The Importance and Resurgence of the Number 10
This article was written prior to Mesut Ozil's move to Arsenal Football Club.
“The number 10 normally denotes two things. Firstly, and most obviously, an element of fantasy: the 10 is the player who can win a match — or rescue it — with a feint, flick or free-kick. But the craque (star player) has a burden to bear: he’s not like the other players, so isn’t judged by the same criteria. There is a responsibility involved because the team’s prospects are so entwined with his performance.” (Jack Lang)
Even before I started watching football I knew the importance of the number 10 shirt from cricket’s Sachin Tendulkar. It was given only to the best player on the team, the star who could be counted on to lead, shoulder the burden of responsibility that comes with being that good and use his god-given talent and abilities to help the team win but also push the boundaries of the sport. When I became a football fan, one of the first things I did was to check out the legends, the current no. 10s on their way to definite glory, and the ones who had preceded them, made history and raised a certain standard the future potentials needed to live up to.
At that point in time, or even a few years later, I wasn’t really aware of the intricacies involved with the position, its definition or the possibilities of its role in a team. With this piece, I hope to look at how the no. 10 role has changed over the years, how it’s given rise to different types of playmakers and how football tactics or formations are themselves a large, constantly evolving and adapting entity.
This article on Football Speak does a very good job of detailing the history of the numbered jersey system as well as current rules across the football playing countries of the world. (For fellow Gooners, there is an additional interest with Arsenal’s involvement in both landmarks – 1928 when jersey numbers were used for the first time ever, and the 1993 League Cup final when the numbered system was officially introduced by the FA. Incidentally their opponent for both matches was Sheffield Wednesday!) The writer also mentions a funny anecdote involving Pele. As even a non-football person knows, Pele is synonymous with the number 10 jersey in football. He made it famous even before Maradona was anywhere on the scene and is the ultimate benchmark. Apparently he was given the number 10 due to a mix-up, but none of that mattered by the end of the 1958 World Cup when he had scored 6 goals in 4 matches and was awarded the young player of the tournament as Brazil beat Sweden in the final.
One thing that has always been clear about the no. 10 role is its qualification as the playmaker. Most number 10s have been playmakers, the number denoting their position on the field, back in the day when jersey numbers would refer to the same. Traditionally the no. 10 was given free rein in the gap between his team’s midfield and attack, so as to be able to link-up the two but also have the freedom of movement to drag the opposition’s defence out of shape, create and exploit spaces and provide goal-scoring opportunities for the forwards or themselves. This in Italy is the trequartista, in Argentina and Uruguay the enganche, and meia-atacante in Brazil. There isn’t a specific term in England with playmakers associated with either the central attacking midfielder or the 2nd striker.
All these duties require a player who is a ground-breaking visionary, technically accomplished with a skillful range of passing, crossing, dribbling, spatial awareness and ability to create something out of nothing; a moment of sheer brilliance and magic that defies natural laws and reminds us why we love the beautiful game – Platini, Laudrup, Baggio, Del Piero, Zidane, Totti, Bergkamp, Ronaldinho, Kaka to name a few. This being said, a playmaker doesn’t necessarily have to be a no. 10. I personally think that there are two things to be considered – the fact that only one player can be the assigned number 10 and that playmakers can operate from anywhere in the midfield (deep-lying or attacking) or on the flanks. But I also think that given the evidence, the existence of multiple playmakers in a team set-up came into being only once a defensive midfielder (destroyer vs creator) was introduced to rein in the impact of an opposition number 10.
A defensive midfielder was assigned mainly defensive duties – neutralising the opposition no. 10 while at the same time shielding his own back four. This gave rise to a “fourth band” on the field, behind the main line of a midfield, which became even more solid once two defensive midfielders began to be deployed in a 4-(2-2)-2 formation. Later the preference shifted to a 4-3-3 formation which has given rise to a very congested midfield with multiple playmakers from both teams – making it near impossible for a traditional no. 10 and effectively getting rid of the need for them as the attacking duties were shared between many.
Both of these developments called for the introduction of deep-lying playmakers (called the regista in Italy and the meia-armador in Brazil). They are naturally afforded more space and time on the ball being shielded by the main midfield, and can provide incisive long balls to their team’s attacking players. In a 4-4-2, a deep-lying playmaker and defensive midfielder are often played together in midfield so as to ensure defensive protection without compromising on attacking creativity. The regista skill set differs to that of a tradition no. 10 in the regard that they are not concerned simply with creating link-up play between the midfield and attack, but with orchestrating the passing of the midfield and back four, and certain defensive and tackling responsibilities as well. Some of this has in a way phased out the need for a specialist defensive midfielder, and many box-to-box midfielders (skilled at both attacking and defending) now prefer controlling the midfield from a deep-lying position with the freedom to surge up the pitch.
We can see that the functions/positions of a playmaker are in a state of constant flux, which is why players need to be a lot more versatile in modern day football – demanding physicality, the emphasis on all-round skills and technique and the ability to play in one than more position. It has given rise to a new breed of players – high on energy, physically strong and well-built athletes – like Andrea Pirlo, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Steven Gerrard, Xavi Hernandez, Mikel Arteta, Xabi Alonso, Ilkay Gundogan, Claudio Marchisio etc. These are box-to-box midfielders (skilled at both attacking and defending) who are now given the control of the midfield play with the freedom to surge up the pitch if needed.
Another tactical evolution with the preference of a 4-3-3 formation is the “false nine” aka a deep-lying forward, a role which has some similarities with that of a trequartista in terms of providing assists to team-mates and creating spaces for his team’s attacking players. The only difference is that a “false 9” essentially starts out from a centre-forward role, only to drop deeper. This naturally draws the opposition defensive players towards him and provides his team the opportunity to exploit the spaces. Of course, in spite of all this we will always have those special players, like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo who seem to embody all the roles simultaneously – playmakers, midfielders, forwards – in a beautiful and magical amalgamation of the attributes necessary to be creative, attacking footballers.
Much of what is discussed here is derived from mainstream European football. However, we need to keep in mind that tactical evolutions and preferences will not always resonate across the world. For instance, the enganche is still very popular throughout Argentina and Neymar seems to have reignited Brazil’s love affair with their iconic no. 10 during the latest Confederations Cup. At the same time, we have modern-day players who possess all the qualities that were expected of a traditional no. 10 but are played in other positions – Mesut Ozil, Mario Goetze, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard come to mind. Does this make them any less of a no. 10? Is our definition of a number 10 solely dependent on their position in the team formation? Or does it evolve along with the tactics? It is obvious that making generalised assumptions or predicting the future is very hard, with almost nothing set in stone. What this article has tried to do is throw some light on just how much the game keeps on evolving, how it seems to go through cycles just like any area in life and how these changes are closely linked with each other. Who knows? We might just see the resurgence of the traditional no. 10 a few years down the line!