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Talking Tactics: Why Sunderland thrived playing with a False 9 in the 3-0 demolition of Reading

While many may have thought it luck or chance, many others saw a disaster with Ellis Simms’ injury - but Tony Mowbray saw an opportunity, one that has been in the works all season long.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Tony Mowbray made one initial change from the side which lost against Boro, with Aji Alese making his full league debut for the Lads in place of the injured Dennis Cirkin.

Ross Stewart continued to miss out, so Ellis Simms led the line with Patrick Roberts & Alex Pritchard flanking him in a 3-4-3.

From here, the game continued as usual: Sunderland employed a high and aggressive press but Reading would sit very deep and allow us to have both territory and possession - as they have all season and average just 35% possession at home.

Early on, due to individual errors and Reading’s compact structure, we struggled to break them down. So just 20 minutes into the game Mowbray made his first tactical switch. We swapped to a 4-3-3 with Pritch dropping deep alongside Dan Neil to play as a pair of 8s ahead of Corry Evans in the 6-role.

Jack Clarke moved up to left-wing and the defence all moved along one position. Due to our superior advantage in territory, we were able to pin them right back and trust our defence to deal with long balls over the top to Lucas Joao & Tom Ince - in which all four were excellent on the day.

This foreshadowed what was to come - but before getting to that I just want to single out some praise for Danny Batth & Alese. The latter was outstanding on his full league debut and only his third senior full league appearance in his career, while Batth has been a leader in defence all season. Due to Reading’s inability to progress the ball past our high press, their only option was to go route one to Joao, but Batth bossed him all day both in the air and on the deck as he has all season long.

What is a “False 9”?

In the moments leading up to the 37th minute, it was clear Simms was struggling with a toe injury suffered under heavy tackle. He tried to play on for numerous minutes but eventually was substituted. Many at this point would have expected Amad or potentially Leon Dajaku, two players who are lightning quick and have played up front in their junior careers. But instead, Tony Mowbray slotted Elliot Embleton in as one of the 8s and pushed Pritch up as a “False 9”.

First of all, what is a False 9?

The term itself may seem relatively new, largely re-popularised by Pep Guardiola in his Barcelona days - but the role itself is as old as football. Essentially, it is a centre-forward who repeatedly moves towards the ball in deeper positions from a high starting position, often dropping to receive centrally and allowing others to run from their deep position in behind - in turn both drawing out defenders and creating space in behind. The main intention 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.

Without boring you with reams of history here, the False 9 is essentially any way to describe a player who does not play as a “True Number Nine” in which they are expected to “hold up the ball back to goal in the opposition final third”. This is an antiquated viewpoint, but one that still resonates with many today. Corinthians in the 1890s, River Plate in the 1920s, the Austrian Wunderteam in the 1930s through Mattias Sindelar, Johan Cryuff in his entire career, Francesco Totti in his later days at Roma, and more effectively than any other, Lionel Messi under Pep at Barca have all employed varying different versions of the role.

A successful False 9 needs impeccable awareness and the ability to consistently know exactly where each of his teammates and the opposition are positioned at any one time. As a result, they know where to take their first touch to avoid any incoming pressure, especially from behind. This also provides the perfect opportunity for teammates to take advantage of gaps in a position created by the False 9’s movement.

The main responsibility of a False 9 is timing runs away from the centre backs to receive the ball between the midfield & defensive lines, both during sustained periods of possession and as the link for other attackers during a counter. This movement into deeper roles is specifically designed to confuse opposition defenders and intentionally give the centre-backs a dilemma as to whether to follow the forward into midfield or leave them and stay in their slot. If they get their timing right, they can cause havoc.

They need to be versatile and possess keen technical skills such as quick turning, dribbling and through balls, and an innate ability to play quickly. A False 9 often has to catch play-up again after coming deep to link, they also have to be adept at making late runs into the penalty area before finishing first-time.

A False 9 only really differs from an orthodox striker when their team is in possession. Out of possession, they perform the duties of a regular one.

