Messi and Suárez: The false couple

February 17, 2013

Only two players truly master the ‘false nine’ role, but they do so in different ways.

Messi false1

In early January, Brendan Rodgers likened Luis Suárez to Lionel Messi.He plays the false nine role like Messi does for Barcelona where he moves freely and others have to get in behind him to penetrate,” he said. Though diminished slightly by Daniel Sturridge’s arrival, Rodgers’s point did highlight one thing: for all the talk of the ‘false nine’ role, only Messi and Suárez are capable of pulling it off.

Others have tried, most have failed. Few are those who can run at defences from central positions, orchestrate attacks on their own, and dribble players inside the space of a phone booth. So talented are Messi and Suárez that their teams’ set-ups are designed solely to maximise their potential. Around them, wingers provide width, or come inside for one-twos. Behind, pass-masters stand at their service. They are the stars of the show, elevated by a willing cast of support-actors.

Special talents demand special roles. The false nine is not a position, such as right-back or left-wing, but a principle in which a player is allocated an area to work in – the most dangerous on the pitch. It is the freest of roles. In return, the player is expected to provide the sting of the team. Messi and Suárez are good enough to carry this burden. But the way they go about it differs.

Messi: A static player

Messi is in many ways the modern false nine. (Some may argue Francesco Totti played it a few years before him.) Moving him into the centre was arguably Pep Guardiola’s finest tactical masterstroke – and there were a few. As decided by Messi’s movement, the role has become defined as a player dropping deep, leaving central-defenders “kicking their heels”. One may say this forms a large part of Messi’s ‘movement’. But the truth is that, without the ball, Messi hardly moves anyway. He is extremely static, bar the occasional run in behind the defence. (A rare occurrence against this Barça side.) It is all ball-to-feet. This also means that his wide-play is practically non-existent. He tends to drift towards the right, due to Andrés Iniesta’s forward runs and Xavi’s somewhat withdrawn role – a trend that favours his left foot. But that is about it.


Static: Messi’s preferred zone

A positive element of this, beyond Messi’s playmaking abilities (more on that later), is his positioning near the goal. His fox-in-the-box instinct is excellent; an underrated part of his game. He is superb at anticipating crosses, and quick to move into position. For second-balls and unexpected deflections, his reflexes and reaction time are impeccable.

Suárez’s movement

Suárez plays the role in his own manner. The most notable difference is his remarkable movement, which is as incisive and varied as that of anyone in Europe. (If you know a player who does it better, do leave a note in the comments below.) He runs down the channels, he sneaks in behind defenders, he hugs the touchline. Coming deep to receive the ball, like Messi does, is only a part of his repertoire.


Mobile: Suárez drifts wider than Messi

A Sky Sports analysis by Gary Neville a few months ago highlighted this point: Neville showed a clip in which Suárez took three different initiatives in 10 seconds. He first went deep; the pass did not arrive. He then moved towards the left; again, no pass. He then tried to run in behind the defence. The pass came, Liverpool scored.

Messi the playmaker

The reasons for the duo’s off-the-ball variations are interlinked with their qualities as players, and the tactical nature of their teams. Let’s first take Messi. Due to Barça’s tendency to play their opponents low, he has less space than Suárez. Drifting wide is seldom effective. And there is less space between the lines. Of course, Messi often finds space there anyway, but when he does not, the way he drops even deeper is understandable. It is these situations that separate him from a regular No 10. Anyone can create between the lines. It is harder to do so in front of them, facing eight or nine organised players guarding their goal like a handball team. But Messi can, through a blend of spellbinding dribbles and slick interplay. And he is alone in doing so.

In pulling this off, his Barça team-mates are crucial. In these situations they are practically a series of walls for Messi to play one-twos. We have seen it so often. Messi plays, then goes. The pass comes back on one-touch, via Iniesta, Xavi, or the two wingers who have drifted into the box. Then a quick dribble, then the placed finish. The process is almost impossible to replicate, both due to Messi’s quality, and the precision of Barça’s players – the support act.

Below is a somewhat simplistic (though beautiful) example of such a Messi attack. (There are probably better demonstrations, but they reside deeper inside the YouTube jungle.)

