TO MANY FOOTBALL FANS, the archetypal number 10 represents the sport at its purest. Tasked with playing in whatever tiny pockets of space they can find behind the striker, their role is to create. This duty is, on the face of it, at odds with the inevitable congestion in a central and advanced position; to carry it out, therefore, the number 10 must be the most inventive man on the pitch.
Sumptuous skills and perfectly-weighted passes that most wouldn’t even have spotted are the bread and butter of the number 10 – the end is to create space where there is none, and this makes the means beautiful to behold. In the modern game, however, such a player is a rare breed. The raw skills are still there, but the increasing tactical insistence that space be created through fluid off-the-ball movement means that the position itself is under threat.
In an age of Juego de Posición, the system as a whole meticulously works the space that the number 10 once conjured from nothing. There is undoubtedly beauty in this, too, but where is the magician left once the circus shuts down to make way for the factory?
A common trend is for those who cut their teeth in the number 10 role to be shunted out into a wide position. The fluid front three has become the system of choice for many of the top teams: Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar led the way on this in their time together at Barcelona, spawning many pale imitations around Europe.
Messi has never been a traditional number 10 – he is more of a creative forward than he is an attacking midfielder, although to label him is to risk doing an injustice to arguably the greatest player that ever lived. Regardless of what he is best defined as, it is beyond dispute that he spent much of his early career working chances for himself and others from in the hole. Even he, a talent like no other, found himself shifted to the wing in order to accommodate the irresistible rise of the modern incarnation of the 4-3-3.
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The wide position was notional in as much as the whole point of the system was to give Messi and his fellow forwards freedom to interchange, but this was how space was to be generated: markers were to be shaken off prior to receiving the ball, and the room to work a goal opened up by virtue of this off-the-ball movement.
Of course, this takes admirable levels of tactical awareness and skill in and of itself; it would be folly to detract from the brilliance of the system when properly executed. Nor could it realistically be argued that Messi was wasted on the wing. The formidable Barcelona trio notched an unprecedented 122 goals in all competitions in the first season they played together, and Messi received the 2015 Ballon d’Or in recognition of his contribution to this. Furthermore, and even more pertinently, some of the resulting football was truly breathtaking to behold. Why, then, should the potential demise of the traditional number 10 be lamented?
There are essentially two points to be made. The first lies in the fact that Lionel Messi is, in all meanings of the word, exceptional. It would be foolish to say that his ability to adapt seamlessly to a different role, and indeed pick up a fifth Ballon d’Or in the process, means that all number 10s will continue to thrive once moved out wide. This is particularly true given that most will generally not enjoy the benefit of two truly world-class forwards making up the rest of the front line.
Barcelona can effectively be placed to one side as anomalously good. This leaves the question of whether number 10s in general are able to emulate the performances they produce centrally when deployed on the left or right of a front three. The answer can be at least partially found in examining the varying skill-sets required for each role.
A number 10, as elucidated earlier on, is all about operating in tight spaces; their job, simply put, is to take opposition players out of the equation so as to give others the space to score. This requires excellent close control, extraordinary vision, a range of passing, and that unquantifiable trait of flair that makes or breaks a good attacking midfielder.
Traditional wingers, meanwhile, are all about pace, dribbling and crossing ability. Of course, this is an unfair comparison; a winger in the modern, fluid 4-3-3 will have modified duties. Pace is still useful, and indeed the ability to put in a good cross does not hurt, but the passing and technique so important in the number 10 role are roughly transferable skills when it comes to today’s conception of a winger.
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However, attacking midfielders with great vision arguably find their best asset somewhat wasted on the wing. In a perfectly-functioning fluid system, there is an opportunity for such a winger to come both infield and deep to pick out passes to runners, but anything short of this leaves the would-be creator stuck out wide with limited opportunities to thread the needle and in doing so break the defensive line.
Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho is a good case study. Some of his greatest moments in a red shirt have involved mouth-watering passes to teammates from a central position, but his regular deployment out on the left has reduced his chances to produce such brilliance. One particular assist from the back end of the 2012/13 season comes to mind – a delightful pass with the outside of the foot, bending round the Fulham centre-back and perfectly into the path of Daniel Sturridge.
In a wider role, particularly when working with a midfield three that can be accused of lacking creativity and dynamism, his opportunities to come inside and pick out players running from deep have been much more limited. Again, this point should not be construed as taking anything away from Coutinho’s performances in a front three; the aforementioned significant amount of transferable skills between the positions, combined with his undoubted talent, has allowed him to impress to the point where Barcelona have come to call.
However, there is at least a case to be made that he would have thrived even more in what might be called his natural position. Injury has not allowed him to play in behind Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah too regularly this season, but the argument that he is at least partly wasted on the wing is certainly backed up by the few occasions where he has reverted to something more closely resembling an attacking midfielder.
Even this role, though, is not the now near-mythical number 10 that embodies creativity and style, and this leads on to the second point. It is largely one of sentiment. As has been stressed from the outset, the style of play that involves smooth passing, quick movement and almost methodical carving-open of defences is both effective and beautiful in its own right; that it has reduced the prominence of number 10s is not to be taken as an attack on its validity. However, once in a while, the football fan finds himself pining for the magic show.
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This is not what is delivered by a would-be number 10 playing behind a fluid front three; the movement in front of him takes a lot of the strain of drawing the defenders, and he is left to deliver a masterclass in passing. Pep Guardiola is almost synonymous with the new style being described, and within his City side, Kevin De Bruyne provides the model for such a player.
Flair and close control are very much still in his locker, but he only needs to take them out on occasion – rather it is the playmaking that takes centre stage. The Belgian is second-to-none in this regard and uses the space created for him in ways very few others would be able to do, but he is simply not often required to twist and turn to make the room for himself.
When a goal is scored, crowds are left to appreciate the exact manner in which the team as a whole – aided greatly by De Bruyne – dissected the opposition. They are not left asking themselves how on earth what they have just seen can be possible. This is the joy that only a number 10 can bring, spinning away from his man with an outrageous piece of invention.
The number 10 is the Ronaldinho strike against Chelsea, the progress of Diego Maradona through an entire England defence, Dennis Bergkamp’s spin and flick into the path of Freddie Ljungberg. It is hard to accept that the modern game is sanitising these moments, making a science out of what was once an art.
This is not to say that the beautiful game is losing its essence. At most, it can be suggested that standards of beauty are being altered; synchronicity and fluidness are replacing individual technique and brilliance as the ultimate standard. The new era should be embraced, bringing as it does such a wealth of benefits. It is a shame, however, that the number 10 role as we know it is a seemingly necessary casualty.
Tactical preferences come and go, and hope remains that the great magicians of the game will come to the fore once more, but at least for the time being, it seems as though the sorts of outrageous tricks that provided some of the defining moments of a generation are being confined to the back garden.