If you haven’t already, make sure you read Lisgarfund’s excellent breakdown on Brazil vs Holland from the 1998 World Cup.  In the meantime, here’s a little amuse-bouche to whet your appetite for Brazil vs Uruguay later tonight.  (A 3,000+ word amuse-bouche, because I’m addicted to words, apparently.) 

If media predictions hold true, Dunga will continue an experiment he began against Peru several months ago, with Neymar as a false nine flanked by Willian and Douglas Costa.  It’s an experiment I’ve wanted him to make for a long time, for one very simple reason:

It puts our three most in-form attackers on the pitch at the same time.

There’s another reason, far less prescient but of historical interest: with only one exception, every single notable Brazil side has had a talisman in a central role.  Think Didi in 1958 (not to mention Pele and Vava.)[1]  Think Pele again in 1970.  Rivelino in 1978.  Zico in 1982.  Romario in 1994.  Ronaldo in 1998 and 2002.

The only exception, of course, is Garrincha, who propelled Brazil to victory in 1962.

By and large, however, Brazil’s best players have been centrally based.  Many of us have decried the fact that the recent trend in Brazil’s domestic league is to take its best and most promising talent and shunt them out to the wings.  Aside from the fact that it’s probably detrimental to Brazil’s future, it’s also a betrayal of its past.

Of course, there’s no law that says Brazil’s best player has to play in the center.  It’s certainly possible that Neymar-as-false-nine might not work, in which case he’ll return to the left-wing-cum-free-role that we’re all used to.  And from that position, Neymar may well yet lead Brazil to glory.

But it also makes sense that Brazil’s best player should play in a more central position whenever possible.  The center is where the bulk of the action occurs.  The center is where a player can have the maximum amount of impact and control over the game.  And generally speaking, the center is where the ball needs to be in order for it to be scored.

Despite his reputation as a stubborn (justified) and out-of-touch (perhaps justified) manager, it’s to Dunga’s credit that he’s been willing to experiment with one of football’s most recent tactical innovations right from the start.[2]  It almost seems like ancient history now, but Dunga played Diego Tardelli in a kind of false nine role up until his banishment after the Copa America.  Tardelli has gone the way of the old Silk Road now, and Neymar is the new false nine…but will it last?  More to the point, will it work?

There are certainly issues to overcome.  Let’s look at those issues now before delving into what Neymar (and the rest of the team) need to do in order for this experiment to succeed.

False Nine Theory

The false nine, in truth, is a rather ambiguous term that can be interpreted many different ways.  In fact, I would argue that despite all the press it gets, a genuine false nine is actually a rarity in football.

So what exactly is a false nine?  Let’s start with something pretty much everyone can agree on: a false nine is a striker who routinely drops into a deeper position.[3]

I’ve emphasized the word routinely, because too often nowadays you will hear pundits describe any striker as a false nine the moment he ventures into a deeper position.  No, a real false nine has to do it often – by personal inclination and tactical instruction.  Because really, the idea of a striker dropping deep is not new.  Matthias Sindelar was doing it for Australia all the way back in the 1930s.  Both Pele and Tostao were described in their day as a ponta da lance, or “point of the spear” because of how they would drop deep  and act as a kind of arrow-head in the midfield, driving the ball into the final third.  In the 1980s, Maradona bore the label of trequartista, essentially a withdrawn forward who operated deeper than a more advanced center forward did.  By and large, though, a false nine is simply a trequartista who doesn’t have a center forward in front of him.  Stylistically, the way a false nine and a trequartista operate is very similar.

Even quote-unquote “out and out strikers” like Ronaldo frequently dropped deep the collect the ball.  Watch Ronaldo for Inter, or in the 1998 World Cup, and you’ll see a center forward spending a lot of time in fairly deep positions.

So what’s the point in using the term false nine?  What’s the point in describing Neymar as one?

The answer is, there’s no point at all unless Dunga specifically instructs the team to take advantage of the fact that Neymar is dropping deep. 

