Luciano Spalletti’s usage of Francesco Totti as a false nine had re-energised the role in the modern football and Rohit Rajeev looks back on the current Napoli boss’ exploits at Roma…
Strikers have ruled the games for generations. Be it Pele, Alfredo di Stefano, Eusebio, Gerd Muller, Marco van Basten, Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Robert Lewandowski, the footballing community has always spoken glowingly about goalscorers as the game was always about goals.
But what about a formation/system that does not have the traditional striker as a reference point? How do teams operate using this system and who would be their source of goals? Well, for those who grew up watching the now-famous Barcelona then managed by Pep Guardiola, we all know how his famous use of a ‘false 9’ breathed life into one of the greatest players of all time – Lionel Messi.
Guardiola’s use of Messi as a false nine gave way to widespread application of this system in the game. But was Guardiola the manager who resurrected the false nine system for modern football? No, it was in use much before Guardiola took charge of Barcelona and it was done on the Italian shores in the Capital of Italy, Rome.
Spalletti’s now-famous 4-6-0 formation with the imperious presence of Francesco Totti as the false nine was brilliant but Roma’s trouncing of 7-1 under the lights at Old Trafford in the 2007 Champions League Quarter Finals became a blemish on what could have been a wonderful tactical discovery.
Spalletti however won 2 Coppa Italias before leaving Roma for Zenit St.Petersburg and that would be the last trophies Roma would win until Jose Mourinho joined them and won the Europa Conference League last season.
So what is the False nine formation, what is its history, how did Roma do with it?
The False Nine
According to Coaches Voice, a false nine is a position on the pitch that drops deep from their usual higher up the pitch positions and plays between the lines of the opposition. By doing this they hope to draw defenders out of their position and create gaps to move the ball or for a teammate to run into. If the defender does not mark the center-forward or follow him around then the false nine has all the space to receive the ball and find his team-mates and shoot on goal.
But to play as a false nine, the striker must have great quality on the ball and must be press resistant. Otherwise, it could become counter-productive.
While Spalletti did make the usage of false nine mainstream, he was not the player who invented the idea of the false nine and it was done during post World War-II in Hungary.
When striker Norberto Hofling transferred to Lazio, the team’s coach Marton Bukovi converted the team’s winger Peter Palotas into a winger, slightly altering the 3-1-2-4 formation.
This system was used by Hungarian NT coach Gustav Sebes who used Nandor Hidegkuti as their false nine instead of Palotas. This move saw Hungary reach the final of the 1954 World Cup before eventually being beaten by West Germany
In 2006, Spalletti was faced with a dilemma. His regular striker Marko Vucinic was injured and was going to be out for a while. And while Roma did not possess the financial power of the traditional powerhouse like Milanese clubs or Juventus, Spalletti needed to mitigate the situation by tweaking his tactics
As history has shown us, necessity breeds invention and Spalletti decided to rely on his team’s best player and Roma’s gladiator – Francesco Totti. Fresh from winning the World Cup with Italy and in the form of his life, Totti was asked to play as a false nine, a role at that point of time was not very heard of.
Roma lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation with Daniele de Rossi sitting as a holding midfidler while Mancini and Christian Wilhelmsson occupied the wings. Simone Perotta and Rodrigo Taddei were mezallas who would support Totti in the attack.
For example, take the goal scored by Perotta against Inter in the San Siro in the second leg of the Coppa Italia. Defenders were bamboozled as to who they had to mark and crashed into each other, leaving an unmarked Perotta 1v1 against the goalkeeper.
Even in Roma’s win over United in the first leg (2-1), United defenders (Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown) did not know who to mark as they were so confused. Totti would drop into midfield and act as a playmaker – something he is very used to, while Taddei, Perotta and the wingers would flood the box or wait in other positions to receive the pass.
When out of possession Roma would play a 4-5-1 with Totti as the furthest forward player waiting to receive the ball and begin a counter attack.
Spalletti’s Success of the system
Having endured a poor first half of the season, Roma had slipped to the 15th place in the standings and that brought about uncertainties regarding Spalletti’s position. But once he brought out the 4-6-0 formation, Roma went on a hot streak and won 11 games in a row, a record in Italian football that catapulted them from 15th to 5th in the standings. Once Juve were relegated from Serie A for Calciopoli, the vacant spot was given to Roma who reached the quarter finals of the Champions League in the 2006-2007 season.
However, silverware came back to the Olimpico after 6 long years when they won their first Coppa Italia, beating Inter 7-4 on aggregate and followed it up with back to back Coppa Italia trophies by beating Inter again in the final 2-1.
Spalletti may not have invented the false nine system, but he certainly was one of the tacticians to have introduced it to modern football, which in turn ‘lit a flame’ in football for how strikers are now required to be – not just goalscorers but contributors towards build-up and chance creation phases.
While the loss to United may have maimed his rediscovery a bit, the two back-to-back Coppa Italia wins cemented his legacy among the Roma fanbase, who were elated when he came back to Roma for one more stint in the mid 2010’s.
Rohit Rajeev | GIFN