What is a false nine and who plays it best?

Lauren James of Chelsea pointing
Lauren James of Chelsea during the FA Women's Continental Tyres League Cup Final match against Arsenal at Molineux on March 31, 2024. (Photo by Matt McNulty/Getty Images)

The false nine is one of the most well-known tactics in top-flight football. Today, we look at what the false nine is and highlight some of the best female ballers to have played it.

What is a false nine? 

The false nine is a tactic that allows the centre-forward the freedom to drop back into deeper positions on the pitch. Rather than playing the traditional poaching striking role, a false nine can link up play through advanced midfield positions, becoming a creator as well as a goal-getter.

For that reason, the false nine is a tricky position to play successfully. As well as being clinical in front of goal, the striker must be excellent on the pivot, competent in 1v1s, and have the speed to make late runs into the penalty box. The role was popularised in the modern game by Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi at Barcelona during the 2010/11 season.

Why is it called a false nine?

Modern football has moved away from traditional squad numbering, but remnants of the old systems remain. In the past, the numbers 1–11 were used to reflect a player’s role on the pitch. Under those conventions, the team’s primary striker wore the number nine.

The false nine, therefore, is the main striker who moves into ‘false’ or non-traditional positions.

Why does the false nine work?

When a false nine drops back into the midfield, they give the marking centre-backs two options. The defender can either be lured up the pitch and out of position, which creates space behind them for attacking players to exploit. Alternatively, they can maintain position and allow the false nine to pick up the ball and move forward without pressure. False nines can, therefore, wreak havoc on defensive lines. 

The false nine tactic also allows for more options in the counter-attack. Dropping back to the midfield offers the opportunity to overload the opposition with sheer numbers.

The best false nine female footballers

Messi may be the king of the false nine, but who is the queen? Here are some of the best active players who’ve proven themselves in the role: 

Alex Morgan

Morgan made her name as a traditional No. 9 and is currently the USWNT’s fifth all-time goal scorer. Since her return from pregnancy in 2020, Morgan has often been utilised as a false nine in the 4-3-3 formation for both club and country. Though not scoring with the same frequency anymore, this role change has allowed her to shine as a playmaker.

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In 2023, the 34-year-old was in the 80th percentile among NWSL forwards for progressive passes, and when it came to assists, she was in the 88th percentile.

Lauren James

Chelsea’s Sam Kerr and Mayra Ramírez play traditional No. 9 positions. With both out due to injury in March 2024, James assumed the false nine position with ease. Her prowess was particularly evident during the London derby triumph over Arsenal at Stamford Bridge.  

While it’s not the first time the England international has played in the role, it was a stark reminder that James is at her best when given the freedom to move around the pitch. Her dribbling intelligence and propensity to shoot from distance poses a nightmarish dilemma for opposing centre-backs. 

Jenni Hermoso

Hermoso featured in all seven of Spain’s games in their winning 2023 Women’s World Cup campaign, netting three goals and two assists. When playing for Spain, she is often disciplined within a midfield role, most recently because of the limited availability and minutes played by Alexia Putellas since 2022. However, Hermoso is arguably the best and most consistently deployed false nine in the women’s game.

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The Madrid-born forward began her career in the midfield before joining Barcelona in January 2014. During two stints and six and a half seasons with the Blaugrana, Hermoso developed the classic Barça flair in the false nine position. Her ability to create space was pivotal in big games for the club such as the 2020/21 Champions League Final. Additionally, the 33-year-old won the Pichichi Trophy for being the Liga F’s top goalscorer five times — a women’s record. Hermoso currently plays for reigning Liga MX Femenil champions, Tigres UANL.

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