This, this, this is the real innovation behind what Pep Guardiola did when he shifted Lionel Messi to the center against Real Madrid on May 2, 2009.  When Messi moved into the center and dropped deep, that wasn’t the real innovation.  It was the way Guardiola instructed his entire team to play around Messi’s movement.

The whole idea behind a false nine is that, to quote the great Jonathan Wilson, “It disrupts opponents marking structures.”  In a traditional four-man back-line, the two center backs are used to either marking two center forwards, or having one center-back mark and the other cover.  But when a false nine drops deep, suddenly the center-backs have no one directly to mark.  This can pose a quandary: does one center-back follow the false nine?  That can leave space open behind.  It also can cause confusion between the two center backs, and if their respective moments aren’t in sync, the defense’s entire shape goes out the window.

By contrast, if the center-backs choose not to follow, this essentially allows the false nine to overload the midfield.  Or, if a defensive midfielder does not pick up the false nine, he’ll be able to collect the ball with time and space to drive forward.  And if that false nine bears the name of Lionel Messi, you assuredly do not want to allow him the time and space to drive forward.

But here’s the rub: what if the false nine drops deep, dragging a center-back with him, and his teammates do nothing to exploit the space created as a result? 

Then the whole point of a false nine goes out the window.

Or, try this scenario: what if the false nine drops deep, but his midfielders cannot be relied on to quickly and accurately get the ball to him? 

For that matter, what if the false nine drops deep and collects the ball, but is immediately swarmed by multiple defenders who have no qualms about leaving the false nine’s teammates unmarked, knowing they are unlikely to cause any damage? 

These are the problems facing Brazil.  This is why having a false nine isn’t automatically guaranteed to work.

***

When Diego Tardelli played as false nine, it actually worked surprisingly well until the Copa America.  This isn’t because Tardelli himself was particularly brilliant, but because his movement created space for Neymar to move into.  In a sense, the moment Tardelli dropped deep, Neymar became a genuine striker.  Against middling opposition or high lines, this could be deadly.  Observe Neymar’s first two goals against Japan.  In both cases, Tardelli drops deep.  Suddenly, Japan’s back-line is ragged and uncertain.  Neymar then surges into the space vacated by Tardelli, and receives a fine pass in response (first by Tardelli himself, second by Coutinho.)

All this went out the window in the Copa America.  Against strong opposition, Tardelli just didn’t have enough technique to be able to fulfill the false nine role, and there was too little space for Neymar to make those kinds of runs effectively.

Neymar, however, has both the movement and technique to succeed in a false nine role.  That’s especially true given the growth he’s shown this season for Barcelona.  The moment Messi went down injured, Neymar began spending more time in the center, pulling the strings, driving at defenses, and creating chances for his teammates.  Really, if football had a Most Improved Player award, Neymar would be a strong contender to win it.[4]

Watch this video to see what I’m talking about:

Some of these passes can only be described by saying, Holy $!#*%$(!  And that’s not even necessarily because the pass was particularly special, or because it was perfectly accurate, but because it was the absolute correct pass to make.

For most of Neymar’s career, you simply couldn’t say that about him.  It’s never been a question of ability, but a question of decision-making, of confidence of understanding.  Neymar’s pass to Suarez at 0:54 is a perfect example.

Neymar pass to Suarez

A year ago, Neymar wouldn’t even attempt that pass.  Either he wouldn’t have enough confidence to try it, or more likely, he’d prefer to keep the ball at his feet, trusting himself rather than his teammates.  I even wrote a short article about this during the World Cup.

Neymar can back up this newfound penchant for playmaking with his improved dribbling.  The whole world has known about his improvisational skill for years, but improvisation will only take you so far.  Even last season, Neymar wasn’t a consistently effective dribbler.  He had a frustrating tendency to hang onto the ball too long, then dribble into rather then around traffic.  Worse, he liked to run directly at defenders, baiting them to make a tackle, and then try to evade the tackle using his lightning-fast reflexes.  When it worked, it was awesome.  But in a high level league like Spain, it just doesn’t work very often.

