If you’re a relatively new soccer fan, or don’t really follow all of the newest tactical trends, you may be curious about when some commentators, analysts, and other fans refer to a position or player as a “false 9.” If you’ve ever asked yourself “what is a false 9?”, we’ll give an in-depth explanation of this hybrid position.

What is a Traditional 9?

To understand what a false 9 is, let’s go into the history of the traditional number 9 position in soccer. Initially, numbers were assigned for a team based on the position you were going to play for the upcoming match. A goalkeeper was number 1, defenders wore lower numbers (2-5), midfielders and attackers wore 6-11 (depending on the country), and substitutes wore numbers 12-18 or higher. This usually meant the center forward ended up with the number 9. 

In those days positions and roles within the team tended to be more static, and the number 9 position was mainly responsible for scoring goals. This player tended to stay as high as possible on the field, often playing on the shoulder of the other team’s last defender, while maintaining a central position as close to the opposing goal as possible. This positioning stretched the other team’s defense and made sure the number 9 was in a good goal scoring position as the team worked the ball into the opponent’s 18 yard box. Typically this player was not as involved in the build-up play and instead focused mainly on finishing any chances their team created.

The number 9 position usually required a player with good speed, shot power and accuracy, strength (to hold off defenders), heading ability, an instinct for pouncing on loose balls in the box, and composure to finish chances efficiently. 

When you think of a traditional number 9, players like Alan Shearer, Ronaldo (Brazilian), Gerd Muller, Romario, Gabriel Batistuta, Filipo Inzaghi, Robert Lewandowski, and Erling Haaland all come to mind. While some of these players did contribute to the build-up play leading to goals, they are specialists at scoring goals above all else. 

When and Why Did the False 9 Develop?

Traditionally positions were fairly fixed in soccer. Everyone tended to stay in the parts of the field associated with their position (defenders mostly played defense, attackers mostly stayed forward, wide players stayed wide, etc…), without much variation. 

In the 70s, the positions started to evolve. The 1970 Brazil squad featured attacking fullbacks (watch the Carlos Alberto goal below assisted by Pele – this looks like a very modern goal from a right back), something the game hadn’t really seen before at the international level. 

The Dutch team of the mid-70s really brought this to the next level, with their style of play coined “Total Football.” In their system, they prioritized skillful players who could play multiple positions, fielding defenders who were traditionally more skillful forwards and midfielders, and they often interchanged positions on the field. 

This system led to a more fluid attack based on possessing the ball and dynamic movement off the ball, which made it difficult for opponents to track movements and defend against players who were often popping up in different parts of the field. They executed this philosophy with great success, led by all-time great player Johann Cruyff. Unfortunately they lost to Germany in the 1974 World Cup final in Munich, after cruising to the finals, but this total football philosophy caught on. 

But even with all of the positions interchanging and the further evolution of formations into the 80s and 90s, the traditional number 9 remained stationed as far forward as possible, ready to finish off moves regardless of how the team advanced the ball into the box. Plus, having one player as high as possible stretched the opposing team’s defense so they couldn’t put as much pressure on the ball, as they had to mind this number 9. 

Possession and exciting fluid play is great and everything, but it doesn’t mean much if you don’t have someone who can put the ball in the net. This is why the traditional number 9 position didn’t change much, even as everything else around him did.

The Phasing out of the Playmaker

As the game continued to evolve, there was a counter movement towards more organized team setups and more athletic players. In the late 90s and early 2000s, teams began to focus on defensive solidity and organization at the expense of a free-flowing style.

France in 1998 won the World Cup with such a set up, conceding only two goals the entire tournament, relying on the brilliance of Zidane to create chances. Italy conceded the same amount on their way to victory in 2006, while in 2002 Brazil used a more defensive setup (3 center backs and 2 defensive midfielders) than normal to pave their way to the trophy. At the same time on the club level, Jose Mourinho found success with a similarly defensive philosophy at Chelsea.

These tactics proved successful and eventually led to the phasing out of the traditional number 10 who roamed centrally and was only focused on creating goals (Pele, Maradona, etc…) while playing little defense. While teams did have playmakers, they tended to take up wider roles within the team to contribute to the defensive set up, giving teams more stability through the middle with defensive or worker-type center midfielders. 

This limited the effectiveness of the playmakers, as they had to defend wide positions and/or contribute a significant amount of energy towards defending. 

Many teams also operated without a true playmaker, instead relying on more team-oriented moves, pressing, and even direct long-ball tactics to create chances. Athleticism, rigid tactical approaches, and workmanlike performances were a way to level the playing field against more gifted opponents.

For these teams, the playmaking duties were shared between a few players, with all of these players also committing to the defensive side of the game. These tactics were successful, especially for teams who couldn’t attract the high level playmakers (these guys are expensive!).

Re-introducing the Central Playmaker While Keeping Defensive Stability

The Barcelona and Spain teams of the early 2010s took another huge leap forward with their tiki-taka style of play, relying on short passing and possession to move teams out of position, then patiently waiting to attack the opponent’s goal when the moment was right. The central midfielders Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets focused on ball retention and pressing, but none was a traditional out and out playmaker (Iniesta was probably the closest but still put in a lot of work on the pressing side of the game). It took a special player, and arguably the best player of the modern generation, to give this team the final touch of genius – Lionel Messi.

