The midfield is the most important cog in a successful team, linking the play from the defence to the attack and a spanner thrown into the works in the form of an unbalanced or poor midfield, can prove detrimental to a club’s performance and ultimately, their success. There are various roles that can be played whilst in midfield such as the famous Claude Makelele role, named after the former Real Madrid and Chelsea Frenchman, which is the deep-lying or defensive midfielder whose job it is to break up the play and spray the ball towards the final third for the attackers to latch on to. However there is one midfield position which is predominately praised and renowned, the player at the tip of the midfield, the number 10. The no 10 was the epitome of what was great about attacking football. How they ran through the channels to make space, had great vision and the passing ability to complete an eye of a needle pass, coupled with an eye for goals, this made the CAM position the most wonderfully entertaining and enjoyable player to watch. Notice how I’ve used past tense. This is because sadly, the number 10 of old, is no longer with us.
Zinedine Zidane, Kaka and Rui Costa and even Francesco Totti are all examples of the style of the ‘in the hole’ player that was around during the turn of the century but if there was one player that completely captured the essence and elegancy of what a number 10 was, it was Juan Roman Riquelme without a doubt. He romanticized the idea of attacking football, with his quick feet and what he lacked in pace, was more than compensated in his vision and creative passing. The Argentine was a pioneer, a visionary, an artist who saw his finishing stroke 10 steps before execution. In his early years at Boca, many drew comparisons to fellow countryman and national hero Diego Maradona. Riquelme’s time at Catalan club Barcelona was short-lived due to current Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal not really taking a liking to Juan Roman, deeming him to the bench and when he was played, he was shifted out wide, which a player of his style isn’t used to due to his lack of pace. When he moved to fellow La Liga team Villareal, Riquelme showcased his talents in Europe. 2006 however, would prove to be his breakout year, strange considering he was 28 by 2006. Included in Jose Peckerman’s world cup squad, Roman was handed the number 10 jersey. Riquelme was the fire, heart and soul of the Argentina team, pulling the strings and showing the world, and Louis van Gaal, what a player Argentina had in their hands. Every time he was on the ball the crowd anticipated his move, was it going to be a driven ball into space, an effortless dink over the top or an outside of the boot curler pass? Riquelme was the last of a dying breed of players in the hole before his retirement earlier, the era’s last remaining soldier.
The way the number 10 plays is very fluid and needs a team based around them, or you would never get their true potential and best performances out of them. They are often the creative hub of the team and creative spark which start of the team’s offensive play. One of their biggest qualities is their vision and ability to read the game well and visualize a move in their head, and then move to execute the move effectively, This is helped by their good ball control, glue-like dribbling and this coupled with a great footballing brain makes them one of the most efficient and intelligent players on the pitch. Another trait they hold is their ability to run through the channels into space or even to withdraw space in some instances, and with number 10’s generally being quite agile and possessing great balance, it was quite hard to mark and stifle their influence on the pitch and the play, even for the most experienced defenders around. Number 10’s are situated solely in the middle and operate the best when they have the space needed, unlike when they are shifted out the left or the right, the best example being Riquelme at Barcelona. However the main reason they’re the vocal point of a team’s attack is because of their passing range and being able to play the final ball, the killer ball. When they are playing, they do not get back and contribute to the team defensively, which I think has carved their downfall in recent years.
In today’s game, everything is so compact and packed it’s impossible for a number 10 to get the room he needs to roam and make things happen and their creativity is stifled and more is expected of them now, such as having a greater defensive contribution as well as being the team’s attacking vocal point, something that the number 10’s of this generation haven’t been taught, as they’ve grown up idolizing and being coached on players such as Michael Laudrup and Roberto Baggio, players who were highly praised for their attacking prowess and were never ones to be big on defensive contribution and were more than content with staying in and around the final third. One man who has had an influence on the downfall of the classic number 10 is Jose Mourinho. Of course at Inter Milan he had Dutch star man Wesley Sneijder, in which they won the treble together but Wesley was a Mourinho signing and was moulded into how he viewed a number 10 to be, a creative player almost starved of creative freedom. The former Porto manager does have a track record of stifling creative player to such an extent where they’re deemed surplus to requirements. One of example is Kaka, who joined Real Madrid from AC Milan for £56m, and was touted to become a Bernabeu great and after a promising debut season, he looked well on his way. Then Mourinho came at the Madrid helm. He bought German playmaker Mesut Ozil and effectively shunted Kaka out of the picture, this coupled with his injury woes, Kaka left Real as one of the biggest flops ever seen in the Spanish capital. When Kaka was played, he was often played out wide, the Brazilian was never blessed with blistering pace so never played too well. The most famous example however, is Juan Mata. Voted Chelsea’s player of the year two years running upon Jose’s return ahead of the 2013/14 season, many expected the Spaniard to blossom and progress even further as a player. That didn’t happen. Jose dropped him from the first team almost instantly and replaced him with Oscar, stating the reason being that Mata doesn’t and can’t track back to defend. This was the final nail in the coffin for the classic number 10, which many likened Mata to. He then joined Manchester United in January 2014, and has been a hit with the Manchester club, becoming one of their most important players. Now the very man who replaced Juan Mata at Chelsea, Oscar, is heavily a subject to a move away from the London club due to Jose wanting more creativity in midfield, yet he made Oscar be as defensive minded as he is today? Maybe it’s just the way the game’s changed, but deep inside us, we all yearn for the number 10 of old.