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

joshjdss
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?

Luka Dončić: The 2020/21 NBA MVP?

Javier Mendia García (Cropped)
When it comes to the NBA’s MVP, don’t get too comfortable Giannis – Luka’s got next.

Poor Phoenix.

I remember reading an article about the Phoenix Suns. It was about how the team isn’t tanking right now – they’re just losing.

Tanking is supposed to come with some kind of reward. One big win at the end of a period of small, numerous losses.

It’s a process, if you will.

You tank, you suck, you get a good draft pick, you get a good player and then they make you suck a little less.

It’s the circle of life.

To the naked eye Phoenix are tanking. Allegedly loosing on purpose to draft that can’t miss prospect. That player who would have an immediate impact on the franchise. And even if all that losing wasn’t on purpose (why would anyone admit to losing on purpose?), it did lead to the number one overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, however.

Deandre Ayton was the prize. The big man, the can’t miss prospect, the player who would have the immediate impact on the franchise. He played for the University of Arizona too.

It was perfect.

Now I’m not here to slate Deandre Ayton. He’s a good player don’t get me wrong – he was All-Rookie First Team. But since they drafted him the Suns are 45-102. He also had his drug policy violation and subsequent ban. I’m not pinning the fact that the Suns aren’t winning games on him – the Suns have had a host of other problems over the last few years. In fact the failings of the Phoenix Suns organisation is a whole other topic to write about in its own right.

I want to focus on the Dallas Mavericks, who had the fifth pick in that 2018 NBA Draft. They managed to get a 19 year old European after a trade with Atlanta involving another first round pick and Trae Young. They obviously saw something in this European.

That kid is 20 now. That kid is the next great NBA talent. That kid is the can’t miss prospect, the player who would have the immediate impact on his franchise.

That kid is Luka Dončić.

Luka won Rookie of the Year for the 2018/19 season, averaging 21 points, almost 8 rebounds and 6 assists a game. In NBA history, only two 19 year olds have averaged 21/6/6, or even 20/5/5, for an entire season – Luka and LeBron James.

That’s pretty good company.

But as stats exist in a vacuum, it’s important to note that both Luka and LeBron were basically handed the keys to the franchise in their rookie years – both players had their team’s highest Usage Percentage. The ball was in their hands, and the systems that they played in were designed to put it there.

LeBron’s team in his Rookie year is seen as the worst he’s ever been on, and the Mavericks traded the player they selected with their first round draft pick from the year before to make Luka the primary ball handler. These two young stars’ teams revolved around them.

But winning ROY doesn’t always mean you’re going to be MVP, or play anywhere near that level (sorry Michael Carter-Williams). But Luka was instantly seen as something special. There was even a chance in his debut NBA season he’d be the first Rookie since Blake Griffin in 2011 to play in an All-Star game. He ultimately didn’t make the cut.

Don’t get too upset he didn’t make it though, he got there in his second year.

And that second year has been pretty impressive, much like the first year. Actually, it hasn’t been “pretty impressive”.

It’s been phenomenal.

In his second year in the NBA, at 20 years old, Luka is averaging 28 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists a game. Only one other player has averaged that for an entire season, Oscar Robertson.

If 28/9/8 seems a little too cherry picked, Luka is one of only six players in NBA history to average 25/8/8 for a year. Luka is also one of eight players to average a ‘LeBron‘ for an entire season (27/7/7), which, in my opinion, is the gold standard for all-around basketball play. All the other players on these lists, besides Luka, are current, or future, Basketball Hall of Famers.

But again, it’s important to note that all these players always had (or have) the ball in their hands. They also led (or lead) their teams in Usage Percentage for these seasons. I’m not counting Luke Jackson’s 10 games for Cleveland in 2004/05, Coby Karl’s 3 games for Cleveland in 2009/10 and Josh Reaves’ 2 games for Dallas this season. Sue me.

Luka is the joint youngest player to put up these numbers too, so hopefully as Yazz sang, the only way is up.

That MVP could well be on the horizon.

But, for a player to be awarded the MVP, voters do concentrate on these stats, but also on the win/loss record of the player’s team and the media narrative surrounding said player (as odd as that sounds, just give it to the best player).

Allow me to explain quickly.

When Russell Westbrook won the MVP in 2017 playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, he was putting up absurd numbers. He became only the second player in NBA history to average a triple double for an entire season. He was winning games and getting the Thunder into the Playoffs – even if it was only a six seed. But most importantly, the storyline of his season was dominated by the fact that Kevin Durant had left in free agency. Westbrook was the “one who stayed”, and he dragged his team into the Playoffs all by himself (or so it seemed, I’m not going to get into that season right now).

