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What happened to the ‘Number 10’ role in the modern game?

For many decades the number 10 was the most critical position in football. The playmaker or ‘trequartista’ as the Italians called him. It was these guys who conducted their team’s attacking play. They were invariably creative and technically gifted.

But for a variety of reasons they are few and far between in the modern game.

A ‘number 10’ is the team’s primary playmaker, operating in a free role between the midfield and the forwards. They lead the team’s attack using their excellent vision, control and passing range to dictate the play.

They were responsible for unlocking the opposition’s defence by playing their wingers and forwards through on goal and finding space to score themselves. In many ways, they were the attacking heartbeat of the team.

For decades, some of the most creative and gifted players we have ever seen played in the number 10 position; Zinedine Zidane, Kaka, Sneijder, Riquelme, Dennis Bergkamp amongst others.

Why has the ‘Number 10’ become irrelevant?

The tactical evolution of the game has played a major part, most leading teams today play 4–3–3 system with no classic number 10 behind the striker, but instead, the midfield in a 4–3–3 system take this mission as a dynamic deep lying playmakers.

Usually the mid 3 consists of two advanced midfielders (left and right) and a deeper-lying defensive midfielder (where the defensive midfielder occupies the central space traditionally reserved for the classic ‘number 10’). ‘Playmaking’ is only one role of many demanded roles from the midfielders in the current modern game system, including defensively and/or box to box connection duties which makes it difficult to be a pure No.10 with freedom behind striker like it used to be before.

Liverpool most used formation system (35 of 38 league matches this season)

Juventus most used formation system (19 of 38 league matches this season)

Real Madrid most used formation system (25 of 38 league matches this season)

The 4–3–3 formation is presently the most popular in European football. The winners of the top 5 leagues in Europe use it although, with different models, the figures above provided by WhoScored show that, the current UEFA Champions League and Premier League winners, Liverpool, in addition to Real Madrid, Juventus and PSG, the winners of their domestic league titles, all played the 4–3–3 formation system for the most of their campaigns this season. This is definitely more than a coincidence.

It can be seen that the reliance on a player as the creative outlet of a team is gradually reducing, the number 10 at the center of proceedings is being phased out after a dominant era..

The only exception was the bundesliga champions, Bayern Munich, who mainly played with a 4–2–3–1 system with Thomas Müller as a playmaker, where he managed to break bundesliga’s assist record by providing 21 assist this seasons,

Read more about Thomas Müller’s impressive season here,

Bayern Munich most used formation system (25 of 34 league matches this season)

Could this performance from Bayern and Müller open the eyes again on the fading No.10 role? Is it a proof that it’s still a vital role in the current modern game or it’s just an exceptional case? Can we see it adapted again by big teams? Who knows what would happen next in such a game the keeps on evolving...

Crowded midfield

The thing is that it’s almost impossible to play a ‘number 10’ against these formations because the centre of the field is so congested.

Three-man midfielders have taken away space where number 10s used to thrive. Managers today are also reluctant to rely on a player to conduct their teams attack, If such a player has an off game, it would have a noticeable adverse effect on the whole team.

The effect on the footballers: Adopters

A lot of players have had to adjust to adapt to modern demands. Take Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, for example.

Both of Man City’s core playmakers have developed into more typical central midfielders under Pep Guardiola and have flourished.

Roberto Firmino has adjusted to playing as false nine at Liverpool. Bernando Silva has found ease playing in central midfield or the flanks.

Same story for Moderic, Kroos and Isco at Real Madrid who learned to drop deeper and become more combative.

The effect on the footballers: Victims

This has not been the case for every player, however. Players who have been unable to adjust have struggled while some have dropped down the pecking order.

An example is Mesut Ozil who has gone from the Gunners’ linchpin in recent seasons to being dropped by Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta during recent seasons.

Arsenal needed more drive in midfield and Ozil simply doesn’t have the credentials to satisfy those requirements.

Another example is James Rodriguez, who stole the show in the number 10 role at the 2014 world cup, his performance at that tournament earned him a transfer to the Galacticos. But It was difficult for him to adapt to the new roles under Zidane, hence he struggled to find a place in Madrid and in 2016, he lost his place to Casemiro due to Zidane’s formation change.

Phillipe Countinho another name on the list of victims. The transfer rumours away from Barcelona do not come as a surprise. He has been poor playing on the flanks, which is not his natural position. The wide role he has had to fill is because his natural position is not on the formation.

Riquelme, another big name who when arrived at Barcelona, Louis Van Gaal had no interest in playing a ‘number 10’. It was clear that Riquelme had been played out of position and not adapting well to the new role, which resulted in little game time and eventually transferring to Villarreal where he found more space and freedom as a playmaker.


The 4–3–3 gives the midfielders a lot of work and requires a lot of versatility.

They are expected to help the team going forward and help in defence too. Liverpool midfielders are an excellent example of this, they help the team in attack and are found chasing down opponents while defending.

They combine modern creation, tackling, pressing and playmaking all together rather than have individual roles.

Joachim Low suggested with his eye-opening remarks that most of the creative genius now comes from further back where the majority of the play is in front of a deep-lying playmaker. Case in point is what Sarri does with Jorginho during his time as Chelsea manager

Many technically gifted youngsters destined to be the next Zidane or Dennis Bergkamp may find it difficult to adapt to the current modern game style or get the chance to develop in their best position. Will the era of the commanding number 10 ever return? One has to doubt it.

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