When Mark Hughes was handed a transfer kitty, he had envisioned a plan on how his Manchester City would play under him. His idea was to play a 4-4-1-1 system and hand the keys to his attack to arguably the greatest attacking midfielder of the age - Ricardo Kaka - a devastating counter attacking dribbler who played the roaming number 10 role for Ancelotti's successful AC Milan side that conquered all. That transfer never happened and English football missed an opportunity to kickstart a love affair with the number 10 role.
Back in Italy, while Kaka was noted for his crucial contributions to the Milanese cause, their system was actually built around another Fantasista that played deeper than the classic 10 or trequartista (as the Italians called them) – Andrea Pirlo – a failed number 10 who dropped deeper in search of the space to showcase his unique blend of control and creation. A genuine football artist who treated the pitch like his canvas.
Such artists have always been a rare commodity. Even historically the role was never a common phenomenon to begin with due to the high degree of talent needed to execute it appropriately and the eternal issue of relying on a sole individual to ‘run’ the team.
In the modern game, with the greater importance on the ‘team’ and the shift to creating from the wide half spaces not to mention the most dangerous forward tending to be the wide-forward rather than the centre-forward, thus necessitating the need for service along the floor from wider angles, the number 10 according to some critics has been deemed redundant. In this article we assess whether this is true by looking at how the role and its importance has evolved down the years.
What is a number 10? Positionally, the number 10 operates in the half space between the opponents penalty area and the midfield circle. Technically, they need to be efficient dribblers, as any losses of possession can lead to a direct counter-attack – in contrast if a winger gets tackled, the ball usually goes out of play - and they need to possess wonderful passing technique – as they’ll need to thread passes through an eye of a needle. They also require a range of shooting techniques, as they are relied upon for long shots or making late runs into the box.
In terms of mental characteristics, number 10’s are the ‘grandmasters’ of football IQ - excellent readers of the game, formulating patterns of play and concocting plans to breach the opposition defence, making use of their “Vision” and the aforementioned technical attributes. They must also thrive under pressure and want to 'carry' a side. A Messiah complex is a must.
Consequently, the number 10 must to the most talented player in the team. A player the coach trusts in building the team around. Regardless of the other talents at their disposal and the philosophy being followed, the number 10 when utilised, will always have a significant role in the team.
South America has been the hub of some of the most talented playmakers the world has ever seen. Many names come to consideration, Diego Maradona being arguably the most famous of them all but there have been more. Carlos Valderrama can lay claim of being considered one of the greatest true classic of playmakers. And then we have Zico from Brazil, Enzo Francescoli from Uruguay, and many more.
Argentina alone has had a whole generation of number 10s that followed after the retirement of Maradona. With names such as Ariel Ortega, Juan Veron, Marcelo Gallardo, Pablo Aimar, Juan Roman Riquelme, Andres D’Alessandro all coming through the ranks, competition was understandably at its peak. And with every national team coach altering and modifying his tactics to build around his own favorite playmaker, the Post Diego era was chaotic and ultimately fruitless thus highlighting the deficiencies of overreliance on a number 10.
Whilst Argentina developed an obsession with the ‘Messiah’ and created a cult of the number 10, in Brazil a healthier approach was adopted. Combinations of great players was considered a more potent formula for success. If one star failed, another would step up. This is most evident in the 1970 squad where number 10’s of varying degrees such as Tostao, Pele, Rivelino and Gerson played in a fluid 4-2-4 and played a brand of football which represents a benchmark which has never been surpassed.
Similarly, Brazil’s 82 squad was also one of the few teams that played more than one playmaker. Zico (their main number 10) was accompanied by another in Socrates, and to up the ante even further they were supported by the likes of P.R Falcao and Cerezo – central midfielders who had the footballing brains and technical attributes which rivalled even the best number 10’s. These players formed arguably the classiest midfield unit of all time and the result was again artistry at its very finest.
As a Player
Europe has had its own fair share of artists. The Azzurri can consider themselves blessed with the talents of greats such as Gianni Rivera, Roberto Baggio, Gianfranco Zola to name a few, while France have built themselves around the likes of Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff and many more. But if there is one name that can be considered synonymous with influencing the evolution of the number 10 role both on and off the pitch that would be Johan Cruyff.
It was Rinus Michels Total Football that brought about the idea of what he called “the modern attacking playmaker”. And his go to man was the flying Dutchman. Unlike the traditional number 10s, Cruyff wore the number 14. He was more mobile off the ball and, therefore, difficult to man mark. He could start and finish a move on his own.
As a Coach
When his playing days were over, Cruyff settled for coaching and his own principles laid the foundation for the modern-day playmaker. He looked for a player in his own mould, someone who could create chaos from wide positions, the wide half spaces as well as in central areas.
The player who fit the bill was a certain Dane. A great Dane. Michael Laudrup - considered by many as the greatest player not to have won any individual honors. Whilst Laudrup would not exceed the likes of Maradona, Zico or Platini in terms of individual legacy, it was his timeless style of play and tactical fluidity which would lay down the template for future number 10’s.
