It was once the most coveted position in world football, occupied by some of the game’s greatest players. Laudrup, Platini, Eusebio, Cruyff, Zidane, Aimar, Totti – the list goes on. Luxurious players, not luxury players. What is evident over the past few years is that footballers in this mould are falling into the latter category. They are becoming an endangered species. Ask yourself the question – how many elite sides, in the Premier League especially, fall into the category of ‘traditional Number 10’?
Manchester City have creativity to spare, but none of their magicians fall into that hat. De Bruyne plays deeper in a midfield three, Bernardo Silva has the work-rate and adaptability to play on the wings, and even David Silva has been moulded by Guardiola into a more functional part of his system. Liverpool operate a midfield almost specifically devoid of such creativity. It is a key part of their system. Although players like Wijnaldum have shown skill in driving forward with the ball, it is just one facet of their game. Even at their most cohesive peak, both Alli and Eriksen couldn’t be described as a traditional playmaker under Pochettino’s Spurs.
Let’s take a look at some of Europe’s elite. Barcelona have Messi, so that’s almost not worth analysing, but part of why Coutinho ‘failed’ at the Catalan giants was his perceived inability to adapt to a side where he wasn’t the primary creator. Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus, Real Madrid, PSG – there isn’t a traditional 10 holding down a starting spot amongst any of the top sides.
I think this is down to a few related reasons. Firstly, the role of the10 thrived in space and freedom allowed in a 4-2-3-1. Acting as the link between two sitting midfielders and the other attackers, he was afforded a creative freedom that isn’t possible in modern football. They were given a pass on defensive work, and essentially allowed to orchestrate most of the attack. Such was their artistry, their selection was separate from the rest of the XI; it is why they were often accused of being the ‘teacher’s pet’. What we are seeing now is a move away from that formation. The best sides in the world might still shift to a 4-2-3-1 in attack, but that is all it is – a shift. Coaching is so intensive in the upper echelons of the sport, with sides adapting their shape during the game; this shows that the freedom once enjoyed by Cruyff, Sneijder et al. is impossible to allow. Someone operating in the heart of your side must contribute in both directions. No position requires more versatility than a central midfielder in the modern game.
This follows to the second point – intensity. The majority of the great 10s in football’s history have played as though they could have worn a smoking jacket at their peak (ironically most did like a cigarette off the pitch). At a time when players were both less intensely drilled and not as physically fit, this could be accommodated. With the increased professionalisation of football, fitness regimes ramped up, and this became harder to do. Couple that with a shift in footballing philosophy amongst lots of clubs, and the player once tasked with dictating the tempo can no longer play to the beat of his own drum. If you have one cog in the machine not singing from the same hymn sheet, the entire system falls apart. Nowhere is this highlighted more than in a pressing system; an off-the-ball tactic in vogue. If you have one player not committing, gaps are left and the opposition can simply play right through the centre of your team. Even if a manager decides not to implement a high-press, preferring to sit in a low-block, the 10 has no place. You can’t imagine Sean Dyche allowing one of his players a licence to stand still. What is the point in funnelling your opponents into a certain zone of the pitch, with the aim of placing your defenders and midfielders in positions to block the easiest passing route, if someone eschews this plan? The only player allowed to do so has to provide some form of ‘out ball’, needing physical stature to keep possession from a clearance, and bring his teammates into the next phase of play. Regardless of the system, a midfielder can’t exist outside of it.
The third point is arguably the most ‘insulting’ to the Downing Street purists. The Cummings and goings of football have seen the creative fulcrum of many top tier teams shift. Let’s return to these shores and look at the best Premier League sides. The vast majority all have extremely energetic and creative players out wide. Liverpool’s attacking thrust starts with their fullbacks. I criticised Unai Emery heavily last year for the one-note nature of Arsenal’s attack, revolving largely around cutbacks from the Kolasinac. Manchester City are very good at positioning creators wide for the likes of Sterling and Aguero to tap home goals from inside the box. Renowned fullback breaker Pochettino only does so because he places so much emphasis on those two positions. The early days of Lampard’s tenure at Chelsea have seen a similar dominance of fullback creativity, or playmaking wide-men. Important amongst all these individuals is their ability to contribute in all sectors of the pitch. The vestiges of central creativity have been pushed back into the midfield three. The FM necessity, ‘the deep-lying playmaker’, has surpassed the 10 in importance. In a zeitgeist of fast-paced football, it makes more sense to have an excellent passer positioned further back. It allows you to hit teams on the break quickly and eases the transition of play from defence to attack; vital as so many teams now want to build play from their goalkeeper. Paul Pogba did this for France in the World Cup, as did fellow finalist Luka Modric for Croatia. Jorginho plays this position perfectly, with his instinctive knowledge of the positioning of his teammates the reason he was coveted by Guardiola before he signed for Chelsea. What Pogba adds to this position is the ability to bring the ball out himself. Perhaps a generational talent on a technical level, his physical attributes mark him out as a player that managers constantly seek to build their side around. In years gone by, that honour was bestowed on the 10. The statistical shining light for the modern creator, in my opinion, is Naby Keita. At his peak in the Bundesliga, ‘the home of the Geigenpress’, he was not just a bundle of energy as he scythed down opponents defensively. He offered so much more, as he packaged this tackling with an intensely athletic press and artful creativity. Essentially, he was a Swiss Army Knife player – adaptable to all scenarios.
