The disappearance of the number 10
The number 10 has often been seen as the most creative and flamboyant player on the pitch. Graceful movement and a deft touch, they opened up the possibility of football being an art where simplicity should be treasured. But what’s happened to the trequartista, enganche or free-role playmaker over the years since the game has changed?
European football has seen a decline in such players for several possible reasons. One of which may be that the speed of the game has disconnected these players from their most prized assets: time and space. The spread of pressing and improved physicality of players have combined to limit both time and space in the final third and between the lines – the area no.10s did the most damage.
Another possible reason is that no.10s often became too influential to a team’s style of play. By becoming the central focal point to a sides creativity, teams become one dimensional in their search of a creative outlet. Most top European sides now operate with at least one if not two defensive midfielders or one anchorman – these players have become masters of neutralizing the talents of the no.10s.
Over the past 5 seasons – all top five European leagues have seen a decline in minutes given to central attacking midfielders. The biggest shifts have been in the Premier League and La Liga with declines of 39% and 64% respectively. Unsurprisingly, Serie A seems to have been the most resistant – and this makes sense when looking at formations used in Italy. During this period, the 4-3-1-2 (13.4%) and 3-5-2 (12.6%), both operating with a no.10, were the 2nd and 3rd most commonly used formations.
Modern-day playmakers now need to be universal, and fit within a system, as their defensive responsibilities have changed. Moving forward, players like Phil Foden and Kai Havertz may need to develop other sides of their game that wasn’t required of no.10s 10-15 years ago. These types of players may also be valued differently in the future depending on how influential they can be in a specific league. For instance, teams in Serie A may value no.10s more than those in the Bundesliga as they are more integral to their play and therefore be willing to pay more for their services.
It seems, at least for now, that the true no.10 has not passed the test of time. Just like many other positions before, it has been phased out by evolution. However, it has developed into different roles in other areas of the pitch such as the deep-lying-playmaker, false 10 and the false 9 where their unique talents are still important.
Our club must, therefore, be ready to adapt to evolutions in the game as well as the skill sets and tasks set out to its players. We’ve seen the game change significantly this century, including a trend towards smaller, more technical players, and towards more attacking football. To borrow a phrase from Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting The Pyramid – the no.10s story is as follows; “it is no longer enough to simply be beautiful; it must be beautiful within the system.”