It’s a stark truth that, depending on when you were born, you may not have a cherished, warm little nook, or even a cranny, in your football bosom for the fabled No10. Worse, to some modern fans that term might only evoke the number of your favourite dish on a local takeaway menu, a cricket ‘nightwatchman’ or perhaps the recently retired bus route from Hammersmith to King’s Cross.
But, on behalf of those a little longer in the tooth, a little bit more romantic or those who watched – wait, make that gazed lovingly – at continental football in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, these next ten minutes of your reading will be an unashamed love letter to an endangered breed: football’s No10s.
The single most iconic No10s, conceptually, are the players who roamed their own personal territory, between midfield and attack, a Bermuda Triangle where rugged defenders and limpet man-to-man markers entered but mysteriously vanished. With the number ten emblazoned on the back of their shirt, they seemed to hear Miles Davis jazz in their heads while opponents around them performed to an internal soundtrack of dull, repetitive, hotel-lobby muzak.
Juan Román Riquelme, Roberto Baggio, Dejan Savićević, Michel Platini, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Roberto Mancini…
Those around them saw narrow paths and brick walls. The true No10s envisioned wide, verdant meadows, blue skies… liberty. Because being a genuine No10 isn’t just about position and shirt number – it’s a state of mind, a philosophy which informs every decision you make on the ball. It’s your very essence distilled into elegant actions.
Paul Weller, English music’s ‘Modfather’, always says about being a Mod that, “It’s timeless, it’s ever-expanding, it’s a way of looking at things, a way of adapting to your environment.” So is being a No10.
It’s such an effervescent, buoyant concept that, just as the Inuit supposedly have over 50 words for snow and Scots have about 3,000 ways of saying “It’s raining,” football has found a myriad of ways to describe this position, this playing mentality.
Playmaker (spielmacher in German and meneur de jeu in French); trequartista (Italian for someone who plays three-quarters of the way up the pitch); fantasista (self-explanatory); enganche (Spain and South America: to link up or attach things); someone who ‘plays in the hole’; mediapunta (Spanish for half-striker); volante de creación (South American: creative steering wheel)… and there are more out there should you want to go looking.
If you haven’t had the joy of seeing a fantasista in full flow, there are other ways of evoking what that kind of football attitude truly means. For example, have you ever seen the movie Oliver! and thrilled to the brilliant character the Artful Dodger? Ragamuffin, small and unthreatening to look at – but impossible to resist, cocky, cheeky, tricksy, not hidebound by ordinary rules. Loveable. If the Artful Dodger played football, he’d be a No10.
Equally, imagine you arrive at a new job. The office, indeed the company, gives you the feeling that you’ll never catch on, that there are hundreds of rules, codicils and unspoken laws. But a new colleague, unspeakably cool, knows the shortcuts and will show you them, knows how to charm the canteen staff into ladling out an extra portion of sticky toffee pudding at lunch and will tell you which of the bosses to trust and which not.
There are No10s everywhere in life. You’ve seen them, you’ve envied them, you’ve walked taller when they bestow their charm, wit and savvy on you.
Now, armed with those descriptions, does your mind stray to… Karim Benzema, Paul Gascoigne, Paul Scholes, Michael Laudrup, Xavi Hernández, David Silva, Lionel Messi, Jari Litmanen, Cesc Fàbregas, Isco, Ronaldinho, Wayne Rooney, Juan Sebastián Verón, Wesley Sneijder, Pablo Aimar, Paulo Dybala, Deco, Andy Möller, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Andrés Iniesta, Zinédine Zidane, Rui Costa, Paulo Sousa, Gianfranco Zola, Teddy Sheringham, Andrea Pirlo, Dennis Bergkamp, Antoine Griezmann and Kevin De Bruyne, or any of your own personal favourites?
It should. These men, not all of whom are equally iconic No10s as Riquelme, Maradona or Platini, have playmaking and fantasy in their soul. They brought a ‘10’ mentality to work every day.
Whether or not they wear the number on their back, whether or not they play ‘in the hole’, whether or not the terminology changes irrevocably, the spirit, defiance, wit, vision and importance of the true No10 will never die, never disappear.
Absolutely no chance. But, as with all important conservation issues, there’s an ongoing debate. Two of the all-time great No10s feel pessimistic, even bleak, about how that brand of football, the role which made them both famous and adored in equal measure, is under threat of extinction.
Totti recently told Spanish football daily Marca, “I’m not going to say that it’s extinct, but the No10, now, is almost considered just like any other number in the team – it’s lost its relevance.”
