PORTO, Portugal (Reuters) – It is a term that once puzzled pundits and upset traditionalists but Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola says the ‘false nine’ brings out the best in his team, and it would be no surprise to see it used in Saturday’s Champions League final against Chelsea.
The unconventional tactic involves playing without a traditional centre-forward, or ‘number nine’, leading the attacking line but with either an advanced midfielder or a withdrawn striker in a deeper position.
The absence of the ‘nine’ gives no obvious player for central defenders to mark and encourages them to move out of the back-line to pick up the deeper player, thereby leaving space behind them that can be exploited.
It also creates a cluster of players in the pockets of space in front of the defence.
The approach has been so successful for City this season that Guardiola has used it in all but one of the knockout stage matches of this season’s Champions League campaign — meaning no place for centre-forwards Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero.
In an interview with BT Sport, conducted by former Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand, Guardiola explained the reasoning behind the tactic.
“It is have the central defenders, whoever plays, go 10 metres to pick him up. A little bit for this fact (also) to pass the ball, you have to have people closer,” he said.
“I always think when the passes are from distance, 15-20 metres, it is so easy for defenders, holding midfielders, when the pass is from two to three metres, it is more difficult,” he said.
Guardiola’s teams are famed for their possession football based around close passing. From his days at Barcelona, where he won two Champions League titles, to his Bundesliga-winning Bayern Munich side, and to City, who have won three of the last four Premier League titles.
The Spaniard says such an approach is part of his DNA.
“I love to pass the ball, I love to take the ball, pass the ball, I love it,” he said. “I don’t know, I was born in this culture and I like it. To do this, you have to put a lot of players (close to each other).”
But Guardiola is well aware that Chelsea are also adept at having players close enough together to allow for quick and accurate passing combinations.
“Why Chelsea play so good? Because they have three central defenders close, the two holding midfielders, the ‘pockets’ close, and the distances are so close and yet in the same time they are so wide with the wing-backs … that is why it is difficult to play against,” he said.
Guardiola came up against Chelsea’s coach Thomas Tuchel in the Bundesliga and says the German’s impact was evident from the moment he took over at the London club in January.
“I think it is massive (his impact), I saw his first game against Wolves, it was a draw but I saw some routines, some fundamentals, some processes that I remember when I faced him … especially Borussia Dortmund when he arrived there.”
Guardiola has a number of options for the ‘false nine’ role should he adopt it against Chelsea, with Portuguese midfielder Bernardo Silva the most likely to operate in that position.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Peter Rutherford)