Even in the attacking area of the pitch, there are forwards who hog the creative spotlight. ‘Nine and halves’ like Firmino and Mertens, who play more as a striker in name only, provide the link play of a 10 with the finishing of a centre forward. Firmino in particular has proven this season that, if you are able to find an attacker happy to drop slightly deeper and supply chances to lethal wingers, then there really is no need for a 10. An attribute shared by all of these positional/tactical changes is that the player occupying that role is either adaptable, energetic, or positionally perfect. A rare few are all three.
And herein is the main problem with this piece’s protagonist – Mesut Ozil. Whilst the smoking jacket has gone out of fashion, the German still tries to play in comfy loafers holding a pipe. Even though he has created the most chances under Unai Emery, it Ozil is now a marginalised figure at Arsenal. The breadcrumbs have been there for some time, as the Spaniard commented last season that he wasn’t ‘physically ready’ or lacked the ‘intensity’ for certain matches. His stand-out performance over the past two years is undoubtedly the home victory against Leicester. There we saw everything a 10 can offer. The game was open enough to allow his defensive absence to be eschewed for moments of magic, especially the focal role he played in Arsenal’s third goal as he thrice pivoted an extraordinary counter attacking move. Unfortunately, these performances have been too rare. Nothing brings more joy than watching Ozil at his peak, and all Arsenal fans would like to see that; I think the narrative of fans ‘hounding him out of the club’ presupposes a naivety as to what he could bring.
Nearly a year on from that Leicester performance, and Ozil was omitted from Arsenal’s matchday squad once more. Despite being named one of the five captains of the club, Emery decided a home game to notoriously open and expansive Bournemouth wasn’t right for him. Behind the scenes the rift appears to be growing. Talk is of Ozil not committing enough in training, including an episode where he allegedly tried to convince a youth player to vouch that he had done an extra session. It was well-known that Arsenal were actively trying to offload him during the Summer, and despite his reintegration during preseason, it seems that Ozil and Emery still don’t see eye-to-eye (insert joke about Ozil’s fish-like face here). At its core, the problem lies with the aforementioned evolution of football. This is magnified with a manager such as Emery, who’s raison d’etre is his system. He is renowned for his studious research into his opponents, intense systematic drilling that makes oil rigs look eco-friendly, and an inability to accommodate ‘egos’ into his side. It was something that marked his tenure at PSG, and it looks set to do so again at the Emirates.
Emery looks to be trying to mould Arsenal into a team capable of playing on the transition. The signings of Pépé and Ceballos, the shift to the back four, and the desire to play a front three indicate that. Again, Ozil is a casualty of not fitting the bill. The club’s hierarchy appear to be fine with Emery’s handling of the German, and ultimately it is they whom the manager is beholden to. Regardless, I can’t help but think there is a better way to deal with the situation. I am not advocating for Ozil to start, but not to include him in the squad seems to be unnecessarily spiteful. No player in the Arsenal squad has matched Ozil’s creative stats from last season, thus far. In the Premier League, Bukayo Saka comes closest to matching his Key Passes per 90, and only Dani Ceballos can equal his pass completion percentage. This is partly due to the turnover in personnel and shift in style, but I find it hard to believe that having a creator on the bench would not be useful. It has been lamentable how many times Arsenal have looked stale in midfield this season; disjointed is an understatement. It only appears to be when the game opens up – even more than the blackhole in midfield already allows – that chances flow freely. In such a game state, you don’t lose too much by having a 10 on the pitch. It is bizarre that such a ‘hallowed’ pragmatist can’t see that. Reacting to an open game, specifically when your side needs to score, by bringing on a 10 makes perfect sense to me.
Given that nuance is dead, it’s not surprising the camps are divided. It appears Ozil is either a disgrace to Arsenal, or a saviour mistreated by a cruel tyrant. In my opinion, its somewhere in between. Should he be starting? No. Football has evolved beyond his position, and Arsenal have to move with the times if they are to compete at the top level again. Is the way he is being treated fair? Probably not. Unless he has completely ‘downed tools’ and refused to sit on the bench (a possibility), not including him in matchday squads is robbing yourself of a creative asset that could be very useful in certain scenarios.