullbacks. Wilson, writing for The Guardian ahead of the 2011 Champions League final, suggested that Manchester United should adopt such an “hour-glass” formation to combat Messi and Barcelona.  This would involve the aforementioned single center back,  and “the full-backs slightly tucked in to deal with the incursions from [the opposing wingers].” A defender (what we’ve termed the false center back) would then track Messi, with central and attacking midfielders, and a lone striker rounding at the squad (hence an hour glass–wide at the back, narrow in the midfield, and wide up front).

Here is how a strikerless formation could match up against such a lineup:

Of course, Manchester United did not adopt this admittedly radical formation in the 2011 final, but perhaps they should have, as they were thrashed 3-1 at Wembley.

One example we do have of such tactics being used occurred in the second leg of the 2011 Spanish Super Cup, by Mourinho’s Real Madrid side, as explained here on Zonal Marking.

In their previous encounter, as Cox notes, Madrid had played deeper, “leaving no space in behind and letting Barcelona come onto them,” and this negated some of the benefits of the false nine position.

Having drawn 2-2 in the Supercopa’s first leg, Mourinho play more aggressively in the second, pressing high up the pitch. This pressing left a good deal of space at the back, making it important to account for Messi.

To do so, Madrid adopted a backline comparable to what Wilson suggested, tucking in his full backs to deal with Barcelona’s wingers, kept one center back deep, and pushed the other one forward to deal with Messi.

It should be noted that Madrid lost the match 3-2 and that the change in tactics did not actually stop Messi. However, this probably had more to do with the fact that Ricardo Carvalho, who was given the task of pushing up and defending Messi, was a poor fit for the role. Madrid had better options in Sergio Ramos and Pepe.

(The next time Madrid and Barcelona met, last December, Madrid played with two conventional center backs and gave Messi way too much space to operate. Perhaps when they meet again this Saturday, Mourinho will give the tactics from the Super Cup another try, but with a player better suited for the role).

Looking forward, if a “false center back” comes into widespread use (if so, perhaps someone can think of a catchier name), it would be a continuation of the broader trend in global soccer which puts versatility at a premium, and emphasizes the importance of possession and the midfield.

Whether utilization of a center back pushing up to defend a false-nine is or isn’t the best way to combat this kind of player, one thing is certain. The history of tactics tells us if (or when) strikerless formations become commonplace, an innovative defense strategy will come up to deal with it.

The diagrams used in this post were created at This11.com.

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