Tactically Speaking: The False Nine
In another article focusing on Stoke’s tactical shape I look at the 433’s beautiful offspring, the false nine. Rising to prominence in December of last year, in the Potteries at least, it was eventually scrapped after a lack of rotation led to two poor results. But with no movement on the striker front in the transfer window so far, could the return of this formation get the best out of the current crop of players?
Last season the formation had a mixed bag of results, but this included two stand out, and I really mean stand out, performances against the two Manchester clubs. In both of these fixtures Stoke looked like the former league champions and made their opponents look like middling clubs who had no hope of winning the league. There is no debate that these are the two best performances I have ever seen from a team in Red and White stripes. Both games could have finished as cricket scores due to the abundance of the chances created, and this all came from the false 9. The fluidity of attacking movement left opposition defences exposed and weakened, whilst an additional centre midfielder provided defensive cover to nullify the opposition.
Despite suffering 3 defeats using the false nine last season none were truly awful results and it was arguable that we should have won two of them. Both the West Brom and Crystal Palace results saw Stoke lose to a 3rd party influence. At the Hawthorns it was Claudio Yacob and Lee Mason taking the Potters down to 10 men, whilst Lee Chung-Young’s wonder volley stunned the Brit in December. The other defeat came as Klopp completely out witted Sparky and the boys tactically, yet still in a match where the opposition dominated Stoke only lost by one goal. Average points per game in the league last season were 1.7 whilst in the false nine, compared with 1.2 in other formations.
The additions of Giannelli Imbula and Joe Allen seem tailor made to the formation. Imbula is a player who thrives when he is taking the game to the opposition, which means high pressing tactics are often nullified due to his excellent dribbling ability. This is clearly statistically displayed as Imbula had the highest successful take on percentage in the league at 73% (Mahrez averaged only 56%) and the most successful take on’s per game (at 4.36). Meanwhile Joe Allen is a playmaker who will pick apart deep sitting defences, with a cultured football intelligence and advanced range of passing. With both of these players Stoke have a truly impressive and top quality midfield pairing, and the false nine system seems to the be the shape that will bring the most out of both players.
The false nine plays to our strengths in every way possible. Our most prolific player is a winger, and the space created by dropping the front man, allows Arnie to move into that area and score goals. Bojan is creative and prolific, and allowing him to play as both a centre forward and number 10 allows him to utilise all these assets. In the false nine both thrived with Marko getting 4 of his 11 league goals in the formation and Bojan getting 2 of his 7, this is a much higher goals per game ratio than in any other tactical set up. There have been valid concerns Imbula and Allen as a midfield 2 would be two attack focused and leave the defence vulnerable. Yet with the false nine an extra midfielder is afforded; and with Whelan or Cameron playing a holding role the team will have greater balance.
This formation would provide Middlesbrough with a shock. Coming from the blood and thunder styles of the Championship, Middlesbrough are suited to playing against powerful sides who seek to get the ball forward in a more direct style. In giving them the exact opposite they will be left flustered and unsure as to how to deal with the shape. Last season their centre half’s would have had to track target men and ensure that they don’t lose an aerial battle. If they continue to use this tactic against a false nine, pockets of space will appear which Arnautovic and Shaqiri (who acquired 2 of his 3 goals in the false nine last season) will seek to expose in devastating fashion.
At a time where Hughes is trying to find a balance between our scintillating attacking play and a robust secure defence, the false nine makes a very strong argument for providing it. After a disappointing run of games last season, which arguably were due to a lack of rotation rather than the system not working, it is time for the false nine to be given another go.
Written by Tom Thrower
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