In the mid-2000s the most coveted position of football was the number 10 (also known as the central offensive midfielder). Famous examples include Kaka, Mesut Ozil, Mario Götze, David Silva and Juan Mata. The role was to sit behind the centre-forward, feed him with assists and chip in with a few goals. Acting as the conductor of a team’s attack the number 10 could be likened to the quarterback position in American football.
However, over time the game of forwards and the position has virtually disappeared from modern-day football. The central offensive midfielders were once considered the most influential player on the field and now they are nearly non-existent. Before we will analyse the role of a false 9, we will take a look at one key question in this part of the tactical analysis: What happened to the number 10 role and how has it affected some of the modern great who once played there?
Role of Number 10s
In the mid-2000s, the 4-2-3-1 formation exploded in popularity with Europe’s elite. This shape involved the use of two wingers, a striker and of course the number 10. Real Madrid famously used this formation in their record-breaking 2011/2012 campaign with Özil acting as the conductor.
Style of play
From this position, Özil was able to see his fellow forwards in front and cut the opposition apart with delicate through-balls.
If no forward pass presented itself Özil would recycle the ball and receive it back shortly afterwards given the forwards another chance to lose their markers and find space. He was essential to their attack providing an incredible 28 assists from 52 matches in all competitions.
However, as more and more teams began switching their tactics into the 4-2-3-1, it created a problem for the number 10. They found themselves being marked by the two opposing defensive midfielders. This limited their time on the ball and reduced their effectiveness.
In the image below, we can see this issue during the game between Arsenal and Chelsea. Both teams played in a 4-2-3-1 formation. That is why Özil has two defensive midfielders as opponents and his effectiveness is reduced because he has no options to play the ball to. He loses the ball because he is marked by N’Golo Kante and Tiémoué Bakayoko. This example shows how the creative midfielder could be nullified by two markers in modern games.
The modern system
In order to counter, teams began switching to the 4-3-3 shape. By dropping the number 10 into a deeper position alongside two other midfielders the team was able to outnumber their opposition in this area of the pitch. As a result, their most talented player on the ball found himself once again in space and with time to pick out dangerous passes. Therefore, they are still creative midfielders but in a deeper position.
The following image shows that Manchester City has a numerical superiority. Crucial for this is that De Bruyne drops back on the same line as City´s defensive midfielder Rodri. At the same time, Silva is going more offensive. In this way they can build a triangle. If De Bruyne receives the ball now, he will find a free-standing man or shoot. Also, if the creative midfielders are comfortable to play in different positions on the pitch, they even provide multiple layers for their team when attacking.
With this switch to the 4-3-3 beginning with Barcelona and spreading across the continent the famous number 10 role was dropped from most top teams. Players who had previously played behind the striker had to either drop deeper into the midfield three, move out wide to become part of the front three, or watch as the game evolved in front of their eyes and see themselves left behind.
Adapting to the new role
Silva and Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City are examples of players that have brilliantly adapted their games while Özil of Arsenal has been left behind.
Both, Silva and De Bruyne have opted to move into deeper roles playing alongside a holding midfielder. Dropping deeper the duo has had to become more defensively solid and up their work rate off the ball. Since both creative midfielders were instructed to play in a deeper position, the increase of defensive duties is inevitable, especially when the team was defending with a block. They had to either mark a target or cover shadows, being a part of the defensive unit.
Here, we can see them both dropping deep late on in the game against Chelsea and remaining switched on while Willian cuts inside and looks for a through-ball. Both De Bruyne and Silva were staying around zone 14, protecting one of the most important areas on the pitch.
Now, let us contrast this with Özil’s off the ball work rate. In this attack, Fernandinho is carrying the ball forwards for Manchester City against Arsenal. Özil in a casual jog makes little attempt to get across to help his teammates and put pressure on Fernandinho from two angles.
As a result, the Brazilian is able to step past the Arsenal player and play a through-ball down the line for Gabriel Jesus. Jesus goes down the line by beating his man and pulls the ball back across the area. De Bruyne joined in the attack late and in space fires the ball home.
In the following image, we have a second view which highlights Özil´s lack of movement even more clearly. As Jesus is receiving the ball down the line, Özil has barely moved past the halfway circle. With Jesus now putting the ball back across the box, Özil has still barely shifted.
Work-rate as problem
This example brings to light another reason why the number 10 role has been slowly phased out: Typically, the number 10 was a talented player on the ball but lacked physicality and rarely provided defensive cover. To be blunt, and perhaps harsh, many of them were considered to be the laziest play on the pitch.
In modern-day football, where intense pressing has become the new normal, teams simply cannot carry a player who is not willing to put a shift in defensively.
Look at Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané of Liverpool: They are incredibly talented on the ball and in front of goal. But, perhaps most impressive is their work rate. They are consistently two of the hardest-working players on the pitch. In modern football, coaches expect that. Energy is not just required defensively either. Even in the attacking phases football is higher energy than ever before.
Here, we see De Bruyne on the ball against Burnley. He shifts the ball out wide to Bernardo Silva. While Özil may have slowly jogged into a central position here, De Bruyne darts into the half-space. This is the area between the central defender and the full-back. A quick one-two with Silva and De Bruyne is successfully behind Burnley’s defensive line. After that, he can play a dangerous ball across the box.
De Bruyne understands that to adapt to modern football, he must maintain high energy levels in both, defence and attack.
That is why lazy players simply will not be carried. For the talented number 10s in recent years, those who have been able to adapt their games are generally the players who can handle these physical demands. While those who have been left behind have struggled with this element.
De Bruyne accepted his new role in a deeper position. Nevertheless, he is still creative. In 146 matches, De Bruyne scored 31 goals and assisted 62 times (93 scorer points in 146 matches for Manchester City). These are outstanding statistics.
Özil has good stats as well. In 184 matches for Arsenal, he scored 33 goals and assisted 54 times (87 scorer points in 184 matches). But that also means, even if Özil still plays in a more offensive position, he needs more time to participate in a goal than De Bruyne.
As outlined in this analysis, the role of the number 10 is not as relevant as it was eight years ago. Over time, formations and tactics changed. The perfect formation to play with a number 10 is the 4-2-3-1 formation. In this system, the offensive midfielder can create lots of goal-scoring opportunities.
Today, the most used formation is the 4-3-3 formation. That is why there are not many number 10s anymore. The creative midfielders have to adapt their playing style. Therefore, they have to choose a position either in the three-man midfield or in the three-man attack. In the next part, we will take a look at the role of a false 9.