We live in an era of “Bielsafication,” to hijack a term from the great soccer scribe Jonathan Wilson. Access to the sport’s advanced tactical and philosophical concepts has been democratized and mainstreamed, making coaches like Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Marcelo Bielsa – and more importantly, their ideas – nearly as famous as the superstar players they lead.
In the midst of this, the “false No. 9” tactic has been a bridge too far for many: A nuanced idea that requires such an elite skill set in the player tasked with the role, and such a balanced combination of complementary teammates, as to usually be unworkable for mere mortals. (If you’re unfamiliar with the jargon, Wilson penned a good overview when it swept into fashion a decade ago via the likes of Lionel Messi, Francesco Totti and Carlos Tevez.)
US men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter is pretty clearly intrigued by the false 9 idea. He tried out Sebastian Lletget in the role against Wales in November – with mixed results – and on Sunday trotted out Jesus Ferreira at that spot against Trinidad and Tobago.
It’s the second time in a year for Ferreira, who also played as a false 9 in last year’s January camp friendly against Costa Rica, and the FC Dallas homegrown was effective on both occasions despite the performances being sandwiched around a down year for his club in which he tallied just one goal and one assist in 19 matches (13 starts).
“In terms of Jesus, ever since we started working with him last January, we had a really good feel for him and really good impression, and an idea of what he can do in our system,” Berhalter said after the USMNT’s 7-0 drubbing of the Soca Warriors in Orlando.
“We can't control what happens at the club level, we really can't. For us, it's still having faith in a player, believing in the player. And we were excited to get him back into camp this January. We tried to call him in in December, but Dallas was still playing, so we couldn't do that. But he gives us a lot of options, a lot of flexibility, and we really like how he performs for us at the forward position.”
Ferreira has been something of a tweener at the club level, with FCD having deployed him in practically every role in the front five since he signed his first-team deal more than four years ago. Ironically, he seems to have found more clarity with the national team.
“Obviously 2020 was a tough year for me, only scoring one goal in the league,” said Ferreira on Sunday. “Me and Gregg had a lot of conversations to what was going on … and it makes me happy that he stuck by me. And now I can show him what I can do best.
false 9 stuff pic.twitter.com/BP9lKlfeML— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) February 1, 2021
“We have to take advantage of our wingers that have pace and get in behind and love to get in behind. And so for me, it helps my game to be much easier when I have to drop and the center backs don't come with me, because our wingers are making runs in behind and then they're dangerous. So I think that's a main key for the style that we want to play.”
Berhalter has spoken about how different players “interpret” positions within his system in different ways, and Ferreira’s approach to the lone striker assignment distinguishes him from more traditional options like Jozy Altidore or Daryl Dike. Comfortable in 360-degree situations, clever at exploiting pockets of space, Ferreira's more apt to ghost away from an opposing defender than muscle him and his three assists on Sunday were perhaps more impressive than his two goals.
“I think coach Gregg had an idea for us for this game. We had a long camp of trying new things, trying to get to know each other, and as you can see in the game, it worked,” Ferreira told the FS1 broadcast crew after the match, revealing he takes inspiration from how Neymar drifts deep to combine with teammates at Paris Saint-Germain in comparable fashion. “We got long practices of getting to know our movements and what worked for us, and we all put it all together today.
“When [Neymar] drops and combines at the bottom, he creates a lot of space, especially for the wingers. So I think I would want to play like him, especially coming off the 9.”
With marauding fullbacks Sam Vines and Aaron Herrera providing ample width, wingers Paul Arriola and Jonathan Lewis feasted against T&T, freed to hunt scoring chances in the final third as Ferreira roamed, schemed and facilitated.
“I don't think it's my place to speak about what he does at his club or how they deploy him,” said Berhalter postgame. “But for us, we've always seen the talent as a No. 9, who can link up the team by dropping in. If you remember last year in January camp against Costa Rica, he did an excellent job of that, we created a number of chances because of him dropping in the midfield.
“And when you have wingers that can threaten the backline, you can afford to drop a striker, because you still get that verticality and still stretch the opponent. So we saw that tonight again, we're really pleased with his performance. What we talked to him about today was arriving in the penalty box, and he certainly did that. So to me, it was a complete performance, and he deserved the man of the match.”