Messi started as a right winger in a 433 formation, with the freedom to come inside, but Barcelona started using him as a center forward with a license to roam freely. Unlike traditional center forwards, Messi would drop into the midfield to receive the ball, either finding space or bringing a center back with him. The wide players would stay high and keep their width, using the space Messi vacated in the middle to stretch teams vertically. This was the birth of the false 9. 

This setup allowed Barcelona to field a central playmaker in his most effective role while keeping their spacing that allowed them to play their possession based style, while also keeping their team shape that allowed for aggressive pressing. It doesn’t hurt to have one of the best players ever to spark this positional evolution, but the tactical tweak made a lot of sense if you had the right type of player.

What is a False 9?

Back to the main question. We touched on this briefly in the last section talking about how Messi started playing in this role. Since then, a lot of other players have effectively played this position. What did they do that made it a false 9 as opposed to a traditional number 9?

The false 9 operates like a combination of a traditional 9, starting high up the field (usually the player furthest forward), and an old-school number 10 style playmaker. As their team advances the ball into the midfield, the false 9 will pick the right time and the space to drop back into the midfield, taking up the space of a traditional number 10. This helps give their team an extra midfield player to create a numerical advantage in the middle and better keep possession. 

The goal of the false 9 is to create opportunities yet also offer a goal threat. There are endless ways this player can do so, but the following tactics are the most common: 

  • Take the ball, turn, and dribble towards goal, either creating his own shot or an opportunity for another player (very difficult to do on your own, but Messi is a master at this).
  • After dropping deep and receiving the ball, the false 9 can also release the wide players (who typically stay high in tandem with a false 9) with a through ball for a quick run from the outside towards the goal, often into the space that the false 9 has vacated (Harry Kane does this well). 
  • Or he can simply help the team work the ball from the middle third into the attacking third with short passes, where different midfield players (either wide or centrally) can run beyond the false 9 to get behind the defense with a quick 1-2, a third man run, or a through-ball. From there, they can either create a shot on their own, or the false 9 can make a late run into the box to receive a pass, cross, or cut-back for their own opportunity at goal. 

Obviously there are numerous other ways the false 9 can work to create danger for opponents, but these are the three most common tactics. The basic principle is that this player will drop deep to get the ball, then use the numerical advantage to work the ball into a position for his team to score. 

Roberto Firmino’s take on the False 9

What are the advantages and disadvantages?


  • Adds a central playmaker who can create from the most dangerous area of the field.
  • Difficult to track for defenses – if you keep a defender on the false 9, it creates space in the middle of the field for other players to attack; if you let the false 9 drop deep, it allows a dangerous player to find space with the ball to create danger.
  • Allows your team to maintain a strong defensive shape, as you don’t have to use a midfielder as your main creative player. You can still have one player completely dedicated to creating chances without sacrificing defensive solidity.


  • You need a special player to execute the false 9 well. Not too many of these players exist who have the skill set to both create and score goals, as well as the tactical nous to know when to drop deep and dictate play. 
  • If you get this wrong, you can crowd the midfield while taking away a goal threat. 
  • This tactic relies on midfield and wide players who can threaten the goal with pace and great timing to get beyond the false 9. Typically these players are highly valuable, and it’s not easy to get them all on the same page (or even on the same team)

Popular False 9s

Leo Messi – We’ve already talked about how he pioneered this role at Barcelona. It’s tailor made for his unique skillset and ability to create and score as one of the best players of all time. Honestly you could put him anywhere on the field and he would be a success, and he happened to make this hybrid position work to perfection at Barcelona.

Roberto Firmino – The Brazilian was traditionally a central number 10, and he morphed into a false 9 at Liverpool, using his unique skill set and intelligence to play this role. It helped that he had speedy, dynamic wide forwards in Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mane to provide the vertical threat from wide, but Firmino knit together the attacking strategy of one of the better European sides in the last decade. He executed this role more as a playmaker and less as a goalscorer, although he did chip in with a fair amount of goals. 

Harry Kane – Came into this role as a traditional number 9 earlier in his career. He slowly started adding the element of dropping into the midfield to receive the ball and hold it, using his strength to his advantage. He likes to either play a quick lay off then spin off into the box, or play longer balls to switch the play and/or get his other forwards behind the defense directly, then arrive into the box to finish moves with a late run. 

Cesc Fabregas – While he didn’t play this role regularly, he took it up in Spain’s 2012 World Cup winning campaign, as this Spain team had a glut of amazing central midfield players. His intelligence and ability on the ball allowed him to execute this role as a part of Spain’s ability to pass teams to death before scoring. 

Antoine Griezmann – He doesn’t always play this position, but it fits Atletico Madrid’s philosophy to perfection. They love to play solid defense, and playing Griezmann as a false 9 allows them to play with an extra defensive-minded player while still keeping the creative and goal scoring threat on the field.

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