This season, he’s utilized two more reliable skills: close control and pace.  Now, he keeps the ball closer to his feet, targeting the space around the defender, forcing his marker to adjust or try to keep up.  As a result, he’s now the most successful dribbler in all of Europe, and even his old Santos-era tricks are starting to come off far more regularly.

(By the way, for a more statistical look at Neymar’s improvement, check out this excellent article by Michael Cox for Four Four Two.)

It’s hard not to watch this new Neymar and salivate over what he could do with Brazil.  For that reason, I have no doubt he has the ability to succeed as a false nine.  Of course, ability is only part of the equation.  Understanding is another, and that’s a variable Neymar still needs to solve for the false nine experiment to work.

Neymar’s performance as a false nine against Peru was a case of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Let’s look at each in reverse order:

The ugly

Neymar has displayed tremendous growth this year, but he’s still liable to fall back on old habits when he’s frustrated, either because he isn’t getting enough touches, or because he’s annoyed with a lack of protection from the referee.  Against Peru, for example, he spent most of the match tangling and tussling with his markers, throwing himself to the floor and trying to win free-kicks.  As a result, he never really generated any momentum or rhythm for himself.  And if he wasn’t doing that, he hung onto the ball for too long or dribbled into desperately difficult situations.  (This was even more of a problem against Argentina.)

Neymar doesn’t have the best track record against South American opposition, largely because they are so physical with him.  That’s only going to get worse the longer the qualifying campaign goes – and it’ll be even more difficult if he’s in the center.  If Neymar can’t play with greater calm and focus, he simply won’t be able to succeed as a false nine under these sorts of conditions.

The bad

I had to watch the Peru match over again before I raised this question:

Are we even sure that Neymar played as a false 9 against Peru?  The media narrative was and still is that Neymar played as a false nine, but honestly, I’m not convinced.

Remember, a false nine is a striker who routinely drops deep – but honestly, Neymar didn’t spend much time dropping deep against Peru.  He spent most of the match in the center, yes, but I counted more off-ball runs behind the defense than moments when he dropped deep to run at the defense.  This was even more apparent against Argentina.

For example, this sort of thing was common:

Neymar what kind of 9

It’s hard for me to believe that Dunga told Neymar to play as a false nine, only for Neymar to spend more time farther up the field than anyone else.  Remember, Neymar’s predilection has always been to drop deeper to receive the ball.  That was true for Santos, it’s been true for Brazil, and he even does it a fair bit at Barcelona.  It seems far more likely to me that Neymar was doing exactly what Dunga instructed him to do: operate as a genuine #9, which is a whole different issue with a whole different set of challenges to overcome.  Do we really want a player with Neymar’s build and Neymar’s talents to spend most of the match waiting for the ball to be played over the top?

The good

All that said, there were still some important benefits that came with Neymar in a #9 role, whether that role was false or true.  To put it simply, he occupied so much of Peru’s attention that it allowed Willian and Douglas Costa, excellent players in their own right, to thrive.  Neither had to face the kind of double-coverage Neymar so often did, and since both excel in 1v1 situations, they were able to cause real havoc as the match went on.  So even when Neymar is not playing well, the threat of Neymar serves as a superb decoy.  And herein lies one of the benefits to fielding Neymar as a false nine: it’s probably the only formation that allows all three to play together at the same time without sacrificing defensive solidity or midfield control.

***

I’ve been rather hard on Neymar over the past few paragraphs, so let me finish that section by saying that Neymar remains Brazil’s best player, and it isn’t even close.  I’m confident that Neymar will keep improving and sort these issues out.

But there’s a bigger issue to be sorted out, and that’s how the team plays with Neymar as a false nine.

I said above that Dunga deserves credit for experimenting so liberally with the false nine concept.  The problem, however, is that he hasn’t set his team up to benefit from a false nine.

