Group C

True nine or false nine?

Spain's striker strategy will keep Ireland guessing until kickoff

GDANSK, Poland – True nine or false nine? That is the question Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque is wrestling with ahead of his side’s game against Ireland, its second fixture in Group C. And there are compelling reasons on both sides of the argument.

In La Furia Roja’s tournament-opening 1-1 tie against Italy, Cesc Fabregas was ostensibly deployed as a forward but also given plenty of license to roam into midfield -- hence the false nine label. The system is similar to the one used this season at Fabregas’ club, Barcelona, but the Spain midfielder revealed there are some subtleties, stating that the Spanish national team system is “more open” and grants him a freer role.

“I’m very happy there because I have a lot of mobility,” he said at Wednesday’s news conference. “I can really go wherever I feel is the more dangerous position.”

Yet against the Italians, the results of his false nine role were decidedly mixed. For the better part of an hour, Spain’s attack had its typically large spells of possession and the front-most trio of Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and David Silva buzzed about in a bid to bend Italy’s defense out of shape. But without a bigger body to present the Italian defenders – all five of them – with more of a physical presence, the spaces around Italy’s penalty area were closed down quickly and Spanish attempts at goal were either blocked or not taken at all.

The second half saw a greater willingness by Spain to shoot from distance and shortly after substitute Antonio Di Natale put Italy ahead, it was Fabregas who scored Spain’s equalizer. Yet when Fernando Torres – and it should be noted, winger Jesus Navas – entered the match, the spaces that Xavi and Andres Iniesta had to operate in expanded and the scoring chances increased even though Torres failed to convert.

All in all, the Italy game left Del Bosque with plenty of conflicting evidence. Spain appeared to struggle more with the “false nine” system but did score. With Torres and Navas on board, the chances flowed more easily but didn’t result in a goal. The fact that Italy’s midfield was noticeably tired, worn down by Spain’s incessant movement, is another variable to be factored into this tactical equation. So is the fact that the next opponent, Ireland, plays in a more physical style.

But on Wednesday, Del Bosque sounded like he was prepared to persist with the system, praising Fabregas’ ability to thrive on both sides of the ball. “We used Fabregas because he’s good, and he knew how to play against [Andrea] Pirlo in the Italian match,” he said. “He knows how to think football … I don’t think our attack is that weak. We know how Fabregas moves. He is fast, he can finish. And that’s what he did. He scored the goal, he delivered.”

Del Bosque’s players appear on board as well.

“We’ve tried this tactic several times. It’s not the first time that we have used [it],” said midfielder Xabi Alonso. “It works in a different way than when you are playing with a [striker]. But if you keep moving … we have seen that it works. We are quite pleased with the performance and how it worked.”

And yet, Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni isn’t buying it. The Italian stated that he expects Torres or Fernando Llorente to play up top and there is an inherent logic to this belief. At 6-foot-4, Llorente would give Spain a different variant in attack and would be a force on set pieces at both ends of the field, thus helping to combat Ireland’s strength in this area. The 6-foot-1 Torres is also capable of helping in these areas.

As is his custom, Del Bosque declined to state which direction he was heading in, although he did reveal the decision had been made. One thing is certain, however. Win or lose, the debate will continue.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.
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