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Is The Number 10 Role A Dying Breed in Soccer?

Ah yes. The double holding midfield pair. How I love to watch them. The joy of viewing a perfectly weighted backwards pass, the ambition and invention of a lateral pass, and the beauty of a tactical foul. You can’t help but admire their fire-fighting skills.

Think of the names. Lucas Leiva. Scott Parker. Sandro. Steven N’Zonzi. Nigel De Jong. How many of us can really say that they are not our favorite players? Is it not heart-warming that of those names, two are Brazilian internationals?

Think of where we would be if there was a 4-2-3-1 formation throughout football history. No room for Zidane, or ‘The Glide’ as Ruud Gullit likes to call him. He would have far less space to operate and would likely struggle more.

If you think that is a lucky escape, go back further, to the days of the 1970’s and 1980’s when the ‘Libero’, personified by Franz Beckenbauer, was on the rise. Number tens flourished. Zico, Maradona, Platini. These players had vision and exceptional passing skills but what is traditionally, and highly overlooked, is their leadership on the pitch. The rise of the holding midfielder killed both the attacking Libero and the Number ten. The two most aesthetically pleasing positions, where the ballers’ get to strut their stuff, were becoming as endangered as a Siberian Tiger.

Roll forward to the 1990’s. Gheorghe Hagi, Roberto Baggio, Jari Litmanen. Even Matt Le Tissier. Still defying the odds. Making an impact even as the walls are closing in. The holding midfielders are coming for them. They are becoming more tactically astute, fitter, more disciplined at closing space, displaying more concentration in stopping number tens play. Carlos Valderamma considers shaving his head.

The 21st century has arrived. Juan Riquelme, last of a dying breed. The rest of the Mohicans are getting squeezed out. Gattuso, Nicky Butt and Lee Carsley are snapping at his heels. His soulmates, Jay Jay Okocha and Manuel Rui Costa, are sinking. His coach at Villarreal, Manuel Pellegrini, can’t swim against the current any longer. The one man band goes home to Boca, a less harsh habitat. Mascherano seizes his chance to impress. Kleberson and Gilberto Silva win the World Cup. Dietmar Hamann and Jens Jeremies get to the Final. Not a number 10 in sight.

Zidane takes up the mantle. He is the returning crusader after the Greek style of winning football at Euro 2004. Kindred spirits such as Kaka and Pablo Aimar have fallen by the wayside. Virtuoso displays lead all the way to a World Cup Final. He dinks his penalty against Buffon in off the bar. Vision, passing, leadership, all on display. He will not go quietly. Children and coaches the world over sit up and take notice. The number ten can become glorious again.

The rest is history. For the children, it is easier to become a holding midfielder. The skill set is much less demanding. For the coaches, the number ten has to have defensive attributes, to win the ball back high up the field.

The holding midfielders have won now. Every squad subscribes to have at least one. Deco is finished. Ganso can’t live with the pressure, and baulks at a move to Europe. He wonders will he be continually denied space by the grafters. He decides not to take the chance to find out. He makes a big money move from Santos to Sao Paulo. It says everything. The heir apparent to Riquelme, refusing to sit on his throne. He loses his place in the Brazil squad.

The tens have now become holding midfielders themselves. An Orwellian type scenario. Survival of the Fittest. Adapt and lessen the spectacle. Put Pepe and Phil Jones in midfield. It’s the only way now.

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  1. Charles

    July 30, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    I miss the true number 10 too. I think you just need to be old enough to remember the 70s soccer.

    But the beauty of soccer is that it is a defensive game. The holding mids are more of what we should be celebrating ( great D ) and more of the choice of when to go forward…and the consequences of that action.

  2. Taylor

    July 25, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Interestingly, Brazil hasn’t had their No. 10 for quite some time. In 1990 World Cup, they didn’t have No. 10 (Silas was No. 10 in number only) because their midfield consist of Alemao (holding midfielder), Dunga (defensive midfielder) and Valdo. In 1994, Rai was the number 10 – but his performance deteriorated through the tournament that he was replaced by Mazinho who is more a holding midfielder.

  3. Kris

    July 25, 2013 at 12:13 am

    My main question would be: Is it such a bad thing that the number 10 role is diminished in today’s “modern game”?

