Ireland team needs to embrace the future of football and the false nine role

by Dylan O'Connell

A familiar theme in Irish football in recent years has been the country’s lack of goals and the absence of an experienced striker to put away chances. 

It’s a sore subject, and one which has grown exponentially since Robbie Keane hung up his boots after Euro 2016, a competition which saw the Boys in Green score 22 times in 14 games (19 in 10 qualifiers/3 in 4 tournament matches). 

Ever since that Euros, Ireland have only found the net  26 in 34 competitive games, with the majority of goals coming from set pieces. 

It’s a record best highlighted by the country’s competitive record, which only has victories against Wales, Georgia, and Gibraltar since 2016. In fact the majority of results over the last five years have been 1-1 draws, most of which have been spirited come-backs after going behind in the first half. 

While Irish football discourse has been rightly dominated by the lack of goals since 2016, fans and pundits have been reluctant to address the absence of a clear centre forward who can operate between the midfield and forward lines. 

It was a position previously belonging to Wes Hoolahan, the quick footed Dubliner who rose to prominence during Ireland’s run to the last sixteen of Euro 2016. 

His position has undergone a sort of reinvention over the last ten years, with the role now seen as the future of European forward lines.  

The new look attacker is one which transcends the traditional role centre forward/striker. It’s not so much about getting into the area and putting away chances, but operating in the space between the forward and midfield line.

The position is called a false nine, and it means that there is no obvious player for central defenders to mark. This encourages them to move out of position, which creates space for the opposition to exploit.

Barcelona brought this into mainstream football discourse in 2009, when Lionel Messi played in that position against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu. His role that night was one to provide midfield cover and create space, which he did excellently.

Not only did he give Barcelona a numerical advantage in the centre, his movement dragged the Madrid defense out of position, creating room for one of the other Barcelona forwards to run into the area. 

The Catalans triumphed 6-2 that evening, and a few weeks later won the treble, before completing a clean sweep of silverware that December. 

After that game, Pep Guardiola repeatedly utilised this system in big games, such as the 2009 Champions League Final and the 2011 Club World Cup Final. Spain took inspiration and used this template during Euro 2012, with Cesc Fàbregas starting their opening game against Italy in that false nine role. 

The use of the false nine as an attacking threat has exploded in recent years. Just look at Liverpool, who won a near clean sweep of honours from 2018-20 with Roberto Firmino operating in that position.

The Brazilian originally joined the Reds as a creative midfielder, but was shoe horned into that role for a trip to Manchester City in November 2015. He was excellent that day in a 4-1 victory, with his ability to create space and pull City’s defense apart. 

The 2020/21 Premier League season saw a number of top clubs use this system. Manchester City regularly rotated between Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva and Kevin de Bruyne as the spearhead of their false nine formation which won the title.

Tottenham Hotspur experimented with a false nine last year, with Harry Kane dropping deep. Chelsea used Kai Havertz in that role at times last season, which led to victories against Crystal Palace and Everton. 

Players who can operate in a false nine role can be defined by a number of different terms. In Argentina, they are called an ‘enganche’ which means an attacking midfielder.

In Germany, raumdeuter, which means ‘interpreter of space’ is a position that Thomas Müller has made this role his own. The ‘raumdeuter’ is a close cousin to the false nine position, as they both involve creating space, playing a pass, and running in between lines. 

A player built for a position like that would thrive in Stephen Kenny’s Irish team as they could create space for Aaron Connolly or Adam Idah. They could also drop back and assist the build-up play from midfield, while adding an attacking flare.   

The current National Development plan gives primacy to the 4-3-3 formation, with the FAI seeing it as ‘the best format in which to develop young players’ because ‘roles can be clearly outlined and there is a greater set of options for passing, ball retention etc which facilitates learning and provides flexibility in attacking and defending.’

While there is no mention of a creative midfielder in the plan, the position should be looked at by the FAI going forward, especially with the organisation undergoing a strategic review. The position can naturally be inserted into the current 4-3-3 philosophy, without disrupting the whole curriculum. 

If the country wants to embrace the future of football, the creation of versatile spatially awareminded midfielders’ needs to be given a priority.