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Goodbye number 10: An analysis on the demise of the classic 10

Evolution teaches us about the gradual development of organisms from earlier forms to their current state. Man is believed to have evolved from a primitive state identified as Australopithecus robustus to his present form as Homo sapiens sapiens. While nobody physically observed this change, the beautiful game shows us a model of what scientists mean with one of football’s most revered positions – the number 10, gradually fading into obscurity.

In an attempt to critically evaluate this situation, a number of questions must be asked.

Who is the number 10?

He is Juan Roman Riquelme, Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane, Jay-Jay Okocha, Francesco Totti, Ronaldinho Gaucho, Dennis Bergkamp, and every other player who played/play in similitude to the aforementioned players.

Charged with the main responsibility of creating chances for the striker and the rest of the team, the number 10 uses vision, technique, trickery, guile, excellent passing range to carry out his playmaking duties in a manner that is most pleasing to the eye. Brilliant, yet lazy; pivotal, yet elusive; visible, yet invisible, his complex nature endears him to the fans, in fact, a reasonable number of the spectators are there just to see him play. The trequartista, as the Italians call him is that good.

Why did the number 10 go out of fashion?

From the early 1990s to around the first half-decade of the 21st century, the 4-4-2 was established as the most common formation in football. During this period, teams operated with a traditional playmaker with either one of the two strikers playing the role, as shown by Dennis Bergkamp, or one of the two base midfielders operating higher up the field in a pseudo-diamond 4-4-2 manner as exemplified by Zinedine Zidane. It is no coincidence that many of the great number 10s in the history of the game thrived during this era, because like the planets around the sun, the game revolved around them.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

However, during the mid-2000s, football started to experience a fundamental change in structure with the adoption of the 4-3-3 or the 4-2-3-1 instead of the 4-4-2. The success of these formations against the 4-4-2, as epitomized by Jose Mourinho’s back-to-back EPL winning side during the 2004/2005 and 2005-2006 season caused a tremor in the footballing world, and many other coaches decided to participate in this experiment.The results were impressive and this came at the expense of the classic number 10.

The 4-3-3 for instance involved three players in midfield with one playing as a defensive midfielder and the other two being hardworking central midfielders willing to take up a variety of tasks and play for the team with or without the ball. In the case of the 4-2-3-1, the three players ahead of the two holding players were charged with the responsibility of creating chances for the team, and therefore, the creative burden no longer rested on the shoulders of just one player. Furthermore, the potency of this formation in nullifying the effect of the number 10 was immense as it became difficult for him to deliver against the five men in the middle.

Image Credit: https://www.footballcoin.io/blog/jose-mourinho-football-tactics-tottenham-2020/

Another interesting twist to the fortunes of the trequartista was the rise of another crop of creatives who created from deep. Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso typified this crop of players identified as registas. Teams that were able to get these kinds of players didn’t need to operate with a traditional number 10.

The tradeoff became clear, the classic number 10 substituted for a combative midfield pair capable of influencing the game in a more well-rounded manner or playing a deep-lying playmaker instead of a trequartista. There was no longer room for this lazy genius to create his magic and the spell he cast upon us was broken.

Is this the end of the number 10?

In recent times, we have seen modern reincarnates of the classic number 10 in James Rodriguez, Andres Iniesta, Kevin De Bruyne, Philippe Coutinho, David Silva, and so on. These players have had to adapt to the needs of modern football and adjust their game to suit these demands. Some have had to play as central midfielders or even wingers, in their quest for relevance in this modern day. They have learned to add speed to their movement, defending to their game, and depth to their arsenal.

Those who have failed to adjust to these needs have suffered for it. Mesut Ozil for instance, despite his talent, has suffered criticism for his perceived laziness, and lack of commitment. He and others like him who fail to adapt will continue to suffer because they attended the party one generation too late.

With this said, we are grateful to have witnessed these artists dominate the game with so much grace and beauty. The beautiful game oozed more beauty when these players were given the platform to shine as stars. However, with football proving to be an ever-changing sport, it would not be too optimistic of me to think that there could be a return of these players albeit in another generation and with different names. Until then, it is goodbye, number 10!

  • Great Oriahi.

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