Following a very pleasant read of Martí Perarnau’s book, Pep Confidential, a huge number of thoughts sprung into my mind. How could Guardiola have set his Bayern side up in certain matches? Should the Catalan have operated with a larger squad?
Was his decision to move Phillip Lahm to central-midfield the most genius tactical move of the season?
There really were countless amounts of questions I had subsequent to reading this book. However, there were a few particular ideas that really interested me. One being Pep’s consideration of playing Franck Ribery as a false 9. For most football fans, they would just think to themselves, ”yes, Ribery could definitely play there” or “no chance”, however, I just couldn’t get the idea of Ribery playing as false 9 out my head and decided to look further into it.
Firstly, I took the great Bayern manager’s thoughts into account, that Ribery wouldn’t be restricted by chalk lines in the centre of the pitch and that Ribery has the right skills and could adapt his playing style to operate as a false 9. It would just be plain disrespectful and ignorant to not look into the man who thought of this idea’s opinion on the topic. After all, he was the first to think of this idea so he must strong reasons to believe it would work.
In Bayern’s first pre-season match of the season, in the warm Trentino weather, the Bavarians run out as 13-0 winners against an opposition made up of just amateur footballers. In the first half, Bayern play in a 4-3-3 with an XI of Neuer, Lahm, Kirchoff, Can, Contento, Højberg, Schopf, Strieder and three forwards, Markoutz and Rankovic on the wings with Thomas Muller in the middle, playing as a traditional number 9.
Bayern go into half time 3-0 up, playing nice, attractive football but lacking a real cutting edge which would demolish the supporter’s club opposition. After the break Pep makes a number of changes, Toni Kroos is a significant addition to the pitch and adds real fluidity to Bayern’s play but there was one change which although seemed insignificant then and probably still is now, really made Bayern’s inside men think, Franck Ribery came on for Muller on the centre forward position.
However, Ribery did not operate as a traditional centre-forward, he made his debut on the role of the false 9, a position which Pep developed for Lionel Messi at Barcelona. Pep invented the position at Barcelona to allow Messi to exploit the space in between Real Madrid’s central defenders and midfielders. Although Pep reintroduced the role to modern football, he very modestly does not claim to have invented the position. Following Ribery’s addition to Bayern’s team that day, the side went on to score ten more goals, largely down to Kroos and Ribery’s link-up play in the centre of the pitch. The early signs were encouraging.
Secondly I watched clips of Ribery and closely analysed his movement on and off the ball to see if he is suited to the false 9 position. Obviously watching clips of him in competitive games can be slightly misleading as he spends almost all his time out on the wing. Watching clips of Ribery constantly dribbling up the wing can certainly fool us S rarely do we see Ribery make a simple pass, something which often has to be done centrally, thus causing problems for his side when he loses possession through over-dribbling.
Despite this, there is one match which Ribery played centrally, the DfB Pokal Final of 2014,Bayern against their great rivals Dortmund. The Frenchman didn’t play in an advanced role, in fact he was nowhere near the false 9 position admittedly. Very surprisingly he slotted alongside Toni Kroos in a double-pivot, a move which no-one expected. In the 28th minute, Lahm was forced off through a calf injury he had suffered in the 6th minute, the German had attempted to battle on through the pain but just couldn’t push his body any further around the half hour mark.
When Ribery got stripped and ready to come on for Lahm, many expected Højberg to move infield from right-back, to his favoured position, the number 6, alongside Kroos, but instead, Guardiola believed Ribery could be disciplined and protect Bayern’s back three in a double-pivot. And correct he was proven. Ribery performed excellently in his new role and seemed like he had played as a pivot for his whole life. His composure and tactical awareness allowed Bayern to keep a clean sheet against a strong Dortmund side whom Bayern had struggled against just weeks earlier. It was a genius move by Guardiola, who had been waiting all season for the moment to play Ribery centrally, just maybe not at a stage so large.
Following Ribery’s excellent performance centrally which helped lead Bayern to a DfB Pokal victory, many football fans wondered where Pep had gotten the idea of playing Ribery centrally from. Trentino. Other than Säbener Strasse, there is no other football pitch where Ribery could have been tested centrally. That day in Trentino had been against lowly opposition but Pep had seen enough, he had his mind made up that Ribery had the right attributes to be a successful false 9.
Pep himself has admitted that right now may not be the correct time for Ribery to transfer into the false 9 role from the wing. He has openly said that Ribery isn’t a quick learner and will need time and patience to learn how to play in the role. It will maybe take months before Ribery is again seen in the centre of the pitch, possibly even another season. As we all know too well, Pep is a perfectionist, he will not rush Ribery into the false 9 role if either of them doesn’t feel he is ready.
Personally, I think Ribery has the correct attributes to play as a false 9 and believe it could be a step forward for not just the team but the player himself. Ribery won the 2013 Ballon d’Or but since then he has struggled with injuries and hasn’t hit the same heights he reached that year. Ribery was almost unstoppable on the left wing in his prime, under Heyneckes in 2013 Ribery was a key player in the side and was the focal point of most of Bayern’s attacks. If Ribery wants to re-hit these heights, maybe a change is needed for the Frenchman, and at 32 years of age it needs to be sooner rather than later.