Russell was the “most valuable” player. He led his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, minutes – almost everything. He won MVP because his individual stats were impressive, his team won games, and because he had a story that triumphed over all others.

Luka can do this too.

The stats mentioned previously show he can put up the numbers. The man seems to stuff the stat sheet, but not in the obscene and egregious way that Westbrook does. Or maybe he does. Either way, the basketball talent this 20 year old possesses would confuse even James Naismith.

Also, the Mavericks’ system will give Luka the ball. This year he’s second only to the one-man-wrecking crew that is Giannis Antetokounmpo in Usage Percentage. He also has the sixth most isolation possessions per game in the entire NBA. Dallas give him the ball and let Luka loose.

There’s no doubt that the Mavericks can win games. They’ve got a coaching savant in Rick Carlisle sat on their bench, and a solid number two in Porzingis.

Plus, the MVP voters may get tired of Giannis’ dominance with the award. Voter fatigue is a real thing, ask Karl Malone and Michael Jordan. Voters felt that it was Malone’s “turn” in the late 90s – even if MJ was the better player. Plus, as this article from Bleacher Report points out: “Voter fatigue tends to slant toward up-and-coming players.” Luka’s only been in the league for two years, and he’s certainly up and coming to say the least.

So, voters can look at; the Slovenian wonder’s numbers, the fact that he has the ball in his hands, my assumption that the Mavericks will win games, and their possible Giannis-related boredom.

All signs point to Luka.

His play is already near MVP level too.

Luka said himself that in the NBA, “it’s easier to score compared to Europe”.

He’s got that signature move, the step back jumper. Despite not being the quickest move of all time, it’s still effective. You can see how it helps him get into his shooting rhythm and is almost unguardable.

He’s also got a strange combination of a first step and a head fake to drive towards the basket. Again, it’s not the quickest move, but it seems to get defenders off balance and get him to the hole. Even if a drive doesn’t lead to him directly going in for a score, he can set up his crafty “I’m going to stick me inbetween you and the ball” body position to keep defenders away.

His passing is already fantastic.

He seems to like to jump and pass the ball to the roller when running the pick and roll, which can be a little risky. But this elevation, combined with the height advantage he already has over smaller guards, enables him to see over the defence and zip the ball right where it needs to be. But it’s his lob passes that impress me. Just watch the touch on this one. The ball floats in the air for a second, just begging to plucked out of the sky.

However, his defending could do with some work.

His one on one defending isn’t bad, but as he’s not the most athletic player in the world, it’s hard for him to shift his feet quickly enough sometimes. But, he seems to read the game well, and knows where to stand. He’ll get better over time.

By the way, bad defending never stopped James Harden from winning the MVP.

Speaking of Harden, Luka’s 3-point percentage is slightly below the league average of 35% at 32%. In my opinion, to really take his game to the next level, he needs to get that up into the high 30s. But it’s not a bad percentage by any means. The opposition still need to respect him from 3-point range, so he spreads the floor nicely – that opens up opportunities on the pick and roll, or for Luka to drive into the paint himself.

I’ve waxed lyrical about the stupendous Slovenian enough now. The Eurostar. Ludicrous Luka. Dynamic Dončić.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype when European players come to the NBA sometimes. As a Chicago Bulls fan, I remember how excited everyone was when they drafted former Liga ACB MVP Nikola Mirotić. He was good, but, maybe not as good as everyone thought he would be.

Luka is a former Spanish league MVP too, so you can argue that he knows what it takes to win this kind of award.

Everything seems to be in place for Luka to be MVP next year.

He can put up the individual stats. He can win the games. He can steal the media spotlight from Giannis.

To get players to play at an MVP level, yes, teams do need to put a good set of complimentary players around them, coach them well, have a good win/loss record and some Playoff success.

But you have to make sure that the player is the next great NBA talent. That the player is the can’t miss prospect. That the player is the one who will have the immediate impact on the franchise.

So you need to get lucky, and you need to draft the right player.

Poor Phoenix.

I took all my stats from Basketball Reference and stats.NBA.com – which are both great if you’re into that kind of thing. Also if you’re interested in Luka’s play a little more, watch this video by Thinking Basketball on his Rookie year – it’s fantastic and the YouTube channel should have way more subscribers that it does.