The disappearing number 10

This occurred to me while watching Tom Rogic dominating the game in a recent outing for Celtic - whatever happened to the number 10 role?

AS Roma v FC Astra Giurgiu - UEFA Europa League

Legendary trequartista Francesco Totti Source: Getty Images Europe

Rogic is your classic number 10, even though he wears number 18. He may indeed be the best number 10 we ever had. And that’s partly because we haven’t had too many.

For many decades the number 10 was the most critical position in football. He was the playmaker or schemer. The Italians called him ‘mezza punta’ or ‘trequartista’. In Brazil they call him the ‘centro-campista’ or ‘meia-armador’. It was these guys who conducted their team’s attacking play. They were invariably creative and technically gifted.

But for a variety of reasons they are few and far between in the modern game.

The number 10 role first emerged in the 1920s when Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman invented the WM system. The number 8 was the inside right and the number 10 the inside left. They were the playmakers and the most creative players.

Before then the playmaker was the roving centre half, the number 5, a role Chapman killed off by withdrawing the number 5 into a purely defensive role.

Some of the world’s greatest ever players were all number 10s (even if they didn’t always wear that number): Eusebio, Gianni Rivera, Bobby Charlton, Didi, Rivelino, Gunther Netzer, Wolfgang Overath, Michel Platini, Diego Maradona, Lothar Matthaus, Carlos Valderrama, Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldinho, Francesco Totti.

In the great Hungary of the 1950s the playmaker was Nándor Hidegkúti, the withdrawn centre forward, a tactical move which was the death of WM and brought in the 4-2-4.

And they are just the players I have seen in my lifetime.

But where are they today? I scratch my head in trying to find some. Maybe David Silva. Maybe Mesut Özil. Maybe Willian. Maybe Juan Mata.

So why is there such a dearth of these guys?

One reason is that in the modern game the coaches are all too powerful. And most of them don’t like to rely on commanding individuals on the field. They want to control the fate of the game themselves.

It wasn’t always so. There was a period, over a hundred years ago, when teams didn’t even have coaches. The England national team as recently as 1963 was selected by committee.

The second reason is tactical evolution. Most leading teams today play either 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1.

In the 4-3-3 there is no playmaker, no trequartista, because the player in the middle of the midfield three plays deep as a defensive midfielder. For example when the Socceroos play this way Rogic is a left sided midfielder with usually Aaron Mooy on the right.

If the Socceroos use 4-2-3-1, Rogic plays in the middle of the attacking midfield trio and can thus be regarded a genuine playmaker. But in 4-2-3-1 there are three playmakers not one.

Not long ago we had a player who, at his peak, was a wonderful number 10, Nick Carle. You will remember the frustration of many observers when Carle was rarely used by then national coach Pim Verbeek. And he was even less used by Verbeek’s successor, Holger Osieck.

That was mostly because Carle didn’t fit into their preferred system. Another reason was that Carle was flamboyant and unpredictable.

Years earlier we also had Troy Halpin, another excellent, gifted number 10. Our national coaches didn’t like him either.

Will the era of the commanding number 10 ever return? One has to doubt it.

It is possible that a playing system will emerge which requires the use of a number 10. But the disdain by coaches for playmakers who actually think for themselves rather have the coach do their thinking for them will never be unwound.

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4 min read
Published 3 November 2016 at 4:03pm
By Les Murray