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The Final Four And Their New ‘Number 10’s

A decade ago the four semi-finalists of Euro 2000, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal, all employed trequartistas as part of their tactical makeup. France had Zinedine Zidane, Italy had Francesco Totti, Portugal had Manuel Rui Costa, and the Netherlands had Dennis Bergkamp. In the intervening years between then and the present, the ‘classic’ ‘number 10’ has been under threat from midfield congestion as teams switch in favour of 3 central midfielders (Zonal Marking demonstrates this in a fantastic article here).

The prognosis then was that playmakers would be required to drift wide to find space and attack the flanks. And, in the late 2000’s this certainly was the case as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi came to prominence with some phenomenal form.

The ‘False 10’ ?

However, things appear to have changed again. The four semi-finalists of the 2010 World Cup are all utilizing a player just behind the striker(s). Furthermore, although both have missed out on the final four, both Messi and Ronaldo have been deployed in central positions throughout the tournament. Clearly this suggests that the number 10 role hasn’t been laid to rest at all, but instead, it has been given new life by a new breed of trequartistas.

Wesley Sneijder, number 10, versus Cameroon

Certainly the current crop of ‘number 10’s, Wesley Sneijder, Diego Forlan, and Mesut Ozil (Xavi is still arguably an echo of the previous styles) are not in the same mould as the playmakers of Euro 2000. In these players there has been a shift of emphasis from technical quality to industry, and each of them have comfortably taken the position of a forward if the striker decides to drift deeper.

As the World Cup got underway, Football Further blog noted the changing role of the ‘number 10’ with an article that put forward the idea of referring to this new breed of trequartista as a ‘false 10’ because the duties of the position largely mirrored the role of the ‘false 9’. It’s perhaps a stretch at this juncture to attach such a name to the role but it’s clear, as the author pointed out, that the role of the man behind the striker has received a thorough rethink by contemporary managers.

So why this change? Well, as has been said previously, it was predicted that the playmakers would move wide and there is some evidence to suggest this – Arjen Robben is another who could fit the mold. But, a more popular way of combating the crowded midfield has been to move the forwards towards the flanks.

Edinson Cavani vs Ghana

Forwards On The Flanks

The best example of the wide striker can be found in the method of Germany and Spain where David Villa and Thomas Muller, who play as central strikers at club level, take up wide positions; and both have been rewarded handsomely for their repositioning. By drifting wide the forward has created space elsewhere for the playmaker who has more-or-less remained in a central position (more on this here).

The proliferation of the 4-2-3-1 and its variants has also aided the creation of this central space as the wingers (a position now often taken by strikers, like Germany’s Lukasz Podolski) both stretch the opposition and cut inside, simultaneously stretching play and offering an offensive passing option.

Luis Suarez vs Ghana

This theory is demonstrated no clearer than in Uruguay’s setup where the two forwards, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, are implored to create width, while Diego Forlan tries to retain his central position. The two heat maps to the left show Uruguay’s quarter-final game against Ghana and clearly illustrate the width that both Cavani and Suarez generate.

Of course, their width cannot always be retained as there needs to be a presence in the box at some point, and the South Americans, like most teams still left in the competition, rely on their attacking wing backs to provide it.

Spain similarly rely on their full-backs for support on the flanks but it’s clear that having Fernando Torres and Villa drift slightly wider than usual has helped.

David Villa vs. Switzerland

These heat maps show how David Villa has drifted wider since the 1-0 defeat in Spain’s opening game to Switzerland, creating more room for the Spanish passing game, tiki taka.

Xavi: outdated?

In spite of Villa’s attempt to widen the pitch, however, Xavi has yet to really make a telling impact at this World Cup and, interestingly, more parallels can be drawn between the ‘classic’ number 10’s and Xavi than any other player in his position. In comparison to the more effective presence of Wesley Sneijder this tournament, Xavi is certainly less industrious and less likely to cause genuine commotion among opposition defenders. Consequently, the Spaniard has often been marked to the periphery of a game or simply crowded out.

David Villa vs. Portugal

Unsurprisingly, there have been criticisms in the Spanish press concerning this aspect of Vicente Del Bosque’s game plan. The predominant theory surrounding Xavi’s muted performances has been that the midfielder hasn’t been getting enough space in which to operate to become effective, space that may have been afforded to him in Euro 2000, space that was afforded to the traditional ‘number 10’s.

As a solution, to the Spaniard’s problems, many pundits have argued that he should sit deeper, around Xabi Alonso’s position and allow one of the best modern trequartistas around, Cesc Fabregas, to sit behind the forward. Clearly, Xavi’s traditional playmaker role is being supplanted by this new breed of ‘fake 10’s.

In summary, the role of the number 10 has changed quite dramatically. The addition of a third central midfielder to stymie the traditional ‘number 10’ – of which Xavi is surely a descendant of – lead at first to wide players becoming paramount in driving forward an attack. As these wingers stretched the oppositions defence, room was made for a new breed of number 10 to sit behind the striker. Compared to the ‘traditional number 10’ these new trequartistas are a more industrious kind, free to roam, and to launch and finish an attack; a kind that simultaneously takes up the positions of a forward and the duties of a midfielder.

Meanwhile, those that haven’t been gifted with such a player, such as France, England and Italy, have been thoroughly disappointing.

Have the new ‘number 10’s become as essential as their traditional namesakes were in Euro 2000? From the look of the final four in this year’s competition, it would seem so.

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