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.
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.