Özil, Eriksen and the departure of the Number 10

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A brilliant Number 10 is one of the great spectacles in football. Diminutive, technically perfect and capable of seeing things nobody else on the pitch can. The Number 10 occupies the central space between the opposing back four and their central midfielders, posing an unanswerable question to centre-halves. Mark the player, pulling you out of your comfort zone and shape, tell a midfielder to mark them, putting your team well and truly in a reactive, negative stance or leave them be and deal with them once they have the ball.

Sometimes, it does not matter which strategy you choose. Seven-and-a-half years ago, Mesut Özil announced his arrival in England with a performance of trademark effortless brilliance away to Sunderland on his debut. Admittedly, he was up against a side with Valentin Roberge and Modibo Diakite as a defensive pairing, but had Theo Walcott been more clinical, Özil would have had a hat trick of assists inside half an hour. Sunderland suffered from the very problem outlined above: how to pick up a player who picks up space nobody is naturally responsible for.

That was a common problem to have to solve in the Premier League in 2013. Coutinho, Juan Mata, Oscar and David Silva, prior to his move deeper following the arrival of Kevin de Bruyne, all spring to mind as players who were operating between the lines in those central areas. Even Sunderland had one, in Stéphane Sessègnon. As well as Özil, that year brought a certain Christian Eriksen to North London.

Eriksen was the pure Number 10 throughout his time at Tottenham. A regular provider of assists, a sublime passer of a football, a magician from set-pieces and a constant threat on the edge of the box – all with a certain air of nonchalance and ease, as if the game was just that bit easier for him than it was for the Mulumbu’s, Flamini’s and Jedinak’s of this world routinely charged with stopping him.

Eriksen’s departure from Tottenham ultimately came down to Mourinho’s midfield system – a system that is now nudging Dele Alli, a similar mould of player – towards the exit door. There simply is no place in this Tottenham team for a Number 10, and certainly not one of the styles described above. Tanguy Ndombele has become a more advanced part of the midfield three in recent weeks, but ultimately Mourinho seems unlikely to sacrifice the defensive flexibility Ndombele provides for a player in the mould of Eriksen or Alli.

That is not, however, a criticism of Mourinho, nor is it an example of his supposed negativity. It seems that this can be seen as part of a wider trend. The most obvious creator in the Premier League over the last few seasons has been Kevin De Bruyne, a player once seen as a Number 10. These days, De Bruyne has a deeper brief, dictating the game from further back and floating forward to enter that channel to the right-hand side of the box which gives him so much success.

A brilliant Number 10 is one of the great spectacles in football

De Bruyne has shown how the creator no longer needs to play as the 10. He is not alone. Jack Grealish regularly plays in a team with two wingers, most commonly Bertrand Traore and the excellent Anwar El Ghazi, suggesting his role should be as a Number 10. And yet the Villa captain can often be found probing on the left flank, posing yet another different question of how he should be picked up.

Bruno Fernandes has all of the attributes of the perfect Number 10. Yet the Portuguese playmaker doesn’t spend much time in that space. In recent weeks, Fernandes has operated in a somewhat lop-sided front three for Manchester United, with varying adjustments being made to desperately try and find a home for Paul Pogba.

Over the season, he has regularly picked up areas in what would once have been called inside right and left positions, and often dropping in deep to receive the ball. The speed with which Manchester United seek to move the ball forward, when allowed to counter-attack, does not accommodate a pure Number 10, and Fernandes’ positioning often reflects that.

Across the league, defences face far more varied – but just as head-spinning – challenges when trying to pick up the opposition’s creative hub than they did when Arsenal signed Mesut Özil. This could be these players seeking more influence over a game than their predecessors did. It could also be a result of the increasing prominence of the holding midfielder – a feature of almost every Premier League line-up these days – forcing innovation among creators.

Maybe that innovation is progress, maybe it loses some of the simplistic charm of a Number 10’s role. Maybe it’s just a change of little consequence. Either way, it’s a change that has spelt the end of Özil’s tenure with Arsenal.

Image: joshjdss via Creative Commons

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