    Personally, I’m glad that role has seen it’s heyday.

    Teams are too good nowadays to just have one guy running around playing the Superman role. They are so well-rounded, so well-trained, and so well-balanced that the need for the number 10 role has slowly been weeded out of the modern game due to the simple evolution of the game.

    To me, it’s like a center’s role in the NBA. Old school centers used to just park in the paint and hang out like big tree trunks. Nowadays the center roll is a much more well rounded position. Centers now have to have a jump shot and greater passing ability than they did 10 a- 15 – 20 years ago. Dirk, Pau Gasol types. The evolution of that position has made the NBA a much more exciting league as well.

    To me, the systematic reduction of the number 10 role is just the evolution of the modern game. I don’t think it is hurt the beautiful game, I simply think that it has made the beautiful game more rounded as a whole.

    The holding midfielder is the evolution of the number 10, and with the exclusion of one roll, and the inclusion of another, I think that that has made the beautiful game even more of a beautiful game.

    Simple evolution. Sport is in constant motion and continual evolution. Maybe in 10 years footy will have “mid-front attacking fullbacks” and “diversionary centre-back strikers”. – haa – just a point the the cycle (and sometimes circle) of footy evolution is constantly and always in motion.

    Who knows, maybe in 10 years leagues will be swarming (once again) with number 10s… But right here and now it seems as though the position has taken a back seat to the modern and evolved positions of today’s game.

    Just my opinion.

    Great article, Gary!



    • Kris

      July 25, 2013 at 12:17 am

      *has / *that (and I’m sure there are others)

      typos = embarrassment

      Peskie small iPhone keyboard.


    • Gary O'Toole

      July 25, 2013 at 3:53 am

      Hi Kris,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I think your’e points on the evolution of the game are correct and I share your opinion. I’m sure there will be certain tactical innovations in 10 years time, hopefully entertaining ones.

      I wouldn’t share your enthusiasm that your’e glad the role has seen it’s heyday though. A quick look on YouTube of some of the players mentioned in the article or by some of the other posters shows the type of invention many teams are missing today.

      Re the basketball analogy, I can’t honestly comment as the only other sports I would have some sort of knowledge of would be Boxing and Rugby. Very interesting nonetheless and I will definitely pay more attention to the center’s role the next time I catch a game of NBA!

  4. Taylor

    July 24, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    Thanks for the interesting article. As someone who grew up watching football in the 80s and 90s – No. 10 is getting rare and rare every season. It’s sad but it’s the trend these days and since a lot of people don’t watch a lot of old matches, they have no idea about this role. Same thing with libero: how many of the visitors of this website ever watch Franco Baresi or Klaus Augenthaler playing? (I won’t go for the 70s – the 90s should be “old” enough)

    May I add Gary McAllister as another no. 10?

    • Gary O'Toole

      July 25, 2013 at 4:05 am

      Hi Taylor,

      Thanks for the comment.

      It is a shame that position is gone nowadays – kind of transformed into this ball playing centre half now such as Pique. From what I have seen of Baresi and Augenthaler,they were, as you rightly allude to, excellent(I’ve seen more of Franco then Klaus).

      Re Gary McAllister, I would think he is a very interesting case. He certainly had the skill set for it – and had he been from any other part of the world other than Scotland, England, Wales or Ireland, I think he would be fondly remembered as a classic “10”. He had to adapt and learn how to tackle (began to play further back at least late on in his career at Liverpool) etc in the Premier League but I agree that creatively, he most definitely had the skill set.

  5. Gary O'Toole

    July 24, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    Hi all,

    Thanks for the comments.

    The focus of the article was to draw attention to the fact that are fewer and fewer out and out 10′s today. I would argue that players such as Messi(surely he is more of a false nine?) and Bergkamp are not out and out 10’s′. Certain players nowadays who could perform the role have adapted to the modern game, and either can play out wide (Gotze) or further back (Kroos). this shows that the role is disappearing.

    I think Kroos and Kagawa illustrate the point. Kroos is no slouch when it comes to grafting, and he is not solely dedicated to the offensive side of the game, in the way, say, Riquelme, Okocha or Valderamma was.

