10 Out of 10: Mesut Özil, Philippe Coutinho and a Dying Breed of Footballers

Mesut Özil and Philippe Coutinho were amongst the Premier League’s most exciting players to watch not too long ago – but why we can’t we watch them anymore? Why has football left them behind?

The ball is played over the top, into his path, as he runs infield from the right. He collects it with his left foot.

His second touch lifts the ball over the goalkeeper who’s rushed out to meet him just outside of the penalty area. He carries on towards goal.

Two defenders are arriving on the cover, attempting to protect the open goal. He takes another couple of touches with his left to set himself as continues across the area.

He lifts his left leg back to shoot. The two defenders bite. He simply takes a fifth touch near the penalty spot. The defenders are on the floor.

He takes a sixth touch and sets himself one last time. The seventh touch is him side footing the ball into an empty net from just outside the six-yard box.

That was a moment of magic from Arsenal’s Mesut Özil against Ludogrets in the Champions League in 2016. Now, less than four years later, Özil is unable to get into an Arsenal side that sits ninth in the Premier League.

But it’s not just him struggling in modern football. The Number 10 has all but disappeared from the game – from Juan Román Riquelme to Philippe Coutinho.

What happened?

In Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathon Wilson touches upon Riquelme and the problem of the Number 10 (or eganche as the Argentinians know it) in footballing tactics.

He laments Riquelme as the “last of the old-style playmakers,” the player that sits behind the strikers in a 4231 or 4312. The style that led to playmakers like Mesut Özil.

And in José Mourinho’s Real Madrid, that’s where Özil played.

He had Di Maria and Ronaldo either side of him and was just behind Benzema. In 2011/12 Real Madrid won La Liga with a then record 100 points. Özil led the league in assists, essentially creating a goal every other game. Arsenal spent just over £42 million on the German in 2013.

It’s not as if he was a failure in England either. Look at performances like this, where (even though later on in his Arsenal career) every good thing that happens for the North London side went through him. He’s won three FA Cups with Arsenal, and most importantly, a World Cup with Germany in 2014.

He was once amongst the most creative and stylish players in England, perhaps the world. Now it seems he is no longer needed.

The same can be said for Philippe Coutinho.

The Brazilian was once Anfield’s beloved Number 10 – getting into the PFA Team of the Year in 2015. Before he left for Barcelona in 2018, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp told him: “Stay here and they will end up building a statue in your honour.”

“Go somewhere else, to Barcelona, to Bayern Munich, to Real Madrid, and you will be just another player.”

He wasn’t wrong.

But maybe not for the reasons he implied.

Despite still retaining a penchant for the spectacular in his post-Liverpool career, Coutinho never really settled at Barcelona, and was eventually sent out on loan to Bayern Munich for the 2019/20 season. He’s not flourished in Bavaria either.

Perhaps we’ve failed to see the best of these playmakers recently, not due to them losing the tough battle for places at European Super Clubs, but due to the fact that, tactically, football has moved on.

The Number 10 has become a position that is obsolete – a word that even football isn’t immune to. Does anyone sit a sweeper behind a back four anymore?

As mentioned, football favoured a 4231 when Özil and Coutinho were at their best. Even when teams played two strikers like Liverpool did under Rodgers (Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suárez) they played a diamond in midfield with a player like Coutinho at the tip – just behind the forwards.

As 433 emerged as the preferred formation for clubs around the world (especially with the dominance of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona) the playmaker was put out wide. That seemed to be where the position was heading – starting on the wing and drifting infield into the space in-between the lines.

Oddly enough, Özil played on the wing for Germany when they became world champions. The position wasn’t alien to Coutinho either, who “during his best spell with Brazil, in the qualifiers for Russia 2018, played more on the left of a front three, but having the freedom to go back and act as a Number 10,” according to Natalie Gedra.

Then came the introduction of wide forwards.

Cutting inside, players like Pedro and David Villa at Guardiola’s Barcelona and Sadio Mané and Mo Salah at Klopp’s Liverpool, now looked to score the goals, not just create them. The width then came from the fullbacks pushing forwards.

Of course creativity was still wanted. Creativity was still needed.

