Back in the Hole

BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 09: Lionel Messi of Barcelona in action during the La Liga match between Barcelona and Espanyol at Camp Nou on September 9, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)

Note: This is a post by our new writer Yazdan Basir. You can congratulate [or argue with] him on Twitter at 

He blogs as ThoughtBox. Check out his previous work here.

All the passmap graphics come courtesy of  @11tegen11 who kindly gave us permission to repost them here.


The role “centre-forward” is used interchangeably with “striker” nowadays and the term “False 9” is thrown around frequently in discussions without many knowing what it is really is.

To understand it better, false 9 needs to be seen as a role rather than a position. Only a handful of players in the world are able to execute it as required and that too within a stable structure around them. Wayne Rooney was tried as a false 9 by Sir Alex, Totti played this role as well at Roma and even Cesc Fabregas was deployed in the hole for Spain at the EUROs. But it is Messi who performs the role to perfection.

Pep Guardiola changed modern football with his teams and having Messi operate as a false 9 was a significant move, both for the footballing world and the manager/player himself. The first time Messi was in this role was in the 2-6 thrashing of Madrid at the Bernabeu – a result of a sudden late night call Messi got from Pep. Messi’s positioning and movement caused Madrid a lot of problems throughout the match and one of their defenders of the game, Metzelder, had this to say after the game:

“Fabio [Cannavaro] and I looked at each other. ‘What do we do? Do we follow him to the midfield or stay deep?’ We didn’t have a clue.”

And that’s exactly one of the aims of the false 9 – causing confusion in the opposition back line and bringing players out of position. From here we can move to the current set up at Barcelona and Messi’s role under Ernesto Valverde.

One of Valverde’s priorities upon arriving at Barcelona was to remove the burden of carrying the team from Leo Messi’s back. And he’s done that by restructuring the team around Leo. This season we can see a switch back to false 9 for Messi with an organized team around him and vigorous pressing being carried out. We can see Alba and Semedo pushing high as they’re supposed to be (both being very talented offensive fullbacks) and we can see Iniesta and Rakitic not having to move out wide because of the structure and the support they have in the wide-space due to the fullbacks.

Messi’s role while operating ‘in the hole’ is supposed to be what Metzelder described above. With no dedicated #9 in the formation (because of Suarez moving to the left side and making runs behind the defence), opposition centrebacks don’t know whether to follow Messi into the midfield (bringing them out of position and leaving gaps behind them or to their side) or whether to hold their line and wait (giving Messi the space you’re not supposed to give him). This allows the false 9 to distribute the ball where he needs to and create chances for runners behind the defense or take a chance himself. Messi is a master of the game and has unparalleled vision to perform his duties.

From the videos below you can see how much more involved Busquets and Alba are in this new system, especially with Messi personally and you can also see the new role Rakitic played against Espanyol, something reminiscent of his #10 days from Sevilla. For the first time in ages Barcelona played with a great structure with Messi as a spearhead of the team once again, rather than being present next to Busquets to help create something out of nothing from the halfline.

This restructuring of Messi’s role is a pleasure to watch especially after the “enganche” role he played last season, only for us to witness Neymar and Suarez waste so many good chances created by him. Now we watch Messi getting on the end of cut-backs from Alba marauding down the left flank and placing them into the back of the net – he’s back to the most dangerous place he could be. And this is where he deserves to play. It’s where he scored an outrageous 73 goals in a season and an eventual 91 for the year – and someone of his ability, the greatest of all time, deserves to be free and not frustrated. Let’s hope we can see this role evolve as the season progresses.

The three passmaps below (from all three games of La Liga so far this season) show Messi’s average position every game and it’s quite clear to see where Ernesto wants him to play, especially in the Alaves map (which looks something like a 4-3-3 (5) out of FIFA 17). Go over these carefully and analyze where Messi is playing in relation to his wingers and midfielders.

Here’s a video from uMAXit Football that does a great job explaining the role of the False 9:

 

You can watch the highlights of Leo Messi at false 9 this season in the league below (video from TalkFCB):

 

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  • Andre Gomes

    I also think it makes them really one dimensional against well disciplined defensive teams.

  • Jordan Saf

    I think the main theme is “freedom”. When everyone is doing their job in the position they are in on paper, as well as having the presence of mind to cover where Messi leaves vacant, giving Messi freedom is the best you can do. If you can’t mark Messi or anticipate where he will go next, imagine the damage.

    My only point against the false 9 is that it renders Suarez heavily underutilised. Yes he has incredible intelligence when it comes to movements off the ball – something you need for the false 9 to work. However his predatory goal scoring abilities would be quite limited; he’s wasted as a winger, and you could see him struggling the last 2 games.

    Dembele and Deulofeu seem to be a better fit for that sort of attacking formation. Perhaps between those 3 (D, D and S) and Messi, Valverde will have a couple of variations depending on the opponent. We have always lacked a plan B.

    • futbolistaviva

      Jordan, I agree with most of what you wrote. But I think Suarez’s “underutilization” as you put it, is far more attributable to the “FIFA FLU” and perhaps coming back a bit too soon from his “knock”.
      He had countless chances against Espanyol and several against Juve. He was simply wasteful.
      He’ll be back on form soon.
      I also think that Valverde has paid quite a bit of attention to our defensive formation, personnel, tactics and insisting that they keep their shape. The last 4 matches have been pretty good.

  • Grega Kavčič

    Now any more takers on the Lucho was SHIT bus? He did not even try to mix it up tacticaly he just replaced players every f*** game.