In our last two games, Big Sam has adopted a new formation to send out onto the pitch as a result of the failings of Modibo Maiga up front on his own, or at least the failing to make it work. The formation Sam chose was inventive to say the least. Drawing inspiration for the incredible Spanish national team, he decided the best thing to do once he failed to bring in a decent back-up striker was to not play one at all. And so, the 4-6-0 formation was born. Well, born again, in East London, and its first assignment was on that day at White Hart Lane.
Now, when I first saw the team for the Tottenham game, I just assumed Vaz Te had replaced Maiga up front, and a false nine didn’t really cross my mind at all until later. Unfortunately, I didn’t bother to go this year after the horror show I saw us put on at the same ground last year, and beforehand I could only see an even worse result this time around. But incredibly we got the result, and as I sat down that night to watch possibly the greatest Match of the Day 2 in living memory, it first occurred to me we had actually played a false nine. I’d heard Tottenham fans say Big Sam out-thought Villas-Boas, and tactically got it spot on, but it wasn’t until MOTD claimed Diame was our closest thing to a striker in the line-up that I twigged. Not having certain ‘Tiki-Taka’ capabilities in our squad, you wouldn’t have thought it possible.
And I must admit, I had mixed emotions about the false nine. The first was just pure delight and appreciation. Allardyce had studied Spurs, brought this formation to try and stop them, and it worked an absolute treat. We didn’t give them many chances at all, went on counter attacks of our own and looked dangerous, and just generally fully deserved the win. Dawson and Vertonghen evidently struggled without a specific man sticking up front for them to mark, and things got more and more difficult for them. Once we got the first, it seemed to me Tottenham fell apart completely, as shown in Morrison’s goal. Take nothing away from Ravel, it was an unbelievable goal, but you don’t often see a player just seamlessly run through the Spurs midfield and then past the two centre backs and finish, without even a suggestion of a tackle. Once again, we deserved the win, the formation worked beautifully, and at the end of the day, any formation that gets us a 3-0 win at Tottenham would go down well wouldn’t it!
However, as good as that result was, I had my doubts. After all, the first time I actually saw a false nine was Spain in Euro 2012 against Italy. This was the game in the group stages, where they drew 1-1, not the final where they ran away with it. I wasn’t impressed by it at all during that game, though. I just found it boring to watch, and I thought Spain were lacking that striker, as all their short passing just took place on the edge of the box, which Italy were happy to defend until one of the Spanish players made a mistake, where they could capitalize on the counter attack, which they did for their goal. And this made me think, the false nine was used for completely different purposes by us and Spain. Spain are full of incredibly technically gifted players who will have the lion’s share of possession every game they play, so the false nine allows them more players in midfield to keep the ball, leaving the opposition defence confused with no specific player to mark. The midfield have the ability to keep knocking about, patiently keeping possession until one of them decides to make a forward run, without being tracked. They then have the ability to spot the pass and slip him through. We used it, however, when we knew we would have little possession. We knew, for example, Spurs would keep the ball and put us under pressure, so by us employing the false nine we got an extra body in midfield, with the intent to soak up pressure, keep the ball when we needed to, and counter attack quickly, with the Spurs defence not having their specific player to mark up front. In that way, it worked for us.
But that was what worries me. Better teams than Tottenham currently (or at least better than Tottenham were that day) will still be able to break us down. This was shown on Saturday, against Man City. Forgetting the second goal, where the smallest player on the pitch managed to get a free header from about 10 yards out, the other two stemmed from one pass down the middle. The first set Aguero free, and he wasn’t going to miss a one-on-one, and the third set Aguero free again, only to tee up David Silva this time. Furthermore, as we were at home, we needed more of an attacking threat than the false nine gave us. We didn’t really look like scoring during the game, but in the 15 minute spell in the second half that we did, the balls coming into the box from Downing and Jarvis had nobody to meet them, whereas with a striker playing you’d think they’d get on the end of a couple. So not only did it not work there, but in games against beatable teams, especially at home, we would have the same problem as Spain in that Italy game, just more drastic. We would possibly have more possession, and just be camped on the edge of the box, with our players not as good at keeping the ball. The opposition defence would become wise to it after a while, the forward runs would get less frequent, without the same ability to slip the ball on a plate for them when the runs were made, and on top of it all, we would be vulnerable to the counter attack.
So all in all, I’m delighted the false nine worked at White Hart Lane, but I can’t help but feel that was a one off. If we have games like Spurs away in the near future we might want to use it again, but once Andy Carroll returns I’d much prefer to see a similar formation to last season, with Carroll leading the line. In my humble opinion, that would be much more effective for a team like us, and we’d turn Upton Park into a bit of a fortress again, like last year. But after winning 3-0 at Tottenham, no doubt Big Sam’s ‘False Nine’ will always hold a special place in my heart!