But it now comes from two of the three midfielders in a 433.

The midfielder that can sit in the inside left or right positions. The midfielder that can carry the ball quickly and vertically from box to box. This new Number 6 position is embodied by players like Kevin De Bruyne and Luka Modrić (who Wilson calls the “first of the new” style of playmakers).

Their mobility also helps with the defensive aspect of the game, which is a part of football that classic Number 10s struggle with.

Players like Riquelme and Özil were never blessed with the pace and box to box energy of the new style of playmakers, making pressing (something integral in the modern game, from Guardiola’s blocking of the passing lanes to Jürgen Klopp’s gegenpressing) virtually impossible with them in the side.

Squeezing the pitch and winning the ball back high is now a team’s first line of defence, and it starts from the front. If one of your front three can’t do it, why play them?

“It was Riquelme, mournful of demeanour, graceful of movement and deft of touch, who best embodied the old-style eganche until his retirement in 2012,” Wilson also wrote.

“Riquelme has become less of a player than a cipher for an ideology.”

Some footballers play too early to see the tactical advancements that would truly benefit their style. Some play too late to have any part in the new world of football.

Oddly enough, when Germany manager Joachim Löw was asked about Özil in 2018 he said the same thing.

“The situation of the playmaker or Number 10 doesn’t really exist anymore and hasn’t done for a long time,” he said.

“Guys like (Gunter) Netzer, (Michel) Platini and Zidane haven’t been around for a while. These days the playmakers, the ones who make the play, are in deeper, more defensive positions. These are very important positions, the ones who control the game and have more contact with the ball than the ones further forward. The classic Number 10 no longer really exists.”

Even Juan Mata, a player who excelled as a Number 10 for Chelsea, has said that the role is “maybe not extinct, but not as used as before”.

“In the past, there was always this pure Number 10, behind the striker or the two strikers, depending on the team. With different systems now, that position has evolved into a different one,” he pointed out to The Athletic.

It seems that Jack Grealish’s preferred role (but note that he does start on the wing at times) at Aston Villa is the Number 10, and he’s had a good season – but look at where Villa are in the table.

Maybe he should look to Manchester City’s David Silva, whose role has changed throughout the years. He’s gone from the classic 10, to the wide playmaker drifting in, to now being part of a midfield three. He shows that not all playmakers are being left behind. The great ones can adapt.

The Number 10 is undoubtedly a skilled position filled by fantastic players – but can those players find a part to play in modern football?

Whatever the future holds for them, footballers like Özil and Coutinho will always know at least one thing.

They’ll know that when they were at their best, they were always a 10 out of 10.

This topic has no doubt been written to death, but I enjoyed it – hope you did too! Also, hopefully I’ll have something written that isn’t football-related to read about in the next week or so too. Who knows?

Pep Guardiola & Manchester City: Pressure Makes Diamonds

Ardfern (Cropped)
Better late than never, but here’s a look at Manchester City against Arsenal on Wednesday night – and Pep Guardiola’s old, but not outdated, tactics.

No one would disagree if someone said that sport is about evolution.

It’s about taking what those have done before you, what people are doing now, and building upon those ideas to make something better. To make something that is all conquering and unbeatable. To make something that beats even the ideas you based it upon.

Pep Guardiola has done just that, building upon the ideas of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan and, especially, Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona.

It’s no secret how much of an impact Cruyff had on Guardiola – his famous quote is: “Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it.”

In short, what Pep does is based upon what Cruyff did. In turn, what Cruyff did was based upon what Rinus Michels, his manager at Ajax in the 1970s, did. That great Ajax side played a 433 that turned into a 343 – dominating possession and dropping a midfielder into the defence (essentially having three backs).

Cruyff did the same at Barcelona when he was in charge – playing a 343, and controlling possession with a greater number of midfielders than the opposing team. This was dependent on the fact that Cruyff’s team had, in essence, two diamonds. These diamonds helped create passing angles for both the back three and the midfielders.

The player at the tip of the diamond (in this team, Guardiola) that involved the back three, would also form the base of the diamond in the midfield (although incredibly narrow in the first one, it is seen in the two images below):

The outside centre backs would eventually sit as wide as they could (along with the wingers, who didn’t play as conventional wing backs) which made the pitch as big as possible – an advantage when attacking. This formation also helped the central midfielders in-between the lines, placing them in the inside left or right positions, allowing them to find space.

