There is a fine line between a midfielder playing out of position as a striker – as Tim Cahill has done frequently for Everton in recent seasons – and a false nine. On Sunday, in their 1-1 draw against Italy, Spain did neither. Vicente Del Bosque instead chose to pack his team with creative midfielders, in a system which can be vaguely described as 4-6-0, in the bid to try and keep possession to pull Italy out of shape. And the Azzurri themselves played a novel formation, choosing three defenders – although given it’s popularity in Serie A, it wasn’t wholly unexpected – one of those being the holding midfielder, Daniele De Rossi. “I was a bit worried when I saw Spain were playing without a real striker,” said De Rossi. “I thought it would have been more difficult for me without a reference.”
Initially, it was easy as Spain passed and probed patiently without much penetration but as indicated by the fleet-footedness of brilliant Andrés Iniesta, the only way to break through would be through an injection of urgency. And they got it through Cesc Fábregas, although they had to fall behind first, getting beyond the Italy defence for practically the first time, after a fine flick by David Silva to score. “Fábregas is a very special midfielder,” Vicente Del Bosque said. “He’s not really a centre forward and has great llegada” (the ability to arrive late in the box).
It was France, in Monday’s 1-1 draw with England, who also could be described as playing without an orthodox centre-forward, although in this case, Karim Benzema is traditionally a striker. However, as his natural tendencies incline him to move backwards instead of forwards, it might be better off describing his role as a false nine. At club level, for Real Madrid, his movement out wide opens up space for the wide forward, Crisitano Ronaldo. For France, he’s as much a part of the build up play as he is a scorer and against England, his role was to drag the defenders out to make space for his team-mates – in a scenario not too unfamiliar to Spain’s against Italy. And while the idea was not incorrect – because as Michael Cox notes for the Guardian, the goal by Samir Nasri highlighted England’s weaknesses in defending against players who operate “between-the-lines” – the wider issue was the underlying conservatism of the two coaches which ultimately forced them to relinquish a win.
Vicente Del Bosque reacted more progressively but Laurent Blanc chose to try and better what they were already doing. On came two more creative midfielders instead of the tall, towering presence of striker, Oliver Giroud. Del Bosque’s changes, though, did stretch Italy’s defence and should have won the game for them but Fernando Torres, put through on goal thrice, was thwarted by his demons each time. By the same token, Spain were now vulnerable to the counter-attack, something which avoiding, seems to be Del Bosque’s primary objective. Passing it endlessly, and it’s easy to see why on the basis of their performance, it continues to be misunderstood, was a mechanism to achieve that.
In the final matches of day three and four, though, Ireland against Croatia and Ukraine and Sweden, showed the virtues of proper strikers although it was the number tens instead the nines who got the goals – those strikers playing just deeper than the main striker. Mario Mandžukić found the net twice in Croatia’s 3-1 win over Ireland although not just his finishing, it was his work-rate which caught the eye. Zlatan Ibrahimovic couldn’t inspire his side to a win although he was superb and his role was somewhat different to both Mandžukić’s and Andriy Shevchenko – whose brace won it for Ukraine – as he tends to play-make more than the two. In that sense, it more closely resembles Wayne Rooney’s role for Manchester United (which is somewhat wrongly described as a false ten because, as far as I have seen, it’s an almost unique position at club level. Rooney tends to operate in a fixed area and is United’s main goalscorer despite playing behind an orthodox striker).
The lack of natural number nines might not traditionally be attributed to attacking football but Euro 2012 has so far proved the opposite. And despite the nuances of Spain and Italy’s style, it’s so far the benchmark for the game of the tournament.