Faith in false nines makes for compelling poacher-free Champions League final | Jonathan Wilson
Manchester City’s leading Premier League goalscorer this season is Ilkay Gündogan with 13. Jorginho tops Chelsea’s scoring chart with seven, followed by Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Timo Werner who are all on six. And yet these are the two sides who will contest next week’s Champions League final.
Among elite clubs over the past decade there has been a clear tension between those who focus on celebrity, the big-name goalscorers, and those who prioritise the collective. Neither is necessarily right nor wrong, but as the age of Lionel Messi (who has become increasingly a celebrity individual having been key to one of football’s greatest collectives) and Cristiano Ronaldo draws to a close, the lack of an out-and-out goalscorer in the final feels a possible herald of things to come.
For several years now the latter stages of the Champions League have produced ties of thrilling drama between clubs so used to dominating domestically they have forgotten how to defend. The grail became to find a way of pressing hard without the high line being vulnerable. With all due caveats about the oddity of this season, that is what City and, to a lesser degree, Chelsea seem close to achieving.
Both are able to protect possession when they need to – in that regard Thomas Tuchel is by far the most Pep Guardiola-like of the modern German school – and both have carefully constructed midfields. But it is intriguing that both are likely to go into the final with a false nine – probably Kevin De Bruyne or Bernardo Silva for City and Kai Havertz for Chelsea. What felt an exciting avant garde development when Roma deployed the tactic with Francesco Totti, Barça with Messi and Manchester United with Ronaldo (in the days before he evolved into a more orthodox centre-forward) has become wholly mainstream.
Yet for both, the use of a false nine has to an extent been forced by circumstance. Sergio Agüero’s injuries and Gabriel Jesus’s loss of form have meant Guardiola has not had a realistic option at centre-forward – other than perhaps Ferran Torres, who is inexperienced and, anyway, arrived at the club as a right-winger.
Tuchel, meanwhile, seems not to rate Abraham. There is still Olivier Giroud who could perform a more traditional centre-forward’s role; Tuchel is not the first to prefer to use him off the bench but there is a sense he prefers somebody more mobile. At Mainz, he used the likes of Andre Schürrle and Shinji Okazaki at centre-forward and at Borussia Dortmund he had Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, none of them perhaps classic false nines, but none of them fixed points either, all comfortable dropping deep or pulling wide. At Paris Saint-Germain, with Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, he had few options over what to do with his forward line, but it was always fluid.
Werner and Havertz have emerged as Tuchel’s two preferred options at centre-forward – and it may be that Werner would not seem such a false nine if only he could score some goals, a pursuit in which he is so persistently thwarted by improbable misfortune he should probably join a support group with Dick Dastardly and Wile E Coyote. If his luck were to turn – as it surely must at some point – Werner may come to seem, like Aubameyang in his pomp, a quick and mobile central striker who likes to come in from the left. Havertz, though, is more typical as a false nine. While he has the physique to play with his back to goal, he naturally gravitates towards the midfield.
The question then is whether Guardiola and Tuchel’s use of a false nine over the past few months is evidence of them adapting to circumstance or a necessary part of the slightly more conservative variant of the pressing game both have adopted.
That, though, is perhaps to frame the issue in the wrong way. What does Guardiola look for in a player who occupies the central area high up the pitch? He must be willing to lead the press and have the tactical capacity to do so. He must be able to tailor his movement to the demands of the team, capable of dropping deep so others can go beyond him. It is perhaps less that Guardiola prefers a false nine than he prioritises the positional qualities of his central forward over the more traditional virtues of pace, heading and scoring goals – just as he prioritises passing and positional qualities over shot-stopping and reflexes for his goalkeeper or over tackling and winning headers for his central defenders.
Before injuries hit, Agüero had successfully adapted to thrive in a Guardiola side, yet against Real Madrid last season, Gabriel Jesus started on the left with Phil Foden as the withdrawn central forward. Jesus’s pressing was vital in City’s two goals and, then aged 23, he seemed ready to blossom as the ideal Guardiola centre-forward. The goals, though, have never quite arrived and he has become increasingly peripheral as his form has drifted.
Harry Kane, linked with City last week after announcing his intention to leave Tottenham, can lead the press and naturally drops deep for runners beyond him, and as such is one of the few centre-forwards who would seem obviously to fit a Guardiola schema.
Equally, what does Tuchel want? Given his limited time at Chelsea that is a little harder to assess, but the 3-4-2-1 as he uses it requires the centre-forward to create space for runners from deep, where Werner is probably more happily deployed.
What does that, then, say about the evolution of the false nine? Possibly only that positions are not what they used to be, and that as goalscorers from wide and deep have become more common so, at least for teams whose ethos is of the collective, there is no need for the central forward to be prolific. Rather their role is to link the structure together. If it turns out they can score 25 goals a season as well, that’s a bonus, just as City have prospered this season with a central defender in Rüben Dias who not only fulfils Guardiola’s specific demands for the position, but can actually defend as well.