Opinion: What Happened to Football’s ‘Number 10’?

By Ciaran O’Mahony

The ‘number 10’ has been the most important position in football for years.

Some of the most gifted footballers we’ve ever seen played there. Zidane, Maradona, Ronaldinho, Platini, Eusebio – The list goes on.

But while we’ve been distracted by Ronaldo and Messi’s record-setting performances, football has changed.

Slowly, but surely, the number 10 has been disappearing.

What is a No. 10?

As the team’s primary playmaker, the ‘number 10’ operates in a free role between the midfield and the forwards. They lead the attack, using their vision, control and passing range to dictate the play.

‘Number 10’s’ are responsible for unlocking the opposition’s defence by playing their wingers and forwards through on goal and finding space to score themselves. In many ways, they are the attacking heartbeat of the team.

All of the mid-to-late twentieth century’s most successful teams were built around such a playmaker.

Zinedine Zidane. Photo: Pool MERILLON/STEVENS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Formations

The tactical evolution of the game has played a major part in the number 10’s demise. The most common modern formations (4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1) do not accomodate the position.

The midfield in a 4-3-3 system usually consists of two advanced midfielders (left and right) and a deeper-lying defensive midfielder. The defensive midfielder occupies the central space traditionally reserved for the classic ‘number 10’.

While the 4-2-3-1 allows attacking midfielders to flourish, it doesn’t rely on one player to make the team tick. Some might say that teams with this system have three ‘number 10’s’, but that goes against the whole purpose of the position.

There is only space for one ‘true’ number 10, rather than three out and out playmakers.

Congested Midfield

It’s almost impossible to play a ‘number 10’ against modern formations because the centre of the park is so congested. Three-man midfields have taken away the space where they used to thrive. Modern managers are also reluctant to rely on one player to conduct their team’s attack.

Their logic is that if their ‘luxury player’ has an off-day or a dip in form, the entire team will suffer.

This mentality doesn’t exactly give modern players the confidence to back themselves and be creative.

Photo: Ben Radford/Corbis via Getty Images

Why is This a Problem?

Within these formations, many players that previously played behind a front two are now being used as wingers or played up front either as a striker or a ‘false nine’. Some of them have the pace to shine as wingers, while others can still operate effectively up front.

But many talented players lacking in pace or ill-suited to playing up front are being denied the opportunity to dictate attacks as playmakers.

These players are being wasted in the modern game, either on the bench or in another position.

The Case of Juan Roman Riquelme

Juan Roman Riquelme’s career is an excellent example of a good ‘number 10’ being wasted. The Argentinian was a silky playmaker with exceptional vision, intelligence and passing ability. He emerged when the speed of the game was changing rapidly and teams were beginning to experiment with their formations.

In a previous era, Riquelme would have been hot property, but when he arrived at Barcelona, Louis Van Gaal had no interest in playing a ‘number 10’.

Riquelme was given little game time and regularly played out of position. His lack of pace, trickery and ability to play directly, were badly exposed.

It was clear that Riquelme had been played out of position when Barcelona sold him to lowly Villarreal. The “Yellow Submarine” allowed him to roam the space between the midfield and the strikers, and find holes in the opposition’s defence.

Juan Roman Riquelme. Photo: Luis Bagu/Getty Images

The team found immediate success, finishing as high as third in the league in 2004/05. Riquelme scored 15 goals and helped Diego Forlan win the European Golden Boot that season.

He looked like a completely different player. Suddenly, we realised he was world-class.

We may never have known how good he actually was if he hadn’t found a team that was willing to play him in his best position.

Is the ‘Number 10’ Dead?

The ‘number 10’ isn’t completely extinct yet. There are still some great players out there who are arguably keeping the position alive such as James Rodriguez, Mesut Ozil and Juan Mata.

It seems likely that many young players will suffer a similar fate to Riquelme, though, and they are even less likely to get the second chance he got at Villarreal.

Sadly, many technically gifted youngsters destined to be the next Eusebio or Dennis Bergkamp may never get the chance to show their true quality.

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