Black Cats Purr without a Striker

Pritch is arguably the perfect player for this mould at Championship level. If you check the requirements for the role, he has them all. In the build-up for the first goal, he dropped deep to recycle the ball to Embo, who then began the counter:

But then if you look in the second phase of the attack, he is one of four Sunderland players who have made late runs into the box:

The Reading defence is all over the place & bamboozled by the movement. This is all thanks to playing a False 9. One defender is dragged way up high while the rest are unsure which player to mark. Look at their defensive line in the following gallery:

For the second, Pritch & Embo again began the attack by linking up deep while Clarke, Roberts and Neil made runs beyond the False 9:

The third goal was truly the crème de la crème of team goals. Passing was crisp, movement well-timed and encompassed total one-touch tiki-taka football Pep, Cryuff and Rinus Michels would even be proud of:

But note two things, firstly Pritch & Roberts’ movement when the ball is still down in our defensive third; the former comes deep and drags a defender out while Roberts runs towards goal to pull another away from the wing in which the ball will be played into.

This is quintessential False 9 football:

In addition, a really interesting new characteristic is that the defenders don’t split to either side of the 18 yard box in progression in this game.

Instead, O’Nien & Batth stay within the 6 yard box. I think this is a tactic purely for this game as the coaching staff are acutely aware of the positions Joao and Ince take off the ball: they attempt to cut any passing lanes and isolate the central defenders.

But to counter this Gooch picks up a very deep, wide position and the play starts every time with the centre backs in our own 6-yarder to try and draw them out of their low block. It truly is outstanding coaching & analysis from the entire backroom staff who formulated the plan for the game. In both the footage of the goal above and the examples below, play starts through the centre backs in their own 6-yarder and goes out wide to Gooch:

When Amad came on, he played more as an orthodox striker, looking to play off the shoulder of Reading's defensive line. However, on numerous opportunities he still dropped deeper and harassed the ball-carrier well, creating two excellent opportunities, firstly for Clarke:

And then for Bennette:

He offered a different, more orthodox role and pulled Reading all over. It was excellent management from Mowbray to both protect Roberts, Pritch & Evans. But also gave much-needed minutes to Amad, Matete and a debut to Jerry Bennette and all impressed.

All three looked to play on the front foot and used their pace to cause all sorts of problems for a tired Reading defence that was dragged up all game by Pritch’s runs into the middle third, only then to be dragged beyond to their own goal by penetrating runs in behind.

Last season we struggled to break down sides that sat with ten men behind the ball, but on Wednesday we proved we can do that this season.

Reading were the most “League One” team I’ve seen this season in style. They sat deep in a low block and tried to keep a compact shape then go long to their top two.

However, they just couldn’t play their own game as the aggressive press we’ve seen all season stifled their attack and the other eight outfield players didn’t have the technical ability to get the ball to Joao & Ince.

Then off the ball, they were totally & utterly torn apart. Just check out the passing statistics above. Neil wasn't bothered about protecting and recycling the ball, but Mowbray adores it. These are the best passing figures on average this season and his style suits our technical-ability-first players and that match where Reading let us have it.


On the day, Reading just simply could not cope and did not anticipate that switch whatsoever. We tore them apart playing two different tactics and one formation that we haven’t utilised all season.

But we have been working on this 4-3-3 with two attacking 8s as a contingency plan. Roberts even alluded to as much in his post-match presser:

Clarke & Roberts rightfully grab the headlines but they were all outstanding. Dan Neil thrived being given more of a free license in a proper 8 role able to join all attacks. His deft touch around the corner, run and sumptuous off-balance cross is probably the best technical play I’ve ever seen from an Academy Graduate.

However, this was not out of nowhere. I have explored it in the past but Rossco himself plays as a false nine a lot of the time. Remember Clarke’s solo effort against Rotherham? That started from Rossco dropping deep to collect the ball and allow runs in behind. He has done so all season and I was preparing an analysis piece on his role before this game & his injury. While the formation tweak was perfect & personnel different - the build-up isn’t that much different.

I’ve gone on a tangent here so I’ll just link previous articles, but just not how often Roscoe has played as a False 9 this season while Simms had been the more orthodox target man.

On the day, we didn’t win because it was “only Reading”. While I think their bubble will burst & their results are not indicative of long-term success, they still sat 4th at kick-off with a 100% record at home. They had only conceded two goals at whatever silly name the Madjeski is called, and dispatched Boro 1-0 and Blackburn 3-0. This season, our plan, aggression and style are just causing absolute chaos and teams cannot live with us.


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