Cruyff played his system in two to three variations, favoring mostly a 4-3-3 shift to a 3-4-3. Laudrup would start on the left side of the front three and would float inwards in a floating free role. Laudrap had the technical expertise to dribble past players before playing the perfect pass.
But the interesting point here was that the playmaker was not positionally a number 10. Infact, Cruyff did not have any player playing in that position. According to his philosophy, players in needed to be multitalented and multifunctional for the system to be fluid and the playmaker, while being recognised as the main star, would be no different. This approach would prove to be so successful that it arguably proved to be the ‘death’ knell to the importance attached to the traditional number 10.
Post Laudrup the final third playmakers who tended to succeed operated from wider positions and drifted inwards, picking and choosing their moments to occupy the number 10 space. This had the effect of making them harder to track down and away from the clutches of the opposition CDM – it also gave them a better view of the pitch when receiving the ball.
The best modern exponent of the wide playmaker role was Zinedine Zidane who drifted down the left as a ‘Mezzala’, before roaming to the regista position as well as the number 10. This floating role made him incredibly hard to pick up despite his chronic lack of pace and likewise Ronaldinho also played in from the left, albei not dropping as deep as the Frenchman but wielding no less influence. Compare these players to Zico, Platini or Maradona and it is clear they had more in common with Laudrup tactically.
In the modern generation, we see players like David Silva, De Bruyne and more recently Phil Foden and Jack Grealish in the English Premier League operate wider in search of ‘elusiveness’ and this has made them incredibly effective. Time will tell how this particular tactic will be combatted outside of adopting a low block and hoping for the best as at the moment it seems very difficult to counter.
When Riquelme was voted the best player in La Liga in season 2004-05, it was testament to his performance after he led Villarreal to an incredible third place finish behind champions Barcelona, led by Ronaldinho and a Galactico-laden Real Madrid side that was led by Zinedine Zidane.
The third place finish itself was by no means an easy feat but it was the style they played that garnered universal acclaim. Manuel Pelligrini had painstaking assembled a team around his main man. Riquelme had proven to be worth the time invested in him - the classic playmaker every team dreamed of having in their team. Except for one that is.
Prior to his stint at Villarreal and after his glorious stint at Boca Juniors, Riquelme had toiled at Barcelona under the helm of a certain Louis Van Gaal. The Dutchman considered him a political signing but more importantly, he could not build team that could get the best out of the Argentine. He was not alone. When Van Gaal left, Radomir Antic came in and his system did not suit Riquelme either.
The problem? Barcelona ever since Cruyff took charge, were a team-orientated side who played a high tempo brand of possession football, where stars had to fit in with the overarching club philosophy rather than the club tailoring its ethos to their bespoke needs. Riquelme needed to the sun in the solar system, or the system itself – Barcelona were not going to accommodate that, they had learnt their lesson after Maradona.
At Villarreal, however, Pelligrini had a taste for artistry. His teams were known to reward flair and individuality whilst refusing to compromise on tactical cohesiveness. Most importantly, he was open to the idea of revolving his team around a Classic number 10. A player that does it all for the team.
Whilst Riquelme had a very successful career at both club and international levels, his contrasting times at the two clubs in the Spanish league is a stark example of how and why the classic playmaker has always been a rare commodity and how post Cruyff it became increasingly difficult for an old school number 10 to thrive in the multi-layered and complex modern playing systems.
The Tiki Taka influence
With the classic number 10 becoming too easy to pick up, other than deploying such a player out wide - another strategy was to play them deeper away from the attention of the opposition CDM. This deeper lying creative/controlling hybrid would be called a ‘Regista’. Two players benefitted from this evolution and went on to become the greatest representatives of their respective clubs and country.
Xavi Hernandez was the star general for Spain’s and Barcelona’s dominant era. He won everything both at club level and repeated the same feat in International football. A genius on the ball, Xavi is the only player in football history to have an assist at two Champions League finals and two European Championship finals. The achievement is all the more impressive since Xavi played in a deeper role, operating mostly outside of the final third.
When Spain won the European Championships in 2008, they brought about with them a revolution of footballing concepts. The world was taking notice. Amidst the very recognizable Tiki Tika that was introduced by Barcelona, Luis Aragones’ side played a very fluid 4-1-3-2 system that had free roamers all over the pitch. Both Iniesta and Silva played the roaming free roles in the wide half spaces in addition to taking turns playing the number 10 role. This concept of Shadow number 10s worked perfectly as opponents had difficulty marking their movement.
But the main man was Xavi. His sublime vision and clinical execution of game changing passes were key to Spain’s success. His deeper positioning meant that the diamond formation (1-2-1) in the middle would shift to a 1-3 with Xavi staying central. This was a great example of how whilst the traditional 10 was not considered viable in the modern game, controlling the central space between the penalty area and centre circle was still pivotal to the outcome of games.
The Italian Influence
From one pass master to another, while Spain can claim Xavi to be the best ever, the Azzurri had a master commander of their own that can challenge for top spot. Andrea Pirlo’s early days were in fact playing as a number 10. But after an unsuccessful stint at Inter Milan, Pirlo was sold to AC Milan, who then loaned him out to Brescia.