Remember those scenarios I listed above?  Here they are again:

What if the false nine drops deep, dragging a center-back with him, and his teammates do nothing to exploit the space created as a result?

What if the false nine drops deep, but his midfielders cannot be relied on to quickly and accurately pass the ball to him?

What if the false nine drops deep and collects the ball, but is immediately swarmed by multiple defenders who have no qualms about leaving the false nine’s teammates unmarked, knowing they are unlikely to cause any damage?

These aren’t theoretical.  All these have plagued Brazil for years.

Let’s start with scenario one.  Neymar drops deep, but his teammates do nothing to exploit the resulting space.

Here’s one of the few instances where Neymar did drop deep.  Notice a problem?

Neymar false 9

There’s no one available to take advantage of the space Neymar vacated.  Neither Douglas Costa nor Willian move into the center to receive a pass, nor do they make runs forward.  They stand there, waiting for the ball to be played to their feet.

Similarly, after Renato Augusto passes the ball to Neymar, he just stands there.  It would have been far better had he moved forward IMMEDIATELY to overlap Neymar, giving him someone to combine with.[5]  But neither he nor Elias has any thought to do this.

In football, the only way to reliably create space is through movement.  Neymar did his part here; no one else did there’s.  Similarly, the only ways to exploit space are dribbling, passing, or again, movement.  Neymar can do the first two but he certainly needs help with the third.

This is a major tactical concern with Neymar as a false nine.  What’s the point of him dropping deep if no one takes advantage of the space it creates?  But this team is not set up to create or exploit space, not unless it’s on a counter-attack.  Too many of the players Dunga calls up have neither the technique nor the tactical know-how.

Second, what if Neymar drops deep and the midfield can’t get the ball to him?  This isn’t hard to imagine, given how hard Brazil has found it over the years to keep possession or advance the ball without relying on hoofing it out of the back.

Third, what if Neymar drops back, receives the ball, and is immediately swarmed by multiple defenders who don’t worry about the midfielders hurting them?

Surely this needs no further explanation.

Conclusion

At Dunga’s most recent press conference, he stated his preference for a highly mobile front line.  I agree with this thinking completely.

The problem is, a highly mobile front line means nothing if the rest of the team isn’t set up to support it – or if the members of that front line aren’t attuned to how to play with a false nine, which is the role a mobile front line is most singularly suited for.

It will be very interesting to see if any improvements are made over the next two matches.  It will also be interesting to see whether Neymar truly functions as a false nine or as simply a highly mobile traditional nine.  But two things I know for sure: if Neymar plays and grows into his role as a false nine, and if the team is built and bred to function around that role, it could be one of the best things possible for Brazil.  The center is almost ways where the best, most technical players belong, and for Brazil, Neymar is both.[6]

I think the worst thing that can happen though, is that Dunga merely dabbles with the notion of Neymar as a false nine, and then abandons the idea if it doesn’t bring instant results.  For this to work, he has to ensure Neymar truly operates as a false nine and not a traditional one, while instructing his team on how to function with the concept of a false nine.  And he has to be committed to making the project work.

Sadly, the last two decades don’t give me much faith that management will display that kind of long-term thinking.  But we’ll know more after next week.

In the meantime, you can use this post for match commentary for Brazil vs Uruguay later today.


 

[1] Taj and I once had a very interesting discussion on who Brazil’s best player (or most important, I can’t remember which term precisely) was in 1958.  I’ve always plumped for Didi.  He makes a compelling argument for Garrincha.  For now, I’m going to stick with Didi.

[2] Don’t worry, Brazil82 and Taj – this will be the last time I compliment Dunga in this article.

[3] As I was doing a quick proofreading pass on this article, it struck me that “occupies” might be more accurate than “drops into” but that’s an issue for another day.

[4] The media would probably give it to Jamie Vardy, though.

[5] This is actually something I think Lucas Lima could potentially excel at.

[6] Alternatively, if Brazil were to find a truly world-class center forward, enabling Neymar to adopt a more trequartista­-like role, that would also be acceptable.