“FOOTBALL IS THE WORKING CLASS BALLET.” The hallowed and revered words of Alf Garnett. There’s no debate either – football is beautiful, in so many ways akin to the ballet. Both require precise technique. Both require brilliant vocabulary when performing. And both capture the imagination of those who watch with awe and excitement.
Our sport has always boasted an abundance of stunning sights for purists and part-timers alike. The sight of a stand awash with scarves, flags and banners, in full voice, can only be admired. A trip to the Westfalenstadion, home of Borussia Dortmund, is a majestic sight as the ‘Yellow Wall’ greets the opposition players.
There’s other beauty too. The intricate passing games of Barcelona and Bayern Munich today, Liverpool and Real Madrid yesterday. The Oranje invasion at every World Cup. Such sights are a fixture in the footballing world – whether it’s Bayern Munich this decade or Paris Saint-Germain next, there will always be the footballing masters of the day. The individuals who make the game beautiful.
The Dutch will always turn up in tides of orange. The Stade Vélodrome will always be a decimal-busting bowl. Yet one sight becomes ever rarer each passing year: the classic number 10.
From Platini to Totti, the classic trequartista has always been a sight to inspire dreams and engulf kids into what is possible with a ball. Elusive for much of a game yet so often the match winner, these players are the embodiment of technique, grace and skill.
Relying on touch, vision, control and, most importantly, speed of thought, the classic number 10’s role was to create and score where possible. Team-mates sprang into life around the player, anticipating knife-through-butter killer balls and deft touches to open up defences.
Without the ball, the number 10 was often work-shy and lazy. The dirty work was left to the anchor man and defence. Instead, this player would drift around and find space to receive a pass and look to create between the lines. And it worked. There was no point asking a player who combined vision and skill to track back. Their ability to unlock defences and turn a seemingly innocuous attacking phase into a goal required them to be kept higher up the pitch.
Note the past tense. With great regret, the European game is seeing a decline in such players for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the speed of the game has increased just too much now. Perhaps the rigid defensive lines in midfield and defence are too narrow to find space and time in the hole. Maybe it’s neither. Maybe teams just require more dynamic players who can contribute in the attacking and defensive phase.
The increase in the speed of the game, as well as a greater reliance on strength and power, has contributed heavily to the downfall of such a player. At the very top of the game, the relationship between space and time has become tighter and the integral use of anchor men and holding midfielders has been influential in denying the opportunity to play between the lines. Crucially these holding midfielders are frequently able to create from deep as Andrea Pirlo, Xabi Alonso and Marco Verratti brilliantly demonstrate.
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There’s a myriad of valid reasons to sum up the decline of the trequartista. Perhaps the role has changed. The number 10 is by all accounts heading to a place where skill and technique are needed in equal measure alongside strength and power. Marouane Fellaini executed the role effectively for Everton. Using a combination of aerial power and technical ability, he afforded the Toffees a variety of options in terms of playing out.
Robert Lewandowski also executed this brilliantly in his earlier Dortmund days. Prior to becoming a clinical finisher, his all-round game was relied upon far more heavily. He would use balance, strength and skill to drop deeper and offer a range of options.
Few, however, are more adept at the modern number 10 role than Zlatan Ibrahimović. The enigmatic Swede drops into space and can receive the ball aerially or to his feet. He offers the ultimate versatility; a crucial attribute in the modern game.
In addition to their ability when dropping deeper, the modern number 10 can also score. They’ll work hard to get on the end of moves in wider areas, sometimes even penetrating as the furthest player forward, as Philippe Coutinho often demonstrates at Liverpool. For the magicians of years gone by, this lung-busting activity was beyond their game. Not because they didn’t necessarily have the capability. They didn’t want to. And they didn’t have to.
Football is different now. The success of Barcelona and Bayern Munich is based on the ability to press high and win possession closer to the opponent’s goal. There’s no time or space to carry passengers. Sadly those days are over. And with it, only memories remain. Memories of a glorious Juan Román Riquelme at his best for Villarreal and Argentina; of Michel Platini mesmerising Turin with his skills and precision; of Dennis Bergkamp dropping and using his incredible vision to turn a move into a chance.
The passing of Riquelme from Spain back to Argentina in 2008 represented the beginning of the end for such a player. Perhaps with Alessandro Del Piero retiring and Francesco Totti entering the final years of his career, the end is nigh. Even the sumptuously gifted Juan Carlos Valerón is at the end.
The reversion to old-fashioned wingers and their success in the modern game, in addition to the inverted forward role, has also contributed to driving the classic number 10 to virtual extinction. While clubs will always possess luxury players, the central figure who was the focal point of every attack is a player in decline. The quick thinker who dwelt in possession is no longer able to hold possession between the lines.
Read | Francesco Totti: the eternal man from the Eternal City
The modern luxury player is commonly a striker or winger. In the case of a work-shy striker, teams will compensate by pushing midfielders up to close down early and deny space with the striker looking to latch on to misplaced passes. Wingers can be covered by the aforementioned holding midfielders moving across or strikers working harder to close down the full-back. The defensive striker, or the Dirk Kuyt-role, is well established now.
Central players need to have a work ethic in the modern game and this has driven a change in personnel at so many clubs.
The old-fashioned number 10 was in so many cases a loose cannon off the field, enjoying a playboy lifestyle and an attitude to training that wouldn’t be tolerated in today’s sports science culture. The modern incarnations – James, Griezmann and Alli – possess all the technical skills needed to turn defence into attack in an instant as well as superb physical conditioning and an appetite to work for the team when out of possession.
This has enabled the likes of Liverpool and Real Madrid to close down higher up the pitch and win the ball back closer to the opponent’s goal; a counter-attack started from 40 yards away is more likely to yield results than one started 70 yards away.
Very few teams get the chance to reorganise when Bayern or Barça hit them on the counter from 40-50 yards away; the speed of the game is just too fast. For example, at their best, the Catalans will counter at six to seven metres per second. Pace, strength and skill is an essential combination in making a counter work today.
So will we ever see the old-fashioned number 10 back at the very top of the game? Perhaps not, although brilliance will always be brilliance. It’s hard to imagine many games passing Zidane by on his day.
The beautiful game goes through periods and styles of play that alternate with each new era. Over the past three decades, we’ve gone from the regular use of 3-5-2 and 4-4-2, to 4-2-3-1 and the modern 4-1-2-3. As the game changes so will its tactics and the accommodation for the old-fashioned number 10 may once again be opened. The sight that thrilled so many youngsters when growing up will once again return to our screens to inspire a new generation.
Moody, elusive, volatile and lazy, yet exquisitely skilful and effortlessly intelligent, the classic number 10 may be a dying breed, but one whose memories will long live in the mind of football fans who witnessed their graceful brilliance.
By Omar Saleem. Follow @omar_saleem