August 20, 2016

The fall of the No. 10 Role

Why three midfielders are better than two, and how the creatives are being used out wide these days


Modern football has significantly changed the way we look at the sport as a whole. While certain things remain almost the same, like Spurs finishing below Arsenal, the game is ever evolving and ever-so-slightly moving towards a more technical age. With the game, even the players are moving towards this new age which you might call the “cash-rich-owners-throwing-money-everywhere” age. Yes, sweet sweet wonderful money.

With that money comes evolution in roles and personnel. Long gone are the days where the usual formations in football such as the “4-4-2” used to work (well not completely as we’ve seen Diego Simeone use this for his approach in modern football but then their application is completely different).

The No.10 role came almost as a revolution in modern football. It was fascinating for players and managers alike to adapt to it post-2005 as that the time having a “big huge guy” in the center didn’t work as efficiently. The 10 role comprises of both linking the play from the mid to the final third as well as being the focal point for the attacking play of a particular team.

These midfielders became difficult to mark because of their ability to pick up the ball in tight spaces, plus their instant attraction towards space rather than the ball. Most teams were too busy man-to-man marking at the time which allowed these midfielders to pick up the little pockets of spaces and exploit opposition. Andrés Iniesta being the hallmark of these midfielders in the modern era, with his dribbling, intelligence, pace and an eye for a pass; he is quite simply the perfect no. 10 regardless of his numbers. As the time went on, more teams started to figure out ways to stop or at-least minimise their effectiveness on the pitch. One of these ways included stopping the ball getting to them quicker, marking the space rather than the player in which they used to drift into, plus being aggressive with the player. This has recently forced a rethink on the part of the managers and this is where Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid and their use of the old 2 striker system comes in.

What the Atletico Madrid Godfather has done is reinvent the 10 role in the way his team play. Atletico’s tough in your face system has been a revelation where he deploys Griezmann in the supposed 10 role and plays Torres as the main forward. Here, the No. 10 acts as the second striker rather than a midfielder but his ability on the ball means that he could link up play as well as be an attacking goalscorer in the process. A key element to this is playing Saúl, a midfielder, wide. This gives Atletico more balance in the middle allowing Saúl to drop deep to defend and go wide to attack the spaces left behind by the marauding fullbacks of the opposition. Everything was structured and everything was well thought out.

Managers had to change their approach to football because of the counter attacking nature of the modern game. The usual José-esque soak up the pressure and hit ’em on the break, nothing new right? Easier said than done. This proves very difficult to defend against unless you have 3 reliable midfielders in the middle. Leaving 2 central with a 10 in the final third leaves teams horribly exposed. One example of this is Arsenal playing Aaron Ramsey out wide; he may not have liked it but it gave Arsenal more balance in midfield since Özil isnt really keen on dropping deep and doing his defensive work.

Teams that are playing with a No. 10 are basically handicapped defensively unless the wide players are tactically astute enough to drop deep and help make the three-man midfield. Initially two men are behind the ball which is why most teams have gone to play either a No. 6 in that role or another striker to give more firepower to the teams that are attacking. Its impossible to defend with just two central midfielders ahead of the ball (see Arsenal’s humiliating defeats to Chelsea, City and Liverpool in 13/14).

Barcelona have played Andrés Iniesta wide to accommodate his genius and make up the numbers as to not leave Barcelona too exposed on the counter. The 4-3-3 system suits the modern game to a tee as it allows both defensive and offensive transitions to be made. Some of the top creative players are being played out wide ranging from James, Iniesta, Silva, Özil (with Germany).

So with teams being more tactically aware and managers beginning to figure out how to play such kinds of midfielders, we are again in the midst of a problem. Some 10’s are tactically smart enough to cover wide areas as efficiently as they normally can, while other teams are no longer looking at creative no 10 midfielders. The emphasis is on smart midfielders that are able to perform in any of the front 3 roles given the situation of the team. Its getting evidently clear that football is moving towards the traditional 4-4-2 or the new 4-3-3 with wide players being the creative ones, leaving the no.10 role in a state of limbo.

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