January 30, 2019 By Kevin Omondi
As time prevails, there is a certain waning of the magic and purity of days gone past. The rivers we used to fish out of are either brackish and murky or lost; the fields we used to kick those polythene bags tied with sisal rope balls, invaded by concrete, steel, iron sheets or tarmac. The players and managers we loved- gone. This replication is evidenced in our food, film, craft, friendship and sadly, in the game that we love.
The most pragmatic approaches to the ball included even the most ardent followers of function over form and proponents of tactical rigidity and the dark arts in football, are left mesmerized and gawk in awe at the magic, exuberance and panache of the archetypical Number 10. The more oft than not, diminutive genii, condemned to operate in tight spaces behind the striker- yet flourish; to bear the brunt of creativity, forever prescient, spatially and mentally, to receive the ball under pressure, yet deliver with skill that key pass, at the key moment to unlock congested defences.
To create space from nothing like the mythical alchemist, carrying the ball and holding it in that advanced role; drawing attention from the strikers pulling marauding opponents to one’s self and still providing that perfectly-weighted pass to split the opposition like heated cream was the onus of the Number 10 and what made the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Gheorghe Hagi, Michael Laudrup so delectable to watch, their magic tickling our minds leaving fond memories of wonder perpetually imprinted in our young minds. Whenever that pass couldn’t be found, the opposition obstinate beyond a fault, it was don Diego Maradona running through the entire English defence, Ronaldinho beating Petr Cech whilst standing at the peak of the Chelsea blockade or Leo Messi, inexplicably, whenever he drives at goal. It is Totti, Platini, Zico, Coutinho with the inside, outside and the tip of his boots, getting it in, the 40 yards between him and goal the space in which magic is conjured.
However, the traditional talented number 10 is being killed and his role buried beside him, the bench being most managers’ weapon of choice. To watch Arsenal’s Mesut Özil play, read or indulge the ‘initiated’ (Barney Ronay’s allusion to the few among us who ‘get’ the German) and then try to add to his lore would be trying to salt the sea. Shunted to the right under the previous regime, Unai Emery largely employs him as Arsenal’s highest paid benchwarmer. Cognizant of the ontology that in his moments of clarity, Özil can clip a pass into space leaving the Centre-Backs homicidal, or have a subtle first-time flick sending three players out of the game, scurrying back under their mother’s skirts or give a pass that no one else in the stadium could neither see, saw nor have seen or even thought possible.
“Özil sees what we don’t and can externalise it.”
And perhaps that’s what lends to our inability to understand him…
A month into having the most coveted job in the world, Julen Lopetegui cancelled Madrid’s season. In playing the rest of it out, Santi Solari has since cancelled Isco, Madrid’s No 10, much like Özil, banishing him to the bench. In the three starts, the creative mid has had under Solari, they have lost twice, embarrassingly to Spartak Moscow in the UCL – 0-3 and domestically to Leganes 0-1. Ernesto Valverde at rivals, Barcelona, despite publicly backing his No 10, prefers fielding the Blaugrana without Coutinho– as did Jurgen Klopp at the Kop, before moving the player on, finding even more success without the Brazilian. James Rodriguez fares no better at Bayern Munich under Niko Kovac, whose preference is the more physically domineering Leon Goretzka as the Bavarians stat pad to Borussia Dortmund’s coronation this season. In preparation, for the next season, both Bayern and Madrid have made it an open secret that James and Isco are better suited to pursuing the remainder of their careers elsewhere…
The game changes and the game has changed. The rise of the 4-3-3 is increasingly being cemented as the new fad. A system in which our beloved creatives, seemingly can’t fit. Erstwhile, they were deployed on the flanks, for which their acute vision and range of distribution curtailed. A fluid 4-3-3 needs wingers in the mould of the traditional pace and power merchants, beat your man on the outside and cross or beat your man on the inside and cut in, with a bit of spice. The winger, today is increasingly asked to also come infield and deep to pick the ball, as well as fit that traditional winger mould, of which there is a general concession that our No. 10s aren’t just pacey or diligent enough.
Isco, Özil, James and Coutinho have all been accused of being ‘the type of player not suited to’ a particular game. A swipe at their inability to be physically imposing during the game, by say not winning headers, lax during transitions from attack to defence; inability to cover ground, and a lot of ground for that matter; being caught in possession in the wrong areas of the park- leading to goals conceded and generally being of certain complacent demeanour.
As fans seek creativity and style and sentiment- with winning; managers, at least at the highest level seek winning- with smooth passing, quick movement and almost methodical carving-open of defences that is effective and has a ‘rinse and repeat’ application to it. These two ‘styles’ should not be seen to be at cross-purposes- they are after all both beautiful, although the stoicism and pragmatism with which managers implement tactics are stealing the prominence of the classic number 10 and with it the magic and sentiment with which we, the fans, would love to continue enjoying in football.
What we are being served is the need for explosive wingers- think of O. Dembele, Sane, Mane, Salah, Bale et al and combative midfielders, with the standard for beauty being efficiency, synchronicity and fluidity, much like those clean modern architectural lines of buildings today, grey sweaters and minimalist boxy designs, function over form. It is a shame that the trade-off is individual technique and brilliance. Magic.
Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne is back and perhaps Manchester City will sign Isco. Pep Guardiola’s system asks the Number 10 to play deeper and creates space for KdB to evoke beauty through inspired passes to the attackers without the need of spinning away from an opponent. Pep gives us the inventiveness of the number 10 whose technique still remains with the individual, to bamboozle an opponent should they come in too tight, without the need for their individuality to produce a magical fete of creativity to amaze the crowd and stun the opposition. Indeed his system allows him space, withdrawn, to inspire the brilliance reminiscent of the old days when outrageous tricks and courage won games; in simpler ways, leaving us, the fans to discern that subtlety a little further behind as the genius that allowed a brilliant team goal miles up the pitch.
Perhaps that is the compromise that preserves the No 10.