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The number 10 is one of the most celebrated roles in recent times. A position designed primarily to seek out space between the lines, this position has seen a variety of players with different qualities over the last few years. Tyrrell Meertins wonders whether Raheem Sterling represents a new breed of central attacking players.


Sterling

The international break showcased an evident shift in Roy Hodgson’s England side. With Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard retired from international football, and Ashley Cole’s exclusion from the World Cup cementing the left back’s fate, a new era in English football awaited.

Where Gary Cahill and Joe Hart serve as ideal leaders, Hodgson lacked a player to build the squad around. Wayne Rooney was the obvious choice – the captain for club and country and the most successful player in the England setup appeared logical, but the 28-year-old has been underwhelming in recent months.

 

Raheem Sterling, however, further solidified his role as England’s most in-form player. Hodgson shaped his team around Sterling, aligning England in a 4-4-2 diamond with Sterling playing at the tip during their best moments against Norway and for large portions of their tilt with Switzerland. Sterling’s evolution over the past 12 months has taken the world by surprise. The 19-year-old was one of the key cogs in Liverpool’s title challenge last year, and a move to the no. 10 role could be the way forward for club and country.

Sterling’s threat behind the striker, though, also represents a shift in the modern game. The most appreciated position over the last few years has been the creative midfielder, and there have been constant changes in the last decade regarding the ideal no.1 0, beginning with Kaka guiding Milan to European supremacy against Liverpool in 2007.

The Brazilian is an atypical playmaker that didn’t receive defensive duties, as Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan relied on deeper midfielders in Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf to provide creativity. Kaka’s 104 goals and 60 assists signify his role as a second striker that dominated games with his pacy direct runs, opposed to a nifty selfless player that created numerous chances between the lines.

Wesley Sneijder was also tipped as the archetype playmaker during Inter Milan’s treble-winning season, but his world-class performances were short-lived. The Dutchman was imperious over a six-month period as a sole creator under Jose Mourinho, but never sustained those levels once the Portuguese manager departed. Sneijder’s ability to ignite counter-attacks through his proficient passing, along with creating chances with incisive through-balls led to his dominance, but his eagerness to add goals to his game thwarted his overall form.

Sadly, there’s been a shortage of creative players in Italy following Kaka and Sneijder’s reign, as managers have fielded powerful runners in advanced positions. There was a period where Fredy Guarin and Kevin-Prince Boateng represented a combative group of no. 10’s, as they were the most advanced midfielders for their respective clubs, and while personnel have arrived and departed Serie A, only Roma’s Francesco Totti can be considered as a player that operates between the lines for a top club.

Where Juventus still rely on Arturo Vidal’s running and Paul Pogba’s box-to-box threat, Napoli’s Marek Hamsik has been considerably underwhelming under Rafa Benitez. Nonetheless, despite the decline of trequartistas in Italy, Sneijder’s short reign as chief creator did lead to a period where nifty diminutive midfielders thrived at an elite level.

The likes of Juan Mata, David Silva and Mesut Ozil left the world in awe with their sleek movement, delicate inch-perfect passes, and admirable ability to exploit space between the lines. Where Silva is the sole member of the trio still dazzling in a looser system at Manchester City, Ozil and Mata – who at one point were legitimate world-class players and the best creators in their respected leagues – are yet to convince in a new system and club.

While both players joined reputable Premier League giants to sustain their places as elite European players, neither side prepared a logical plan to maximize their talents. Oddly, Ozil still lacks teammates that make runs behind the opposition defence, where Mata’s role in United’s setup is uncertain.

However, the role of the playmaker evolved through Toni Kroos, who under Jupp Heynckes appeared to be the classic modern day playmaker.  The German’s appreciation of space enabled him to receive the ball in pockets of space, but also drop into central areas to ensure his midfield wasn’t overrun. A combination of tactical discipline and efficient passing saw the 24-year-old control games and disrupt opposing “deep-lyers”, but the arrival of Pep Guardiola provided another shift. Guardiola utilized Kroos’ competent passing rate and execution in a midfield three, thus leaving a sudden stall in an exciting cycle.

However, Sterling’s rise for club and country could buck the trend. Sterling is somewhat of a hybrid of a playmaker and lethal attacker. Where the aforementioned players reached prominence between 20-25, Sterling’s development at 19 has presented an innovative threat in the final third.

Sterling was the key cog in England’s defeat to Italy in the World Cup, displaying his discipline to press Daniele De Rossi, and lightning pace to quickly evade the midfielder in transition. The buildup to England’s sole goal in that match epitomized Sterling’s threat; the 19-year-old dropped deeper into midfield to pick up a loose ball, thus playing a sensational pass into the path of Rooney, which resulted in Sturridge’s equalizer.

Hodgson’s system, built around organization and direct attacks in transition, suits Sterling, but it was intriguing to see Rodgers persist with a diamond midfield this season. With Adam Lallana settling into the side, and Phillipe Coutinho yet to develop into an all-round top-class playmaker, Sterling provides variety to Liverpool’s attack.

The 19-year-old’s movement between the lines and pockets of space bewilders defenders, he creates spaces for his teammates as opposing defenders close him down, and at times, his mazy dribbling from deep positions is unstoppable.

Liverpool’s most impressive performance this season – against Spurs – saw Mario Balotelli and Sturridge make decoy runs into the channels to create space for Sterling to exploit. Sterling’s opener stemmed from an unmarked run into the box to connect with Henderson’s well-weighed ball, and his individual slalom in the second half provided evidence of the threat he possesses in a central role – all that was missing was the finish.

Although Sterling didn’t produce his best performance against Vladimir Petkovic’s Switzerland, the home side’s distinct incentive to stick tight and physically disrupt the 19-year-old proved futile, as his pace guided England into the final third. Sterling’s inch-perfect cross created Welbeck’s opener, and he located Rickie Lambert in a pocket of space with an exceptional pass in the buildup to Welbeck’s second goal.

Opposed to being occasionally isolated in wide areas, Sterling has produced magnificent performances in a central position. Nevertheless, at the tender age of 19 Sterling is still a raw talent – look no further than his finishing and penetrative passes in the final third – and yet his development should provide optimism at Anfield and to a nation that’s become accustomed to underachievement.

Surely, managerial turnovers and moves to other leagues have disrupted the great playmakers that once warmed the hearts of viewers worldwide, but Sterling holds several characteristics of his creative predecessors – Kaka’s turn of pace, Guarin and Boateng’s dynamism to link midfield and attack with direct running, Kroos’ appreciation of space, Ozil’s movement into the channels to create space for onrushing teammates, along with Mata and Sneijder’s slick passing from deep areas, just to name a few.

Perhaps Sterling is the ideal fit for a Liverpool and England side that lacks guile in the final third, but he may also represent a new breed of central attacking players.

Written by Tyrrell Meertins


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