Arsenal 1-3 Manchester United: Wayne Rooney brilliantly demonstrates the value of a ‘false nine’

January 31, 2010

It’s one thing to go out, play to your manager’s orders and get results. It’s an entirely separate thing to go out and score great goals.

And when those two come together, you have perfect football. This doesn’t happen too often – playing to your manager’s orders is often associated with defensive, negative football – the term “X came with a gameplan” has been used in the past few years as a euphemism for “X played for a draw and didn’t look to score themselves”. And great goals are often moments of individual brilliance – a mazy run ending in a fine finish, or a powerful shot from miles out that deceives the goalkeeper and goes in.

But when you combine the two, it’s wonderful to watch. And that’s what United did today, simply by having two plans. Plan one, get the ball to Nani and tell him to run at Clichy. Plan two, tell Rooney to drop deep, pull the centre-backs out of position, and exploit the space with extra runners. The first plan led to the first goal, the second plan led to the third goal, and the second goal was a combination of the two.

This display probably won’t get the praise it deserves, because United were happy to switch off after the third goal, on 52 minutes, and coast to victory. Had they kept on playing, one gets the feeling they could have scored five or six, such was their dominance in wide areas (particularly against Clichy), and the more Arsenal pressed forward, the more United would have been able to exploit their weaknesses.

United dominated the midfield department because, whilst they had a triangle similar to Arsenal’s, United can switch their three players to meet the needs of the game (and the particular stage in the game). As Andy Gray made a big deal of, after about 2o minutes, United swapped Scholes and Carrick, and after that United had the better of the midfield battle. For Arsenal, the three midfield players are clearly-defined: Song is the destroyer, Denilson is the passer, Fabregas provides the driving runs. United’s three do a bit of everything, which created a more compact, solid three today. Ferguson doesn’t deserve a huge amount of credit for the switch – because it was utterly bizarre to have lined up with Scholes as the deepest midfield player. He tried this against Birmingham a few weeks back, and it didn’t work then – so to do so against Arsenal, when Scholes was going to be up against Fabregas, was very odd. Nevertheless, Ferguson understood his mistake and rectified it.

Here, the traditional striker holds the ball up, but the defence is well-stocked against two or three runners

Here, the 'false nine' drags one centre-back out of position, leaving the other covering too large an area in the centre of the pitch

But the real brilliance from United was Wayne Rooney, playing upfront on his own in a positive which us tactical obsessives now call the ‘false nine‘ – a player who is not an ‘out-and-out striker’ playing as a lone forward. In fact, with Arsenal deploying Arshavin similarly, this game demonstrated quite how far the role of the ‘false nine’ has come in a short space of time since Luciano Spalletti’s Roma side began playing without a striker in 2006. Only three years ago, it would be unthinkable to have a Premiership game where the two sides fielding such small, slender players as a lone strikers.

Arshavin had a poor game today, despite having the measure of Wes Brown, and is perhaps too concerned with direct running when he has the ball – as a lone forward this often means he has no teammates within 20m, and certainly not within sight. Rooney, however, understands the role brilliantly – coming deep to collect the ball, laying it off to runners exploiting the space the centre-backs have left vacant after following Rooney. The diagrams above left demonstrate this.

This worked perfectly for the second and third goals, both involved Rooney retreating deep into his own half, laying the ball off, and suddenly United had a huge amount of space to exploit.

The first goal is so brilliant because Rooney is the one who finishes the move, but also because Park’s initial ball from inside his own penalty area is so precise. Many players in his position would hoof the ball clear, but Park understands that even 90 metres from the opposition goal, a delicate chip here could set off an attack.

Arsenal didn’t learn from the first half. For Park’s goal, William Gallas had made a mad dash up the pitch – and so when Vermaelen followed Rooney, Arsenal were left without any centre-backs whatsoever, and Clichy was overloaded with players.

And it’s incredibly similar to the goal United scored against Arsenal at the Emirates last season, except with Cristiano Ronaldo operating as the frontman and Rooney operating as a wide player:

The short-term impact of this game will be the probably death of Arsenal’s title hopes, the long-term effect is that it is yet more convincing evidence for the imminent death of the traditional striker at top clubs.

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