THE FALSE NINE
And Lessons Learnt from Euro 2012
By Ajit Chaudhuri
“22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, at the end, Spain always wins”
Another European football championship is over, and life goes into a limbo until mid-August, when the leagues begin again. What have I learnt from those three weeks that I was (mentally) in Poland and Ukraine? This note attempts to list these down, and to make sense out of them. Non-fans, please don’t disappear – being up to date on the nuances of football has positive externalities – zap your friends, your children, and their friends by pontificating on the terms ‘4-6-0’, ‘tiki-taka’ and ‘false 9’, and rise in their esteem.
Lesson 1: Eastern Europe can hold an important football tournament! There was some nervousness around this, given that the last major sports event in Eastern Europe was the Moscow Olympics, and the general feeling is that this was one of the better Euros. There were some screw-ups (the lottery of the draw had Russia play Poland in Warsaw on Russia Day with obvious consequences), some petty theft (including soccernet.com’s editor’s computer, about which the site’s readers were subjected to a whiny editorial) and some non-events (including an eagerly anticipated topless protest by the Ukrainian feminist group Femen – google it – at the final in Kiev that didn’t happen), but on the whole the locals were friendly, the racists were mostly visiting fans, and the main complaints were on mundane matters such as hotel prices. Sadly, I have to add that Eastern Europe cannot play football – the Poles and Czechs were an insult to great teams of the past, Russia was typically pathetic, and the best that could be said of Ukraine is that there were three players who could possibly ply their trade in better leagues.
Lesson 2: UEFA are bozos! We Indians think we have a monopoly on un-accountable fiefdoms masquerading as sports bodies, but we have much to learn from FIFA and UEFA. Goal line technology is yet to be introduced (and yet another critical goal was disallowed because of this), and the fine for Denmark’s Nic Bendtner flashing his underpants (and, with it, the name of an Irish bookie firm) after scoring a goal was more than that for the Croatia fans racially abusing Mario Balotelli. PS – don’t feel too bad for Nic – the bookies have very kindly agreed to pay the fine. IPL – take pointers from the masters!
Lesson 3: Respect and familiarity are not essential ingredients of teamwork! I always believed that defending in football requires teamwork, and teamwork requires mutual respect and familiarity. This has taken a toss – Spain’s defenders are aligned along the Real Madrid – Barcelona fault lines, and they actively dislike and disrespect each other (especially central defenders Ramos and Pique, right back Arbeloa, and defensive midfielder Busquets), but this didn’t show in a tournament in which they were collectively awesome.
Lesson 4: You have to evolve to keep winning! The only downside of winning is that personnel and tactics get set in stone, and football is replete with defending champions making fools of themselves. Spain is an exception – it has won the Euro 2008, the World Cup 2010, and the Euro 2012, and lost only one game across the three tournaments. What is it doing differently? I have watched all three finals that Spain has played, and one pointer is that only 4 players (Casillas, Ramos, Xavi and Iniesta) have started all three games. The tactics, too, have changed considerably. Allow me to expound!
In 2008, Spain played a 4-1-2-3 formation, with a traditional centre forward (Torres) flanked by a striker (Villa) and a winger (Silva) in front. In the midfield there were two creators (Xavi and Iniesta) and a man (Senna) protecting the back four in defence. In 2010, the formation changed to 4-2-2-2 – with two men shielding the defence (Busquets and Alonso) and no traditional centre forward. 2012 introduced the highly controversial tactic of a forward-less 4-6-0 – no strikers, no wingers, a ‘false 9’ up front (basically a midfielder taking the position of a traditional centre forward, or no. 9, at critical moments in the game), and ‘tiki-taka’ in the midfield (a system of short passing, slow movement towards the opposing goal, and focus on retention of possession).
The system has worked – opposing defences do not know who to mark when confronted with a ‘false 9’, more so because the ‘false 9’ keeps changing. Though Fabregas was the designated ‘false 9’ for most of Spain’s games, unimpeded headed goals by Silva (in the final) and Alonso (against France) in the ‘false 9’ position point to the success of the tactic. Importantly, Spain was able to change tactics when it wished – introductions of Torres and Navas brought the cut and thrust of a traditional no. 9 and winger respectively into the game, and its marauding wing-backs were also able to generate attacks.