    Kagawa, is clearly a talented player, he does have the skill set to play this role. However, I think he has struggled last season, and I think this is due to a combination of adapting to the EPL, the number of holding midfielders he is up against, and the fact that Ferguson would not play an out and out 10 who has little defensive responsibility.

    Re Schweinsteiger and Alonso, I would argue that they are more like a type of Quarterback, a playmaker that sits deep. 10 or 20 years ago, I would guess they would be playing as a “10” but have been pushed back by the double pivot. As Dean says, this could be down to the pace of the modern game.

    As Flyvanescence rightly pointed out, the likes of Bayern do play great football, but would you not say that Luis Gustavo is actually the real holding midfielder in that team?

    • Flyvanescence

      July 24, 2013 at 6:53 pm

      Definitely but he usually is positioned as a center back.
      On paper Schweini and Martinez are the holding mids (which is what im saying), but because of their ability and Bayerns all-out attack style, they dont spend much time defending.

      • Gary O'Toole

        July 24, 2013 at 7:34 pm

        I thought Dante and J.Boateng were the centre backs?

        • Flyvanescence

          July 24, 2013 at 9:43 pm

          True my mistake. Martinez kind of replaced Gustavo as this season went on though. And occasionally one of those 2 will pop up at cb. Maybe more now that Pep is there.

          • Gary O'Toole

            July 25, 2013 at 4:08 am

            A fair comment Flyvanescence, I can’t argue with that – Guardiola may well use one of those two at CB.

  6. Kagawa26

    July 24, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    There are plenty of number 10s out there. Mata kagawa silva fabregas goetze ozil kroos isco nasri iniesta mikhitaryan gundogan thiago cazorla. Not a dying breed at all. They are flourishing in the modern game.

    • Gary O'Toole

      July 24, 2013 at 6:01 pm

      Out of the players you mention, I would argue only Ozil and Isco, two players now in direct competition with each other at club level, resemble out and out 10’s. I agree that those two are thriving – and i guess that’s why the article is called a dying breed as opposed to an extinct breed.

      The rest of the players you mention can all play in different positions.There is a kind of subtle different, to me anyway, between an attacking midfielder (who could play anywhere in the line of 3 in a 4-2-3-1) and a classic “10”.

      A classic “10” can play in that position and that position only due to the skill-set he possesses. The likes of Riquelme or Rui Costa could not play further back, out wide, or up top. I suppose this is where we disagree a bit but thanks for the comment.

  7. Dean Stell

    July 24, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    Of course, there are still some No 10s, but there don’t seem to be as many. It’s almost odd when you watch something like a Mexican league game and wonder, “Why are they letting that guy dribble so much? Someone should close him down…..”

  8. Flyvanescence

    July 24, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    Ok let us see. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich play 4-2-3-1 and are extremely attacking, entertaining sides.

    The “holding midfielders” on those teams include technically great players like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Xabi Alonso.

    And as far as the number 10 being dead, um, does the name Lionel Messi ring a bell?

    • jamieru

      July 24, 2013 at 5:20 pm

      The ‘number 10’ idea is a style of midfielder that is box to box and can do it all. Messi is an incredibly skilled player, maybe the best ever when all is said and done, but he’s not a classic ‘number 10’. Regardless of what his jersey number actually is.

  9. bob

    July 24, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    Thoughtful, well written piece. Haven’t heard the word libero in ages, made me think of David Luiz, let’s call him libero/sweeper rather than undisciplined fullback 🙂 I wonder how mourinho will choose to use him I’m guessing he’ll put a muzzle on him in the name of discipline and keep with the holding midfielder setup (continue the search for a new makelele) personally I like Luiz up the field adventures seems to put everyone including his own players on their toes and thinking quickly, that’s where creativity comes from.

    • Gary O'Toole

      July 24, 2013 at 6:05 pm

      Agree with everything you say Bob. I hope David Luiz gets to express himself this season, but i share your doubt!

      • bob

        July 24, 2013 at 8:43 pm

        Thanks for bothering to read our semi articulate half baked comments. And btw cheers for mentioning Hagi, the Romanian side of my heart grew two sizes, there was a classic number ten.

  10. Bergkamp_10

    July 24, 2013 at 3:09 pm


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