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Utit Ofon Idara Ibangha writes about the reasons that have led to the decline of the classic no.10
Time made them legendary, Tournaments made them famous – mind blowing displays from playmakers have been a major reason why the game has been branded as “beautiful”. Out of the seamless transitions of attacking football of the 50’s and 60’s, a new breed of playmakers would arise. Blessed with an excellent footballing brain, breath-taking dribbling skills and glue-like control, the no. 10 would go on to influence games, dominate the football world and inspire kids around the world to achieve great feats. Technically gifted and always seeking to get on the ball, these magicians mastered the art of creative football and wowed millions with the ease with which they went about their play. “Trequartista” as they were called in Europe or “Enganche” in South America, the classic no. 10 was a beauty to behold, always showing the touch of class required to attain legendary status. Think Gianni Rivera and Rui Costa at Milan, Francesco Totti at Roma, Michel Platini, Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero at Juventus, Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, Dennis Bergkamp at Arsenal and Juan Roman Riquelme at Boca Juniors and the picture becomes clearer with each example. John Obi Mikel’s performance for Nigeria’s bronze medal winning Olympic squad at Rio in August was reminiscent of a true classic no. 10. They were not quick and did not possess the physicality for duels but what they lacked in pace they made up for with peerless speed of thought and the ability to glide past players with a child-like ease; what they lacked in physicality they more than made up for with astonishing close control, eye popping dribbles, defence-splitting passes and mind blowing moments of individual brilliance. So why are this once elegant array of game changers gradually fading into not just obscurity but total extinction?
The dawn of the century began with a tournament that showcased extreme attacking football – EURO 2000. To illustrate the importance of the classic no. 10 all four semi-finalists played with one. Bergkamp starred for the Oranje, Zidane knitted the French midfield together, Rui Costa was outstanding for Portugal while Totti propelled the Azzurri to the final. But a new movement would soon threaten the very existence of these rare breeds. A sudden shift in tactics re-invented the 4-4-2 and teams lined up in two ‘bands of four’ limiting the space in front of the defence and a placing greater focus on zonal marking systems meant that players were more conscious of their positions and were not easily dragged around the pitch. This new defensive structure and shape became even tighter when one of the forwards was taken off and replaced with an extra midfielder who played ‘between the lines’. The resultant effect was that no. 10s were forced to either drop deeper to be effective or drift wide to try and create something but in deeper areas of the pitch it becomes harder to split two defensive lines and a lack of pace and power made it even more difficult to dribble past 6 or 7 players en route to goal. Often branded as “lazy” and thought of as nothing more than a tired leg, the trequartista’s lack of interest in defensive duties has contributed in part to the demise of the role. With the opposition already having a 3v2 advantage in the middle of the pitch, the no. 10’s non-chalant attitude towards the defensive phase makes it even worse; a 3v1 situation is not a welcome development hence the need to have extra bodies in midfield. In the previous era it would have been a straight battle between creator vs destroyer but everyone is tasked with a defensive duty these days and if you can’t keep up, move over. The game now has a greater emphasis on physicality, being able to cover every blade of grass is thought of as a prerequisite for ‘bossing’ the midfield and lung-busting box-to-box runs by midfielders are now hailed as brilliant, to buttress that point, Moussa Sissoko cost more than Georgino Wijnaldum, Juraj Kucka and Radja Naingollan are essential parts of the AC Milan and AS Roma teams and Atletico Madrid won the La Liga without having a star-studded squad, Why? Work rate and versatility.
The classic no. 10 is a rigid player and an inability to adapt to changes in the game has wiped out a clan of heroes, consequently enganches had to retreat to deeper roles to stay relevant. With teams facing gruelling league campaigns, players have to be versatile in order to fill in when necessary. An classic no. 10 can play in only two positions, attacking midfield and as a second striker, so if a winger or central midfielder is unavailable, there is immediately a gap opened up in the squad. Players like Christian Eriksen, Keisuke Honda and even Mesut Ozil have occasionally found themselves tasked with playing out wide and their reduced efficiency has been obvious. Juan Mata even left Chelsea after Jose Mourinho demanded that he play on the right flank and track back- he never could.
Perhaps the most glaring change in the demise of the classic no. 10 has been the backward shift into deeper areas of the pitch to play as a regista or deep-lying playmaker or further forward to play as a striker a false 9. The former is true of Andrea Pirlo and Xavi Hernandez who despite starting their careers in the no. 10 position have been played deeper to enable them to influence the game. Possessing great vision and the technique to thread the eye of a needle with a pass, the influence of tactics on the game mean that these geniuses have to be “protected” by shifting them away from the more congested areas further forward. Luciano Spaletti found a long lost treasure when he, due to injuries to other first team options, pushed Fancesco Totti forward to play as a striker, the result was indeed surprising. The Roma skipper drifted away from the striker position towards midfield dragging defenders all over the place and causing gaps to appear in behind. The false 9 was reborn. Roma won a Coppa Italia fiinal first leg against Inter Milan 6-2 but against Man United where the team lacked someone to press from the front it was a 7-1 loss. The result highlighted two things; first, Totti contributed little to the attack because he spent too much time in midfield and there was no forward presence in the box. Second, he did next to nothing defensively and United could easily pass the ball out of the back and build with little discomfort.
The wind of change has blown away the classic no. 10s and unless there is a shift back to the tactics of old, the decline of these masters who define the art of play making, these purists who produce moments of sheer brilliance and these artists who give the beautiful game its real beauty will be in free fall.