Is ‘tiki-taka’ going to be the way of the future? I doubt it – it requires the personnel, and by a statistical fluke Spain has an exceptional generation at the helm. The critical Xavi – Iniesta combination is not going to happen again, despite the hype about production lines at the Barcelona youth academy (old timers like me would remember similar eulogies in the mid-90s about the Ajax academy, and we all know where Ajax is today). Enjoy it while it lasts!
Lesson 5: The ‘deep-lying playmaker’ has returned! This involves creating attacks from far back, and the position has only two exponents at the world stage at this time, but what exponents – Andrea Pirlo of Italy and Xabi Alonso of Spain. The advantages of building attacks around a ‘deep-lying playmaker’ were most obvious in Italy’s semi-final against Germany. Germany has a brilliant young team, but a suspect central defence – Badstuber is a moron (I concede that Bayern Munich’s and Germany’s coaches don’t share my opinion) and Hummels has never played at this level before – and even the Greeks scored two goals from one opportunity on goal. This doesn’t show too often because they are protected by one of the best defensive shields in the business (Schweinsteiger and Khedira). In this game, Pirlo rendered the German shield ineffective by creating the attacks from so far back that he could not be marked – thus leaving the German defence to deal with Italian forwards Balotelli and Cassano by themselves. I hope that coaches and tactical systems will now encourage players in this almost extinct position.
Lesson 6: There are no Maradonas! Great players need good players around them to be effective. The description of Portugal as a one-player team was simply wrong – there was great support for Ronaldo all around; a defence that played to potential, and a midfield that created and defended. This was the best Portugal team that I have seen (and I have seen the so-called ‘golden generation’ of Figo, et al) and it was no accident that they were able to play Spain through to penalties – the only lacking was a good centre forward.
Lesson 7: Rethink singing national anthems before games! There were no Borat moments (Euro 2008 had the Swiss hosts playing a 1930s German national anthem, with all its Nazi connotations, for a German game, and the world shooting championship in Kuwait played the spoof national anthem from the film ‘Borat’ for a gold medal winner from Kazakhstan), but there were plenty of mutterings. TV cameras and on-field mikes focus on the players during the rendering of the national anthems, and make who sings (and who doesn’t – usually players with ethnic minority, immigrant or refugee backgrounds) obvious to audiences. The German line-up had only the Germanics singing – the Poles (Klose and Podolski), Africans (Khedira and Boateng) and Turk (Ozil) didn’t, to much discussion on German TV on issues such as patriotism, gratefulness, and willingness to fight for the country. Did the Spaniards, with their deep divisions between Castilians, Catalans and Basques, sing? They can’t – the Spanish national anthem has no words!
Lesson 8: It’s the midfield, stupid! Games are won and lost in the battle for the ball at the centre of the park – this enables ball possession, and possession enables a team to do things. Good teams have strong, well-balanced and diverse midfields, with attacking midfielders, defensive midfielders and wingers along with variations such as deep lying playmakers, trequartistas (playmakers who operate ahead of the midfield, like Ozil and Modric), and media puntas (who operate between lines, such as Lampard and Silva). The opposite of possession football, absorbing pressure and hitting on the counter, is the preferred tactic of B-grade teams (such as Greece).
Lesson 9: My beloved England will have to change to compete! England did not do badly – it won its group, it didn’t shame itself while losing to Italy on penalties, and it left the tournament undefeated in open play. And yet, the takeaway is similar to that from those two games in 1953 and 1954 (3-6 and 1-7 losses to Puskas’s Hungary) that led to widespread changes in tactical nous, coaching systems and footballing philosophy. As an astute old lady apocryphally observed ‘doesn’t being technically superior mean that you play better football?’ And vice versa! There is only so far that you can go with the combination of 4-4-2 and old fashioned grit. Changes have to take place from the grassroots upwards. Else, English players can continue to book their holidays to coincide with the end of the quarters at major tournaments.
And finally – the big question for the World Cup 2014 – how should a team play Spain? A pointer to me was a Champion’s League match in October 2009 at the Camp Nou between FC Barcelona and Rubin Kazan that the latter won 1-2, in which the defensive midfielder for Rubin, Sergei Semak, had the game of his life – you have to fight for the midfield. Else, pray for ageing legs, Barca-Real divides, and Brazil’s beaches and nightlife to do some damage.