In order to put forth a list of great false 9s, we need to first understand what the definition of a false 9 is.
The number 9 shirt has largely been reserved for football’s best goal scorers – the players that sit on the shoulder of the last defender, getting across the front post, ultimately being in the right place to score as many goals as humanely possible.
The false 9 functions not to shoulder the burden of goal scoring, but to facilitate the attack and be much more involved in the build up. These players require great technical ability, to not only operate in tight spaces between the lines as they drop into the midfield, but also to progress the ball through passing and carrying. Coaches that utilise a false 9 tend to favour possession-based football, with the striker dropping to link up with the midfield and provide high percentage options to the rest of their team.
Coaches’ Voice define the false 9 as ‘a centre-forward who repeatedly moves towards the ball in deeper positions from a high starting position’. The main purpose of the deep-lying striker is ‘to get on the ball away from the opposition centre-backs – and, in doing so, to draw players out of position and disrupt the defence’.
But in case you’re a visual learner, Tifo Football explain the false 9 in the video below.
So, who is the best false 9 in history?
The first time we saw a false 9 that even closely resembles those of the modern game was Matthias Sindelar. Captain of the Austrian team that lifted the World Cup in 1934, he was nicknamed the ‘Mozart of Football’, and deserves to be mentioned, but he doesn’t make the cut in the list of the nine best false 9s ever.
9 – Carlos Tevez
The Argentine did not choose this role, but through injury he was almost forced to be deployed as a false 9. Playing for Manchester United in the 2007-08 season under Sir Alex Ferguson, Tevez was valued for his tenacity and teamwork which was evident as he played behind the infamous pair of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo who scored a combined 60 goals, many due to Tevez’s play.
8 – Cesc Fabregas
The Spaniard is the first of many former Barcelona players on this list.
Fabregas was part of the dominant Spanish side that won 3 trophies between 2008 and 2012. That side that did involve some great attacking talent in Fernando Torres and David Villa, but under Vincente Del Bosque, the tiki-taka era was in full swing and the midfielders were kings in Spain. In order to utilise all this midfield talent, Fabregas was used as a false 9 where he could drop deeper and link the play.
He may have been ranked higher if he had played this position more frequently throughout his career.
7 – Harry Kane
Under Jose Mourinho, Harry Kane was utilised as a false 9 at Tottenham Hotspur.
Kane is known for his incredible scoring ability and finishing, but in the false 9 he was allowed to showcase his playmaking ability – and boy did he show it! In 35 league games, the England captain led the league for both scoring (23) and assists (14) in the 2020/21 season and was many people’s picks for player of the season – however Kevin De Bruyne managed to win it somehow!
With 200 league goals and counting, Kane will probably end his career as one of the best 9s in history, but not the best false 9.
6 – Karim Benzema
The French Ballon d’Or winner in 2022 has proved he is one of football’s elite strikers, with the ability to do anything he has been asked to do.
But under Zinedine Zidane he was instructed to play in much deeper areas, sometimes even finding himself drifting wide to support the forward runs of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. Under Zizou, Karim Benzema was clearly effective with 108 goals and 49 assists in 217 appearances and 9 trophies in a three-year spell – 3 of which were Champions Leagues – under the French head coach.
Benzema, much like Kane, has played his best football in a more advanced forward position, hence the low placement in these rankings.
5 – Francesco Totti
In 2006, Roma coach Luciano Spalletti found himself with no fit centre-forwards at his disposal. Instead of spending money in the market, he decided to go a different route.
Francesco Totti is unlike most of the names on this list, in that he is not a striker by any means. But in the 2005-2006 season he was forced to act as one. Usually deployed an attacking midfielder behind the striker, Totti was now the false 9. He was still linking up play like a number 10 would, but in 2007 he went on to win the European Golden Boot with 26 goals, displaying his clear ability to adapt to playing more advanced.
Totti playing this role led to the revival of the false 9 and is one of the reasons we see the role deployed more frequently in the 21st century. Totti is undoubtedly a Giallorossi legend, now and forever.
4 – Roberto Firmino
Bobby Firmino is up next – the Brazilian narrowly misses out on a place on the podium, but that doesn’t lessen the impact he has had as a false 9 under Jurgen Klopp for Liverpool.
Much like Benzema, Firmino had two incredibly pacey and prolific wingers to work with in Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah – and work with them he did! Dropping into the half spaces and using intelligent turns and flicks to create chances, Liverpool’s number 9 was pivotal to the success found on Merseyside in recent times. Liverpool fans will always have a special place in their hearts for Roberto Firmino.
3 – Michael Laudrup
The Prince of Denmark and one of the most underrated football players of all time – Michael Laudrup.
Having played for both Spanish giants, Real Madrid and Barcelona, Laudrup is unlike others to have done the same, in that both sets of fans still love him to this day – probably because of his talents on the pitch for both sides.
Laudrup was the best player on the planet in the 90s according to Franz Beckenbauer, and he was undoubtedly one of the most famous players on Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team of the 1990s.
A technical dribbler and a wonderful passer of the ball, the best Scandinavian player to ever lace up a pair of boots in the eyes of many, Michael Laudrup, sits at number 3 in the GOAT false 9 race.
The Ballon d’Or is worth nothing because Michael Laudrup never won it.Pep Guardiola
2 – Johan Cruyff
One of the most influential tactical styles in football history was Total Football, a style that involved high pressing and possession-based football. It was a style made famous by the Netherlands in the 1970ss and it is a style that is still influential today.
This style requires a false 9, rather than a static poacher and in Johan Cruyff there was no one better to play the role. Dropping deep in a 1-3-3-3 formation allowed more attacking fluidity and service to those around Cruyff.
To this day Johan Cruyff is still mentioned in the same breath as the footballing greats, and his time with the Dutch national team was matched by his output at Barcelona in front of the Nou Camp.
1 – Lionel Messi
Number one on this list will come as no surprise to the majority. The little boy from Rosario, Argentina again leads the way.
There isn’t much that hasn’t already been said about Lionel Messi, but his adaption of the false 9 under Pep Guardiola was truly magical. Pulling centre-backs out of position to play the ball into the vacated space for inside forwards making runs, Messi was not only the best goal scorer in the world but the best playmaker also as he excelled at receiving the ball on the half-turn and making the most out of seemingly nothing.
He played a lot of his career at right wing but played a good portion as a false 9 and was phenomenal with 231 goal involvements in 149 appearances – and that’s without mentioning the mountains of silverware the Argentine brought to Catalunya. Lionel Messi, the best false 9 to ever grace the pitch… and arguably the GOAT.