How the 2000s changed tactics #2: Classic Number 10s struggle
The decade started with the most attacking, open tournament in modern football, at Euro 2000. The four semi-finalists all played ‘classic’ Number 10s in the hole between the opposition defence and midfield. France, Italy, Portugal and Holland had Zinedine Zidane, Francesco Totti, Manuel Rui Costa and Dennis Bergkamp respectively – it almost seemed essential to have a player in this mould to be successful – helped by trequartista-less England and Germany’s early exits.
Today, the past two World Players of the Year – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – have been primarily wide players who cut inside. Messi and Wayne Rooney would surely have been deployed as trequartistas (or enganches, if you prefer) had they started their career a decade earlier. Indeed, almost every player that would have expected to spend their career behind the front two has had to redefine their game, generally being stationed out wide. As always, playing in a wide role generally requires a fair degree of pace, and in that respect the likes of Messi, Rooney, Andriy Arshavin or Franck Ribery have no problems, and have their place in the modern game. Ronaldo, Rooney, Arshavin, Messi and Totti also been the most prominent five to have filled a false nine role when required.
But what of the players who have neither the necessary qualities to play upfront, nor the pace and trickery to play out wide? Investigating Argentina’s production of “New Maradonas” also takes you down a path that could equally be “Players that failed to live up to their potential“: Juan Riquelme, Pablo Aimar, Andres D’Alessandro and Javier Saviola. That is not to say that they have not been successful for periods – Aimar and Saviola in particular were great for Valencia and Barcelona respectively – but it is undeniable that none of that quartet have achieved what we expected of them.
This is possibly a problem with South America and Europe differing in tactical terms. The ‘enganche’ is still a major role – THE major role – across most of South America, but Europe has largely moved away from the use of a No 10 behind the forwards. It is surely no coincidence that so many “New Maradonas” have come from Argentina and struggled to make a long-term impact in Europe, but the one Argentinian who has (already) achieved the most – Messi – arrived in Europe at the age of 13 and therefore had a distinctly ‘European’ footballing education.
Jonathan Wilson describes Riquelme as “the last of the old-style playmakers”, contrasting him with Luka Modric, a busier, more adaptable and reliable player as “the first of the new”. He makes the point that by having a ‘designated’ playmaker, the side becomes too dependent upon him. The players in this role are genuinely thought of (especially in Argentina) as enigmatic artists who produce individual moments of genius, and yet they are expected to be the most consistent players in the side. That was perhaps possible when 4-4-2s played each other, and there was a simple ‘destroyer v creator’ midfield battle, but with the popularity of 4-3-3s making the centre of midfield increasingly congested, it’s simply not possible for players to play the role Zidane, Rui Costa or Totti did around the turn of the century.
How many old-style No 10s currently play for a major club in one of the top leagues in Europe? Kaka is one, certainly, although he’s spent most of his career playing in a Milan side that simply played a different style of football to every other club in Europe. Their tendency to pack the midfield with central playmakers – up to 4 of them – meant that Kaka was not the only creative outlet in the centre of the side, and Milan still played well even when Kaka had a poor game. Indeed, even at his peak Kaka was relatively inconsistent – certainly more so than Ronaldo or Messi were when winning their World Player of the Year trophies. He doesn’t have quite such a luxury at Real Madrid, and has struggled so far.
His fellow Brazilian Diego of Juventus is another – a wonderfully-talented player, but has hardly been at his best since signing for Juve, whilst Totti today plays more as a forward than as a trequartista. Wesley Sneijder has thrived playing as a No 10 this season, but equally can play on the flank if needed, much like Pavel Nedved was able to. Other sides play central playmakers – Cesc Fabregas, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard – but they are all more complete, busier players than the likes of Riquelme. Yoann Gourcuff is probably the closest to a top-class European old-style playmaker - but with due respect to Ligue 1, he’ll have to perform either in a better league, or in a major international tournament, before he is truly considered a world class player.
And so we are left with the conclusion that there are no New Rui Costas or New Dennis Bergkamps for the time being – unless there is a shift back towards Classic Number 10s, we’re more likely to hear about the New Cristiano Ronaldo or the New Wesley Sneijder.