In football as is in many things in life, some roles are glamorous while others are more, shall we say, agricultural. The number 10 role exemplifies this no end. While the centre back or fullback puts in a grueling 90 minute shift, hurling into tackles and sticking his head where it is most likely to come into contact with a boot, he gets no 15 minute YouTube montages extolling his virtues or showcases any flashy skills. The number 10 is very clearly the rockstar of the team, valued for his ability to turn the game with one pass, one flick of the ball or an inspired shit from distance. This leads us to question, what defines a number 10?
Thierry Henry is Arsenal’s all time leading goal scorer but vitally, also provided a mind boggling number of assists. Cristiano Ronaldo, especially at Man Utd, often turned games with his incisive dribbling and later, ridiculous goal scoring talent. Andrea Pirlo is the undisputed king of orchestrating play but he does it almost while being close enough to his own defence to give them a lecture on growing the perfect beard. The truth is that Ronaldinho probably represented the last classical number 10, it was genuinely difficult to state if his best attribute was his goal scoring, his dribbling or his eye for a slide rule pass.
In today’s game, the responsibilities and expectations of the number 10 are usually distributed amongst various members of the team. Arsenal rely on Mesut Özil to pick out the perfect pass but look to Alexis Sanchez when the team needs a “wow” moment. Barcelona have the genius of Messi and the guile of Neymar but need the eye of Xavi to make it effective. Similarly, Real Madrid depend highly on the abilities of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to supply the ammunition to their amigos up front, often relying on Ronaldo converting a 25% chance nine times out of ten.
Indeed, from a tactical perspective, this seems sensible because opposition teams no longer have the ability to mark one man out of the game and choke the team but then again, the greatest of number 10s neither shrank from bullying nor did they usually adorn a team of hangers on. You could focus on Thierry Henry but Robert Pires would make you pay for the lack of attention or put a man on Paul Scholes and watch as David Beckham floated a 50 yard ball for Sheringham to smash home.
Today, curiously, a classical number 10, the player with an X factor, is probably more highly valued due to opponents being wary of committing too many men on one player. We saw contrasting examples at the World Cup where reluctance to man mark James Rodriguez saw him wreak havoc on defences whereas trying to stifle Lionel Messi saw Angel Di Maria run amok. In the broad sense, the all encompassing term “attacking midfielder” could mean anything from a left winger to a shadow striker as roles in the game grow more and more specialised each year.
With the ascent of Spanish football, we have seen the popularisation of the false nine, in James for Colombia and Gotze and Özil for Germany we have the trequartista and in the ageing but no less deadly Pirlo we see revived interest in the regista. In the next few years, as football reaches the zenith of developing players with technical ability and physicality while deploying what is usually a secure formation in the 4-2-3-1, perhaps the next big innovation is a return to total football. A number 10 who picks up the ball almost exclusively in the centre circle, a winger who drops deep to collect the ball from a goal kick or perhaps a striker whose primary aim is to pressurise the defence rather than hold up play. Certainly the next big coaches of tomorrow are already working on countering what is becoming a trend in modern teams, the midfield pivot of a deep lying tackler and a box to box runner. Jose Mourinho once said that play was divided into three parts when on the ball: attack, counter attack and countering the counter attack.
All in all, football is inherently complex but straightforward enough for anyone with passion to muse and analyse the intricacies of positional play. This simplicity and complexity is a vital reason for making it truly the beautiful game.