Juventus: Does Federico Bernardeschi have a future as a ‘false nine’?

JUVENTUS STADIUM, TORINO, ITALY - 2021/09/29: Federico Bernardeschi of Juventus FC reacts during the Uefa Champions League group H football match between Juventus FC and Chelsea. Juventus won 1-0 over Chelsea. (Photo by Andrea Staccioli/Insidefoto/LightRocket via Getty Images)
JUVENTUS STADIUM, TORINO, ITALY - 2021/09/29: Federico Bernardeschi of Juventus FC reacts during the Uefa Champions League group H football match between Juventus FC and Chelsea. Juventus won 1-0 over Chelsea. (Photo by Andrea Staccioli/Insidefoto/LightRocket via Getty Images) /

A common idiom in English — a kick up the backside — denotes a forceful gesture used to encourage somebody to do something better.

Juventus’ returning coach Massimiliano Allegri might have taken the phrase in literal meaning, kicking Federico Bernardeschi’s backside in an attempt to express his annoyance at the Italian’s performance against Torino last weekend and further push Bernardeschi’s limits. The pain inflicted by the kick was visible on his face.

Although Bianconeri went on to win the Derby della Mole by a narrow 1-0 scoreline, it was an underwhelming outing for Juve’s number 20. In Serie A this season, Bernardeschi has already played 357 minutes across six appearances. But the caution is that the 27-year-old is yet to bag an assist or goal for the Old Lady.

Allegri has recently shown a lot of faith in Bernardeschi…

Allegri seemingly considers Bernardeschi a trusted cog at his disposal, consequently playing him in several different offensive positions across the pitch this season so far. In the absence of injured Alvaro Morata and Paulo Dybala, Bernardeschi has started both games in Allegri’s team.

In Juve’s unanticipated 1-0 victory over Chelsea in the Champions League, Allegri chose to field a line-up devoid of the services usually provided by an out-and-out centre-forward. What they had was a tandem of Federico Chiesa and Federico Bernardeschi, epitomising the right blend of pace and craftiness.

It doesn’t need mentioning that Chiesa scored the only goal of the match to hand Juventus their second win to start their Champions League campaign. But, against the run of play, Bernardeschi threaded the pass for the opener.

Yes, it was that Bernardeschi — usually found strangled amid the negative comment section at the end of a game — the conventional scapegoat for Juventus fans if we are being more distinct. He played his heart out that day, making progressive runs, and showing every bit of talent the Italian holds in his back pocket.

After Moise Kean made way for Juan Cuadrado in the second half of the derby, Bernardeschi was spotted operating from the same position as he had done against Chelsea a few days back. From that instance, a growing hypothesis has hit the minds of Juventini — does Bernardeschi have what it takes to master the ‘false nine’?

What is the ‘false nine’?

In footballing terms, it’s pretty simple. The ‘false nine’ is what a traditional forward is not. Let’s make it more precise. Just take Alvaro Morata as an example here. Leading the front line for Juventus or Spain, Morata is a traditional forward. How do we know that? Well, he prefers lurking in and around the box and is extremely reluctant to run down the wing. Therefore, coaches opt to play him as a target man, who attacks the box.

On the other hand, there are ‘false nines’ who are always adamant to drop deep, either to receive the ball from one of his teammates and manoeuvres the flow of the play or to drag a defender out of his designated position so that other forward-thinking players could make the run into the space created from the dragging.

Lionel Messi played the role during the early days of his spell at Barcelona. AS Roma legend Francesco Totti somehow managed to master the role and was highly successful in performing the function back then. Nowadays, the false nine has become an almost extinct species.

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, who masterminded Messi’s false nine evolution, often deploys the unique function due to the lack of an established centre-forward in his squad. The likes of Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva are typically Guardiola’s chosen ones for the role.

Other than that, Harry Kane at Tottenham Hotspur has learned the duties of a ‘false nine’ pretty well. Since Jose Mourinho became their manager at Spurs, Kane has reformed himself, now going deep to receive the ball and also playing a pivotal part in the team’s build-up. Even though Mourinho is no longer his manager, fans are reaping the fruits of Harry Kane being an all-rounder in the attacking half of the pitch.

How could Juventus be benefitted from Bernardeschi playing as a ‘false nine’?

There is always more to it than just dropping deep and dragging a defender with the player playing the ‘false nine’ role. However, the motto is that you have to be an all-rounder. Those acquainted with the game of cricket understand that an all-rounder must know how to bat and bowl.

And to a certain extent, the all-rounders are believed to be the most fundamental players in cricket. A team without astute all-rounders is like a boat without oars.

In football, the ‘false nine’ position may not be that significant, but if it’s accurately put into application, an opposing defence could discover themselves in perplexing situations. Juventus don’t have many options who could play or master the attributes of a ‘false nine’, but Federico Bernardeschi is one possibility.

Federico Bernardeschi, Juventus (Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images)
Federico Bernardeschi, Juventus (Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images) /

If we compare Bernardeschi’s average position in the game against Torino to his average position against Chelsea, we will find that he prefers playing just behind the striker, which is a fitting spot for anyone aspiring to master the qualities of a ‘false nine’. Playing the role is insignificant if the player performing it is not a good receiver of passes, which is why not everyone can perfect the position.

As per the passing stats from FBref.com, Federico Bernardeschi has averaged 82.4% accuracy when it comes to receiving passes from a passer, meaning the 27-year-old would receive around 82 passes accurately if 100 passes were to be played. That’s a pretty impressive number. Now, why is pass-receiving accuracy so important?

We mentioned earlier that a ‘false nine’ comes deeper to receive from a teammate. Now, most of the time, they are attacked by a defensive player. Under pressure, it then becomes necessary for the player to keep his cool and retain possession. Dragging a defender means the creation of an unoccupied spot in the rival’s defence. A teammate could now make an offensive dart into the vacant space and penetrate the defence.

On the other hand, a ‘false nine’, unlike a conventional striker, could also help a team defend and press the opponents. Counter-pressing emerges as a vital part of it. After losing possession, a ‘false nine’ could press the ball-possessor on his own or could just go deep to add an extra body in midfield.

The 4-4-2 has turned into Allegri’s go-to formation since returning to Juventus. Let’s suppose he fields 4-4-2 once again — but this time with ‘false nine’ at the top. While defending, the ‘false nine’ could join the midfield, and the formation would then be 4-5-1, with the ‘false nine’ creating a numerical overload in the midfield and strengthening the protection at the heart of the field. Such a congested midfield would be almost impenetrable. Now, they could all ignite the counter-pressing process.

Under Allegri, Juventus have not been a pressing-oriented side. Per FBref.com, the Old Lady stands 18th in the league when it comes to the numbers of putting pressures on an opposition. With the help of a ‘false nine’, Allegri can only elevate the idea of his pragmatism.

As for Federico Bernardeschi, only time will tell whether another role could be added to his versatile stock.