Written by Kartikeya Rao
In the ever-evolving landscape of modern football players need to get busy or try till the end. Because if they don’t, they start to look outdated in a new age. The archetypal modern midfielder might be the most demanding position on the field, combining the complexity of different traits that require a relentless all-action style. The traditional number 10, then, doesn’t fit that mould.
When we hear Number 10 in football, our mind suddenly starts recalling visuals of superstars showcasing their class. James Rodriguez, Philippe Coutinho, Mesut Ozil and Paulo Dybala are all arguably world-class but everyone except Dybala is struggling to make an impact on European football and even Dybala is not hitting the heights he should be. There is a clear and unmistakable trend of vanishing Number 10 in football and we are going to analyze why is it so.
Before we jump into analyzing the same, we look at what the number 10 role is. Also known as the ‘trequartista’ or the three-quarters role, it is given to the most creative of players. Technically gifted and adept at picking a through ball, these players form the core around which the attackers of the team operate. They look to the number 10 for that little piece of magic that can prove to be the difference between a win and a loss. It can be a mazy dribble through the opposition half or a clever reverse pass that evades every mind except the smartest. These players can make things happen out of nothing. From Dennis Bergkamp to Mesut Ozil, ever so skilful and pleasing to the eye, they redefined the meaning of the term “The Beautiful Game.”
The pace and physical demands of modern football have made managers more reluctant about utilizing a single-player tasked with the responsibility of chance creation. Tactics that are now common to modern football such as man-marking did not exist then, which allowed players in this role to freely roam around the pitch with no defensive responsibilities whatsoever. Modern football and their new formations rely on playing box-to-box midfielders, who move up and down the whole pitch for 90 minutes, with a high work rate and stamina. The subtleties and lack of defensive duties of a number 10 are no longer a luxury modern teams can afford. Managers like Conte, Klopp, Guardiola and Mourinho focus a lot on positioning in the match and pressing off the ball and less on the freedom of the player.
One of the primary reasons being that every player in each team (barring very few) is expected to defend when out of position. This was not something that was associated with the number 10 player. He is painted with a lazy grace about him and is not bothered to do the defensive work on the field. This is no longer acceptable to coaches. They need every player to be on it 100% of the time. This is why players like Isco and James Rodriguez are having to adapt their game, however talented they might be.
The not so worthy replacement:
Tactically football has changed a lot over the years. Let’s consider an example of full-backs and wingers. These days, most fullbacks occupy the wings of the opposition side in possession and the wingers play closer to the goals. The traditional crossing into the box role has gradually become a full-back forte and wingers are forwards who are expected to score every game. With most teams in the modern era employing the 4-3-3 system, the midfield is comprised of a single number 6: commonly known as the defensive midfielder and two number 8s: also known as just central midfielders. In these systems, chance creation relies heavily on fullbacks as the defensive midfielder usually drops back to the centre back role once the fullbacks are up-field.
This is not the case with every team but to illustrate the point that most teams do expect similar heavy defensive output from their midfielders.
Clubs with highly technically gifted strikers have assigned them the de facto number 10 role, which is basically a false 9 creating chances for the wingers to score. This striker is tasked with the role of dropping deep in the pitch and is always involved in the build-up play leading to scoring opportunities. This explains why these strikers do not score a lot of goals per season. Roberto Firmino, Olivier Giroud, Gabriel Jesus, Thomas Muller, Lionel Messi etc., fall into this category.
Existing number 10s in the modern era of football:
These players have fused into the likes of central midfielders and wingers along with their original identity of being a number 10, but find ways to emulate the effect of a true number 10 during games. Most of them have adapted to the new style with a lot of hard work and compromise. Kevin De Bruyne at Manchester City, Paulo Dybala at Juventus, Papu Gomez at Sevilla, Kai Havertz at Chelsea, Mikel Oyarzabal at Real Sociedad, Bruno Fernandes at Manchester United are some of the most influential ones who evaded the sudden change and proudly adapted to the situation.
Kevin De Bruyne is essentially a modified number 10, Pep Guardiola adds limited defensive responsibilities to him allowing him to play as a hybrid, shifting from the 8 to the 10 whilst a match unfolds. Some of them faced criticism at the start like Kai Havertz was brandished lazy and unethical in approach at the start, but once he realized that he needed to adapt, it was a matter of time. The same goes for Papu Gomez, they still have to play as wingers and number 8s. The case of Lionel Messi is however different because the team is usually built around him, he plays as a free number 10 (like Eden Hazard in 18/19), that’s why we usually see him go deep into the defensive half and start the core move from there.
Football certainly looks pale without the flamboyance and creativity of these players. We can only hope that the era of the number 10 comes back but it may be time to come to terms with the death of arguably the most revered role in football; a position that is now a luxury rather than a necessity.