Suárez’s dribbling game

As much as Rodgers would like them to be, Liverpool are not Barça. His side keeps a higher tempo, which gives Suárez more space. As such, there is no need for him to drop as deep as Messi. Situations rarely occur where he faces eight organised players from a standstill. This means that when he gets the ball, he is often closer to goal. Instead of orchestrating a slick attack on his own, Suárez only needs to beat one or two players to reach goal. It also means that, when receiving the ball wide, the opponent is less organised than any team that Barça face. A few nutmegs and he is through.

It has to be like this for Suárez. He does not have the support, or the players, that Messi is surrounded with. Suárez is possibly even more of an individualist – because he has no choice. But it is also true that Messi, given his strong tendency to drop deep, is a more pure example of the false nine.


They may have the same roles, but they perform them differently. Messi’s ability to drive incisive attacks against well-organised opposition, with limited space, through a blend of dribbling and one-touch combinations, is exploited fully in Barça’s current system. He possesses a playmaking dimension that Suárez lacks, which enables him to be effective in much deeper positions. Suárez, meanwhile, compensates with his relentless movement and ability to drag defenders out of position before beating them. Whether the duo’s off-the-ball tendencies have come through managerial instructions is uncertain, though they probably have not. In a role that centres on freedom, it is all about what comes naturally.

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Video: LeoGetz190678


Suarez and Messi are the only ones which can pull off the false 9?
Francesco Totti under Luciano Spaletti basically created this false 9 tactic so saying nobody else is able to play false 9 tactic besides Messi and Suarez is completely ignorant, i would really like to see an analysis article on the first season which Spaletti deployed Totti in the false 9 role, that would be really interesting. How it all began and the achievements on the road to success which this tactic created.

by michael on September 4, 2013 at 8:35 am. #

Hi Michael. I did mention that Totti too played this role. However, he does not anymore, which led me to the conclusion that Messi and Suárez currently suit the role best. Such an article on Roma would be fascinating. Unfortunately my knowledge of Serie A is not good enough to write it :)

by Thore Haugstad on September 4, 2013 at 8:49 am. #

Ok by reading the article it sounds as if its implying there are only 2 players to have mastered the false 9. Makes sense if the article is referring to the present, not the past.

Fair enough, its a very interesting article btw!

by michael on September 5, 2013 at 5:42 am. #
An article written by michael cox on how rooney played false nine role brilliantly against arsenal.(2009-10 season)

by wazza on March 4, 2013 at 6:45 pm. #

Thanks Wazza. Very good article.

by Thore Haugstad on March 4, 2013 at 7:01 pm. #

Joey Barton is the best false-nine ever.

by I am Guardiola on March 4, 2013 at 3:34 am. #

Very good article!!!!

Another property which common to them and worth to mention is that each one of them can be stated as the one of the best “clinical finisher” in the world.

by Lior on March 2, 2013 at 11:31 am. #

i was wondering if there is a chance you have a link to the “Sky Sports analysis by Gary Neville a few months ago highlighted this point: Neville showed a clip in which Suárez took three different initiatives in 10 seconds.” I would be interested in watching it


by interesint on March 2, 2013 at 12:30 am. #

I did look for it on YouTube, but couldn’t find it. Neville is brilliant though. Could probably justify a DVD of his best moments. I’d buy it.

by Thore Haugstad on March 2, 2013 at 11:24 am. #

Özil’s movement is also great without the ball. He drifts wide, making it diffcult to track him and hence creating space for his teammates.

by Marek on February 28, 2013 at 3:04 pm. #

I’d say Jovetic’s movement when he plays upfront is amazing. I don’t know if it’s better than Suarez’s but it’s up there in the same category. He’s willing to go from sideline to sideline and he often drops behind the #10 playing off of him.

by Keith on February 27, 2013 at 10:59 pm. #

tevez was also great as a false 9

by fj on February 19, 2013 at 10:26 am. #

How about Fabregas in the Spain team during the 2012 European Championships? Might be interesting btw to do a tactic analysis on Spain.

by Koen on February 18, 2013 at 8:40 pm. #

You are right: he certainly played this role. I didn’t really analyse it, but most people considered the whole system ineffective until that sparkling final. Cesc probably not the best fit.

by Thore Haugstad on February 18, 2013 at 10:53 pm. #

Great article! If the rumours about Suarez going to Bayern is true then he could improve as a false nine under Guardiola.

by Afif on February 18, 2013 at 1:50 am. #