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How the evolution of football has created an identity crisis for the Number 10 position

Finn Devlin
CONTRIBUTOR
Feature
1.04K   //    06 Feb 2019, 12:49 IST

Football, led by its European elite, tends to evolve through tactical cycles. While these cycles vary in length, the abundance of analytics and a change in the general focus of coaching from 'man-management' or psychological, to 'game-management' or tactical, has seen a recent increase in the speed of evolution within the game.

In the previous era - inherently shaped by Pep Guardiola and Barcelona - possession reigned supreme, sitting above all else in value in a game of football.

Barcelona's record breaking 2010-11 team is considered by many to be the greatest ever assembled
Barcelona's record breaking 2010-11 team is considered by many to be the greatest ever assembled

Naturally, after an initial 'copycat' period that saw lesser teams adopt a more possession-based style, teams began to attempt the impossible: construct a tactical system to counter the effectiveness of possession-based football.

But little did most of us know that such a template had begun to emerge already. Just as Guardiola was producing the best football many had ever seen played, a German named Jurgen Klopp was on the brink of winning his first title with a rejuvenated Borussia Dortmund.

Klopp's system was defined by a new tactical concept called 'counter-pressing', which involved pressing extremely high and violently immediately after losing possession high up the pitch. This was done in the belief that a turnover would create a much more high-value chance than usual.

He was right, and enjoyed enormous success, winning two titles and losing to rivals Bayern in the Champions League final. With a team of players mostly signed from complete obscurity, it was a truly remarkable achievement.

The rest of football began to follow him, from the top down, as usual. Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham Hotspur were the first example of counter-pressing in the Premier League. The superb work-ethic of Spurs' front four of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Heung-Min Son contributed to a team assembled on a relatively small budget finishing 3rd, 2nd and 3rd between 2015-18.

This graphic shows how Spurs press immediately after losing possession, cutting off potential passing options and applying extreme pressure to the central defender
This graphic shows how Spurs press immediately after losing possession, cutting off potential passing options and applying extreme pressure to the central defender

As such, particularly in the Premier League, teams have begun adopting versions of counter-pressing in increasing numbers. Arsenal under Unai Emery are the latest example of a team that base their football philosophy around pressing from the front.

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However, there has been a trend developing concurrently, by tacticians who are still of the firm belief that possession remains the core ingredient to winning a game of football.

Previously, and throughout most of modern football history, creativity has been expected to come from the number 10, playing in the hole between midfield and attack. This was particularly true between about 2006 and 2015, where we saw the emergence of many "trequartistas": classical number tens.

These players - think Cesc Fabregas, Mesut Ozil, Andres Iniesta or Lionel Messi, Steven Gerrard (from 2007-12), Frank Lampard, Wesley Sneijder among others - were the focal point of their team. They dictated play from an advanced position, and used their technical ability, intelligence and movement to create spaces around the 18-yard box.

However, these players have had their effectiveness somewhat blunted by the emergence of the counter-press. Teams now struggle to get the ball to their key men in the positions where they'll be able to do maximum damage.

The most striking example is Mesut Ozil at Arsenal. Previously a world-class player who could destroy teams with the ball at his feet, the German's effectiveness has declined considerably. Arsenal simply can't get him the ball in the right positions enough times for him to be a damaging player.

Emery's refusal to use him in away games against top sides, where Arsenal don't get a lot of time in the final third, is testament to this.

As such, the playmakers - the focal points of most elite sides - have shifted backwards to deeper positions. That requires more defensive nous, as well as a different type of playmaking skillset. Increasingly, play is created from deep in central midfield.

At the top end of the Premier League today, Jorginho, Granit Xhaka, Jordan Henderson/Fabinho, Harry Winks and Paul Pogba have all played regularly in the "Regista" position in deep central midfield. Sometimes they play even right in front of the back four, reflecting a new philosophy in possession: creating from the deep.

Jorginho is the 'creator' in Chelsea's attack, but from a position most would associate with a defensive midfield player
Jorginho is the 'creator' in Chelsea's attack, but from a position most would associate with a defensive midfield player

The major asset of these players is that they bypass the counter-press through their passing and dribbling skills. Because the counter-pressing team squeezes high up the pitch to win the ball back, if a quality pass is made out of defence, the opposing team can often find themselves facing few defenders, leading to a high-value chance at the other end of the pitch in mere seconds.

The rise of the "Regista" has in turn caused an identity crisis for the "Trequartista". What is its role at the top end of football?

Teams have tried a variety of options. Dele Alli plays as almost a shadow striker at Spurs, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Iwobi as 'box-to-box' number 10s for Arsenal, Xherdan Shaqiri and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are converted wingers for Liverpool (who sometimes don't play anyone there, to their continual detriment).

None have totally convinced in these roles, nor are they the focal points of their sides.

Chelsea have struggled to fill their advanced playmaker slot in Maurizio Sarri's eccentric 4-3-3, mainly because Sarri is struggling to communicate what he actually expects from his most advanced midfielder, and the rather large presence of Eden Hazard to the left.

As such, football is at a defining moment in its tactical evolution. The first elite side to successfully utilize their number ten will likely win a title, a Champions League, or punch very far above their weight, sowing the seeds for the next tactical evolution in football.

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