Dwayne De Rosario is without a doubt one of the best players in the MLS. He scores, he sets up, he runs, he can win a match by himself. But he has always been plagued by the question of what his best position is. Early on in his MLS career he was a striker, then he got dropped back into an attacking midfield role. He gets deployed as both at times by Preki and has even been put out wide. Fans of TFC will tell you he gets offside too much when asked to play as a traditional number 9. Now, as you may have surmised, I don’t have much time for a traditional 9 but I do have time for false nines.
To understand what a false nine is you need to know what a traditional 9 is. In brief, I won’t take too much time because the term is well documented and frankly uninteresting, the traditional 9 is strong, powerful in the air, a poacher. He ‘leads the line’ so to speak. Think Alan Shearer or Duncan Ferguson. Traditional 9s are seldom found in modern high level football because the game is now so shrunken. That is to say there is less space. This is due to a number of things including how smart managers are about tactics nowadays, the importance of pressing, and the athleticism of today’s footballers. Even the ‘newest 9’, Andy Carroll of Newcastle, is adept at dropping deep, laying off passes for midfield runners, and moves into space between the channels to drag defenders around.
A false nine then drops back into space a lot to help move defenders around. If the center back follows him this opens up a giant hole. It is in my opinion a cardinal sin of defending as a center back to follow a striker all the way to the midfield. If you don’t follow him and he drops back the onus is on the manager to station his midfielders correctly and the midfielders to pick him up. Carlos Tevez is perhaps the world’s foremost false nine at the moment. Mancini instructs to drop well deep, sometimes as far as if not further than Yaya Toure. If the center back follows him this allows the inverted wingers Mancini employs or the ever willing runner Gareth Barry to fill that pocket of space. If the center back stays Tevez has the skill to play the ball in midfield and the creativity to launch an attack from deep.
So with that quick primer I ask, is Dwayne De Rosario’s best position a false nine?
Most people would say De Rosario’s best position is between the lines of midfield and defense, that is the space between the two bands of four in a 4-4-2. The problem at the highest level is that a 4-4-2 is rare to see, many sides employ a defensive midfielder specifically to pick up a playmaker. It’s how TFC shackled Morales (de Guzman man marking him) and why De Rosario was invisible in the second half against RSL (Beckerman shadowing). De Rosario actually had more joy in the first half of the match when he started high and dropped deep. He was never going to win a header versus Borchers or Olave (or any other prototypically tall and strong MLS center back for that matter) but he could outwit and outpace them with the ball at his feet. The other plus of him starting high was he made Beckerman redundant. When De Rosario dropped deep Beckerman was often confused, having picked up Labrocca or someone else higher up the pitch.
De Rosario is not a traditional playmaker. He is not a trequartista by any stretch of the imagination, even though he enjoys playing deep. He does not play those slide rule passes with perfect weight, though he is capable of creating chances for others. De Rosario’s best aspects are his determination, heavy finish, running at players with the ball, and ability to maintain possession. It is unfair to expect him to control the ball, turn, and play a perfectly weighted pass to a striker, he simply isn’t that kind of player. What he excels at is running into space at others which opens up subsequent space for his teammates.
For De Rosario to work as a false nine in Toronto he needs the appropriate personnel. Chad Barrett is slowly turning the tide of TFC support his way and he seems to have the hallmarks of an inverted winger in this type of system. He has the pace and will to track back but also the clever runs and attacking instinct to get into good positions. His lack of natural finishing ability makes many a fan groan but no one will deny the amount of chances he creates for himself. Cutting in on his right foot from the left wing into space vacated by De Rosario seems like the best way to maximize his skills. The unfortunate part of this is that Toronto does not have an adequate left back to fill the space that Barrett would then in turn create. Truthfully Toronto has many holes in their line up, another one being that of an attacking midfielder.
No one would confuse Martin Saric with an elegant footballing talent but he runs well, fills space, and is actually willing to bomb forward from midfield. He is the only person in the Toronto squad who could conceivably fill the role of a midfielder supporting the attack from deep but even then his limitations are well established. He is not the best passer, he doesn’t have the greatest first touch, and he overall isn’t the biggest attacking threat. The problem is there are no other viable candidates for this position. de Guzman has time and time again shown his best position is breaking things up in front of the back four and it would be foolish to use him any other way. He single-handedly handcuffed Morales recently and stymied Cruz Azul earlier in the month. Him being suspended for the 4-1 drubbing at the hands of New York was not a coincidence. As mentioned in my previous entry Labrocca is a good midfielder to have when you want to keep possession but he doesn’t have the athleticism to attack from deep or to be a ball winner. He needs to be in a midfield three where his cleverness on the ball can be shown.
All this is without mentioning the last player of the front 6. Mista is a talented footballer, of that there is no doubt, but there is doubt concerning his fitness and pace. Like De Rosario he likes to come deep for the ball but I think that if placed high on the right wing he can benefit the formation. Whereas Barrett would act as a more traditional tornanti on the left, tracking back to help his side stabilize, Mista has the pedigree and ability to pin back a full back. He would naturally drift into the central because that is his tendency as a footballer. Wherever Preki has put him he does well in drifting into pockets of space and if De Rosario is operating as a false nine the space would be, presumably, where De Rosario was. This would allow him to use his natural goal scoring ability and left foot to attack.
I don’t expect Preki to ever consider a formation and tactics like this but it is something I continue to think about when I watch De Rosario play. He is a talented footballer who is one of the best at this level and yet I feel he can contribute more; not that he is in poor form but that he isn’t being utilized properly. So to answer my own question, yes I believe De Rosario’s best position is a false nine but for it to be Toronto FC’s best option we would need help in multiple areas, most notably left back and central midfield.