Football fans have been spoilt over the last decade, witnessing arguably two of the greatest players ever battle it out in the same era in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. However, this period has also seen the demise of what was traditionally football’s most important position, the ‘number 10’.
For decades, some of the most creative and gifted players we have ever seen played in the number 10 position; Zinedine Zidane, Diego Maradona, Ronaldinho, Kaka, Michel Platini, Eusebio and Francesco Totti.
The Demise of the ‘Number 10’
Role of the ‘Number 10’
A ‘number 10’ is the team’s primary playmaker, operating in a free role between the midfield and the forwards. They lead the team’s attack using their excellent vision, control and passing range to dictate the play.
‘Number 10’s’ were 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 were the attacking heartbeat of the team.
The mid-to-late twentieth century’s most successful teams were built around an exceptional playmaker.
Why Has the ‘Number 10’ Suddenly Disappeared?
The tactical evolution of the game has played a major part, particularly the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations used today. 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 can only be one ‘number 10’ as there isn’t enough space for three out and out playmakers.
It’s almost impossible to play a ‘number 10’ against these 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 suffers an extended dip in form, the entire team will suffer. This mentality doesn’t exactly give modern players the confidence to back themselves and be creative.
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.
However, many talented players lacking in pace or ill-suited to playing up front can still drive attacking play as playmakers.
The Case of Juan Roman Riquelme
These players are being wasted in the modern game, either on the bench or in another position.
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’. Receiving little game time and regularly playing out of position, Riquelme’s 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. They allowed him to roam the space between the midfield and the strikers and find holes in the opposition’s defence.
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, a world-class one in fact. We may never have known how good he actually was if he hadn’t found a team that was willing to play him there.
Is the ‘Number 10’ Dead?
The ‘number 10’ isn’t completely extinct yet. There are still some great players out there who you could argue are keeping the position alive such as David Silva, 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.
Many technically gifted youngsters destined to be the next Eusebio or Dennis Bergkamp may never get the chance to develop in their best position.