Arsenal’s performance in dismantling Southampton 6-1 on Saturday was a delight for almost all watching, bar Southampton supporters of course.
The way the Gunners played was exhibition stuff at times. Amongst an array of star Gunners performers it was Gervinho who most caught the eye. Aside from his two goals, the first a fine drilled finish the second a tap in, it was the Ivorian’s role in the side that was most intriguing.
Gervinho lined up as Arsenal’s central attacking spearhead, flanked by Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. However, in reality, Gervinho was anything but central and essentially performed as a “false nine” with the freedom to play and run wherever and whenever he felt the need to. The redeployment of Gervinho, who is most nominally known as a wide player paid immediate dividends as the Southampton defenders simply did not know where or when to track the Ivorian in what was easily the most convincing performance of his Arsenal career to date.
Southampton however are bottom of the table of the reason and it will be interesting to see how Gervinho does in the role against better defenders. The Southampton backline were too easily drawn out of their defensive positions to follow their opponent, not only a risky strategy due to the Ivorian’s pace and ability to spin in behind them, but also leaving space that the likes of Santi Cazorla and Podolski gleefully exploited.
What Gervinho’s new position confirms however is that false nines are well and truly in vogue. This very modern trend in football arguably began with Roma’s team under Luciano Spalletti, where Francesco Totti was deployed as the central striker but constantly dropped deep to orchestrate play as a classic “false nine”. Manchester United’s league and Champions League winning team in 2008 also contained the likes of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, both not natural strikers, as attacking spearheads. However, these were very much examples against the norm.
Since Lionel Messi’s remarkably successful switch from the right to becoming Barcelona’s central striker, the interest in the “false nine” has exploded. The sheer amount of goals Messi scores perhaps masks the fact that he rarely parks himself by the penalty box in the mould of a true striker. Rather, many of Messi’s goals are him coming onto the ball from a deeper position in a classic “false nine” role. Barcelona’s success has led to Spain operating a similar formation, with Cesc Fabregas performing the role in Euro 2012 due to the poor form of Fernando Torres and injury to David Villa.
So what does the “false nine” actually offer? Teams may not be lucky enough to call upon the likes of Messi or Fabregas to take up the position but Gervinho’s performance yesterday is a classic example of it’s benefits. Defenders, who are often used to simplicity in the form of a marking a (usually) static forward, suddenly do not have a direct opponent to mark and are faced with the decision of either leaving the forward to their own devices and possibly suffering the consequences, or choosing to follow the striker, thus potentially causing the problems that Southampton experienced at the Emirates yesterday. Fundamentally, it’s the unexpected nature of the “false nine” role that makes it a success.
That is not to say the formation does not carry it’s faults. Gervinho may have impressed yesterday but there remained occasions where the Gunners literally had no presence up front to speak of. A few occasions saw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain head to the byline and pull it back into a penalty area empty of Arsenal attackers. The number nine may be “false” but he should not forget that the onus remains on him to score the goals. Even at Barcelona, there have been occasions when Lionel Messi has been stifled by the opposition, who aware of his want to drop deep, flood the midfield with defence-minded players prepared to sit in the pockets of space that “false nines” such as Messi want to take up. Additionally, when the “false nine” lacks pace as Totti did for Roma, he becomes easier for the defenders to pick up. Thus for the system to find success, the pace of the likes of Gervinho and Messi is key.
Whether Arsene Wenger continues to use Gervinho in the role long-term is questionable, particularly with Olivier Giroud signed for big money from Montpellier in the summer but against the lesser teams of the Premier League and the slower defences, the variety that Gervinho brings as the “false nine” could prove to be a match-winning one.