At Brescia, Pirlo was given a new role by Carlo Mazzone. An overly congested front line meant Mazzone could make use of the space in Brescia’s own half. The Fantasista was deployed in front of the defense. A legend was born and in the ensuing years, Pirlo became the metronome for Ancellotti’s all-conquering Milan side while also taking the Azzurri to World Cup Glory and European Championship finals not to mention his leading role in Juventus’ revival.
Tactically, Xavi and Pirlo proved that teams could control games and create a regular flow of chances from central areas without having a pure number 10. This ultimately gave coaches the option to use an extra player in the attacking positions without sacrificing the level of football IQ and vision within their team.
They say football goes in circles tactically and one particular tactical innovation which has retained its potency through the ages is that of the False 9. The ‘Paper-Man’ Matthias Sindelar and Nandor Hidegkuti were classic examples of playmakers who instead of being in a fixed position ahead of the midfield, instead chose to drift even further – in amongst the opposition centre backs before subtly drifting deeper inconspicuously to cause chaos in the hole.
For generations this tactical weapon had been forgotten before it was rediscovered by the Italian Luciano Spalletti who during his first stint as Roma coach, became famous for the 4-6-0 formation that had no striker. His quintessential number 10, Francesco Totti would start upfront and as the game wore on he would play deeper with supporting box to box midfielders running into the box for finishes.
Spalletti would influence the greatest coaches of all time including Sir Alex Ferguson who utilized Tevez and Rooney in a similar way albeit they were not really number 10’s more 9.5’s or second strikers, and Pep Guardiola who famously took Lionel Messi to new levels in this bespoke role. In the current game it has proved to be no less potent with Firmino at Liverpool a fantastic example of how the modern 10 can be relevant if deployed further forward.
Whilst big clubs with an attacking ideology have tended to avoid the use of a classic number 10 post the 80’s era, it is interesting to note that some managers had still been able to make use of the role albeit in a very defensive set up. Mourinho’s systems tend to require a playmaker with distinct abilities. Sneijder and Deco were his most favored while Ozil and Fabregas were also used to great effect.
These players acted as the hook between defence and attack – once the ball found their feet, it was a trigger to others to make offensive runs for a swift counter attack or if that was not possible to get into a shape which enables the retention of possession. However as the Cruyffian school of football took hold across the globe, the increasingly cynical Mourinho abandoned this requirement of a ‘creative’ heartbeat which had led him to so much success.
At Manchester United, Mourinho did not give enough respect to the controlling of the central half space. He put odd fits in there like Paul Pogba, who whilst a great supporting cast member has never had the mentality or the tactical prowess to run a game single-handedly as well as being the go-to creative force. This highlights just how demanding the number 10 role can be.
At Tottenham, Jose has abandoned his former approach as well as learning from his mistakes at United - adopting a Cruyffian approach with Harry Kane utilized as a false 9 and Ndombele used as a deeper lying number 10. Whilst Spurs are not perfect, they look more cohesive and decisive in possession than his United team did. It is also serves as proof that even evangelists for the number 10 role have recognised the difficulty in making it work in the modern game.
It seems to predict the future, one must look at the work of Marcelo Bielsa – who always seems one step ahead of the curve. A fundamental principle for Bielsa is that in his system the number 10 would have to "run". The number 10 is essentially a "box to box" runner that can create in the blink of an eye. One can imagine how in the modern game, such a player would fit and we see glimpses of it with his use of Mateusz Klich.
The player in question needs to be capable of pressing the opposition CDM and therefore cannot be a liability defensively. Furthermore if they are able to ‘run’ they should be able to roam across the pitch, locate pockets of space and drive with the ball or at times even take up positions on the wing, interchanging with wingers.
Bruno Fernandes is a more poignant example. He does not have the classic characteristics of a traditional number 10 in terms of possessing an insatiable desire to control the game, an inch-perfect weight of pass, flawless decision-making and elite level footwork but he can 'run'. He is not a liability defensively and he takes risks, creating chances in a blink of an eye. He is proof perhaps that a more outcomes oriented and less artistic number 10, can still function in the modern game without necessarily needing to station himself deeper, out wide or further up front.
It does seem as if the classic number 10 seems to have died out as we remembered it. Mesut Ozil is probably the last traditional number 10 that operated at the elite end of the game and whilst the likes of Bruno Fernandes and James Maddison are prime examples of modern 10’s which can prove effective on the domestic scene, they have not proven their tactical efficacy on the big stage.
Football does go in cycles and as we shift away perhaps from systematic dominance to a greater emphasis on individual brilliance to break the deadlock between two very well-drilled teams, perhaps the number 10 will come back into fashion across the footballing spectrum although it is hard to envisage such a player being in the mould of a Riquelme or an Ozil. They will probably be two footed, creative, goal scoring machines who can press as hard as they can drive with the ball. In order for the 10 to rise from the ashes, their needs to be an evolution or basically we need to wait for another Kaka.