So getting to Guardiola.

He did a similar thing when he was Barcelona manager. He created a back three when on the ball by spreading his centre backs (Piqué and Puyol or Mascherano) out incredibly wide, and dropping Busquets in-between them to make a three, which is useful against teams playing two strikers (below):

With the two full backs in the wide areas of midfield, it makes a de facto 343. He did something like this at Bayern Munich, letting Thiago or Philipp Lahm come deeper and sit between the centre backs, or by completely inverting his full backs into midfielders during the build up.

What’s this got to do with Manchester City on Wednesday? This provides a little bit of context before diving into how Guardiola set his team up.

Namely, decades later, the same tactical ideas still prevail.

Where this is going may well be obvious to some. City, of course, set up in a 433 formation to start (below):

This 433 is what City held when they were defending.

The principle that Guardiola subscribes to, is that of making the pitch as big as possible when attacking and as small as possible when defending. The same principle as Cruyff.

This is done with City’s press as it prevents the other team starting comfortable build up play. If they don’t win the ball back instantly, they stay in this 433 formation – making sure the opposition have no space to exploit.

But what was noticeable (when considering the 433 becoming the 343) was what City did in possession.

In the pivot role, Gündogan still picked the ball up from the two central defenders – either Laporte or Garcia. But he wasn’t alone. Kyle Walker also stepped into midfield several times.

This let Laporte step up into the same horizontal midfield level as Walker, just behind Gündogan. By inverting a full back Manchester City had made a diamond that started at the defence (below):

That image also shows the advantage of doing so. Aubameyang has come inside and followed Walker, which, although not seen, has given Mahrez on the right acres of space. But if he didn’t come inside, City would completely overrun midfield. It’s done again here:

The space this movement created led to Manchester City’s first goal. That and David Luiz.

Mahrez and De Bruyne had swapped positions. Mahrez was in the inside right, and De Bruyne was wide, which, due to Aubameyang cutting infield to follow Walker, meant he was in plenty of space. This space allowed him to get his head up and put the ball in the box that Luiz didn’t properly clear. That mistake led to Sterling scoring (below):

As mentioned, Guardiola wants the pitch to be as big as possible when attacking. The wide men become so important in this. If Walker is inverted, De Bruyne or Mahrez need to be in that position on the right hand side to spread the defence out and create more space for others.

On the other side Mendy was the one staying wide. This came into effect with Manchester City’s first goal. Mendy’s width meant Sterling was free to come inside, allowing him to get into the box and score.

With Walker in midfield, Mendy needed to be hugging the touchline, providing width and creating space (an example of this below):

But was it specifically designed to be a diamond starting at the defence?

This becomes unclear with how the midfield was shaped at times.

The reasoning may be more to do with sheer numbers as opposed to certain shapes, but the foundation that Cruyff laid is still there. Outnumber the players in midfield to dominate the ball, all while making the pitch as big as possible. This photo shows Manchester City have the numbers – but it’s hardly a diamond (below):

You can note that Saka may be closing Gündogan down, negating their numerical advantage in midfield. But if he does, again, Mendy will be in space – as De Bruyne was with the goal.

Walker stepped into midfield to essentially create a 343. Gündogan was at the tip of the defensive diamond and – with Silva and De Bruyne in the half spaces – at the base of an attacking one. That formation would look something like (but not exactly depending on positional interchanges) this image below:

Although not using the exact same system, Pep has built upon an idea used in the 1990s, which itself was built upon an idea used in the 1970s. It’s one of those things that once noticed, cannot be unnoticed. Once it’s been done, it cannot be undone.

History repeats itself. Maybe because time is a flat circle. Or a flat diamond.

Hopefully this made sense – I thought it was amazing that the same ideas from the 1990s are still being used today. I’m only writing about football right now because it’s all that’s going on, but, who knows what the future may hold. If you want to see any videos on tactics, this is a great watch and super informative in regards to the real ins and outs of Cruyff’s system.