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An ode to Francesco Totti’s false nine role

The world of football is full of fantastic little memories. What I always find incredible about football is that a football related memory acts as a time stamp and you can figure where you were in your life just by looking back at a memory from say, the 2007/08 season.

As Francesco Totti plays his final game for Roma, everyone will have time stamp memories of Serie A’s second highest all-time goal scorer. For me, it’s Francesco Totti’s stint as a false nine under Luciano Spalletti.

Setting the scene

Roma’s core that won the 2000/01 Scudetto had been decimated by the time 2005/06 season rolled around. Of the stars, only Francesco Totti remained, Vincenzo Montella also remained, but his body was failing him and that season, he’d play in just 16 games in all competitions. Luciano Spalletti’s striking options make for some pretty bleak reviewing when you look back at that season.

Leading the line at the Stadio Olimpico was Francesco Totti, the corpse of Vincenzo Montella, Shabani Nonda, a 16 year old Stefano Okaka and a trouble making Antonio Cassano. The former Italian international was left to rot on the bench until January, as his feud with Totti reached scolding levels, Roma had a transfer ban and couldn’t sell him until the winter. Classic.

So what do you do when you have a corpse, a kid, a trouble maker, a not very good striker, and one of the best players in Serie A? You build around one of the best players in Serie A.

The issue with building around Totti was that he was trequartista and had only scored more than 15 goals in one season before 05/06. If you were going to have him as your striker, goals were going to have to come from elsewhere.

This is most likely where the false nine idea originated for Spalletti. Totti could resume his position as a trequartista and continue to facilitate to his teammates. However, they’d have to assume far more goalscoring responsibility.

How Spalletti’s system worked

Rome’s King would operate up front alone, however it wouldn’t be an archetypal striker’s role. Totti would occupy the space in between the defense and midfield. He was essentially operating in the role of a #10 in a 4-2-3-1, making Roma’s formation play out like a 4-1-5, 4-6-0 or 4-3-3-0, however precise you want to be.

With Totti dropping a few metres in front of the CBs, instead of occupying space a few yards in front of them, the CBs didn’t know whether to follow him into MF and play a higher defensive line, or let him drop into the vacated space. Balls would then be played into Totti, and he’d ideally be unmarked, then, the wingers and midfielders make runs forward and into the box to support him.

Pretty simple, eh? I think the big plus for Roma side was how the false nine role affected progression of the ball. Roma could maintain three players in midfield whilst still having a player advanced in a #10 role (4-2-3-1 can’t achieve this). Of course, from there the problem is that you’ve sacrificed a striker. You may be in a great position with the ball, but there’s no one ahead of you.

This is where runs off the ball come from. Once Totti had received the ball, runs from his teammates were imperative, they would all have to vacate the space left but the absence of a striker. Mancini/Taddei would make diagonal runs from the wings, often interchanging, FBs were able to provide width and Perotta and De Rossi were both able to chip in with goals.

The limitations of Spalletti’s system

Not enough goal scoring is the obvious answer. During this short lived period, Roma never boasted a truly elite goalscoring winger (in fairness, Mancini scored 12 goals in 05/06) or an elite goalscoring midfielder. Goalscoring numbers can be forgiven when a player is operating as a false nine, but Totti’s 15 goals (six penalties) in 05/06 was never going to lead Roma to the Scudetto.

The 2005/06 season ended with Roma originally in fifth place, Calciopoli of course changed this, propelling Roma up to 2nd. However, the season could still arguably be labelled as a failure. The false nine role is often associated with free flowing football and boatloads of goals, however Roma scored the third most goals in the league.

The decision to utilise Totti as a false nine was more papering over the cracks than a move that had long-term potential, which is mostly how the false nine works out.

Milan, ITALY: AS Roma capitain Francesco Totti (C) lifts up the Tim Cup flanked by teamates after winning Italian Coppa Italia second leg final football match against Inter Milan at Milan’s San Siro Stadium , 17 May 2007. Roma lost the match 2-1 but won the trophy strong of a 6-2 home win last week. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Totti’s transition to actual striker

The 2006/07 season was supposed to be different. 50% of Mirko Vučinić was signed from Leece for €3.25m, the Montenegrin striker had scored 27 goals in two seasons for a side who had only just been promoted a few seasons before. With Vučinić ahead of Totti, Spalletti could return to his 4-2-3-1 and Totti could assume his best position. Fantastic.

Except that’s not what happened. Vučinić had two knee operations during the season and only started five games, Montella was still a corpse, Francesco Tavano would arrive on loan in January but wasn’t much help, it was up to Totti to save the day.

Spalletti wasn’t as loyal to the false nine system as he was in the previous season, Roma lined up similar to how they did in 05/06, DDR, Perotta, Pizarro midfield, Taddei and Mancini on the wings, with Vučinić chipping in when he was off the surgery table.

Totti reeled off his best ever season, scoring 26 goals and claiming his only ever Capocannoniere. Hindsight is 20/20, but why didn’t Spalletti opt for Totti has an out-and-out striker in 05/06? I think the most logical reasoning is that Totti had to be mentored to play that role, first operating as a false nine and then as a striker the season after.

The legacy of Totti’s false nine role

Football is about enjoyment. Finding enjoyment in football is up to you, it can be through entertaining football, through seeing the immense bond between Roma and Totti, it can be little quirky tidbits like Totti’s stint as a false nine.

The false nine role in itself has little to no longevity, it can be used during a striking crisis or when it’ll gain a tactical advantage in a match like Barcelona v Real Madrid in 2011.

2005/06 boasted no silverware for Roma, however the 2006/07 season did, and it goes to show just how beautiful football can be when you put an emphasis on aesthetics. The 6-2 victory over Inter is the crown jewel of Totti’s stint as a striker. The third goal is an excellent example of Perotta’s off the ball running ability.

No doubt this weekend your timelines and news feeds will be flooded with Totti tributes, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be. Careers like Totti’s are rare in football, it’s criminal he’ll retire with only one Scudetto but I hope memories like the ones included in this article live on forever.

Words – @Bilbertosilva


Billy Wilkinson fell in love with Arrigo Sacchi's Milan without even being alive when they were at the peak of their powers. Now he writes about and analyses all things Calcio. You can find him on Twitter @BilbertoSilva



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