More optimistically – albeit Roberto Mancini wrote this thesis over 20 years ago to earn a coaching badge – the Sampdoria and Lazio legend noted how, “The role has undergone a strong evolutionary process: Zidane, Rivaldo, Rui Costa and others are very different to their counterparts from the past. They combine undisputed technical qualities with good physical skills that allow them to participate more actively in the ball-recovery phase.
“The different physical make-up of the ‘new trequartisti’ permits them to compensate for the reductions of space and time to play the ball. The fantasisti have also had to adapt to a more athletic football in which technique is no longer enough to emerge at certain levels if not supported by good physical and character traits. For all these reasons, it’s increasingly difficult for the trequartista to ‘make a difference’ as used to happen. This explains the choice to give up on the trequartista, especially by mid and low-table teams.”
Any conservationist will tell you that when something valuable becomes threatened to the brink of extinction, it’s never down to one single cause. It’s by no means just because 4-3-1-2 and 4-2-1-3 are now rarely used formations that the No10 position can require binoculars and months of trekking, following a local guide through green foliage, in order to spot.
The athletic pace of modern football. The ubiquitous notion that teams should ‘defend all over the pitch’, rather than trying to impose two banks of four impenetrable, defensively minded footballers, thus requiring a cat burglar No10 to unlock goals. The overwhelming popularity of pressing… There is a wide range of factors which explain the shrinking population of old-style trequartisti who play in a defined pocket of space between midfield and attack, all the while wearing the storied number on their shirt.
But, believe me, despite any tactical, athletic or strategic evolutions in our beautiful game, the ethos, the soul, the Artful Dodging all live on in a plethora of elite players. Just take the brilliance of De Bruyne. Pep Guardiola used him in a variety of positions last season as Manchester City soared to the first treble won by an English club in over 20 years, but did the exceptional Belgian display the same velvet first touch and scintillating instinct for passing, use of space and spectator entertainment as any of the timeless No10s?
Likewise, consider Lionel Messi. He has played wide on the right, as a false nine and later in his career as a deeper-lying playmaker, but he continues to stand out as a true No10, simply because every gesture, every exquisite skill and trick represent a cumulation of how Baggio, Platini, Maradona, Laudrup et al once managed to enchant us. Indeed, the list of Champions League nights when the former Barcelona genius produced the best fantasista football anyone has ever seen is almost endless.
Even so, I’d prefer to pick out a couple of slightly under-venerated, corner-of-your-mind examples of when a No10 made magic happen.
First up, a Champions League semi-final back on 19 April 1995: Ajax 5-2 Bayern. The eventual European champions thumped Germany’s behemoth and their No10, Litmanen, scored twice. See if you can find footage of Litmanen’s ‘Artful’ dummy which preceded Finidi George’s goal or the delicious feint via which the Finland ace left Mehmet Scholl on the ground, having lunged at thin air, before finishing into the top corner off his left foot.
Bayern midfielder Dietmar Hamann was left flabbergasted. “We went to Amsterdam thinking, ‘There’s always a chance…’” he told me. “But they just rolled us over. They played a different game. You could put each of them, Jari included, in the team of the century. These were young lads, but they were in a different league. It was a procession and at times you felt like applauding them.”
Louis van Gaal, Ajax coach that night, was similarly enthralled. “Jari had great vision,” he explained to The Athletic. “He was always free. You could always give him a pass. Not so fast but always right on time.”
Arguably the most exciting No10 super-show I ever reported on live, Messi notwithstanding, was the 2006 World Cup semi-final between Germany and Italy in Dortmund. The hosts were allergic to losing at the Westfalenstadion (it had never happened), they enjoyed home advantage and their rivals had drawn with the United States in the group stage before needing a contentious penalty to defeat Australia 1-0 in the round of 16.
But the Azzurri, historically the prototype of defensively minded teams, ended the match with three – count them, THREE – No10s on the pitch: Del Piero, Totti and Pirlo. Either take my word for it or go seek the highlights, but Pirlo’s little dribble and no-look pass for the first goal, Totti’s defence-splitting ball and Del Piero’s top-corner finish for the crucial second sealed it for the world champions-elect.
Their coach Marcello Lippi once recalled to me how, as a Sampdoria libero, his job had been to defend behind the two centre-backs, and he was warned that if he ever got near enough to even see the halfway line, he’d be dropped. “I swore to myself back then,” he explained, “that when I was a coach, my teams would attack, would be thrilling, would play with joy – not fear.”
No better testimony, really, from the man who also led Juventus to Champions League glory in 1995/96, as to what a true No10 should embody, regardless of system, regardless of the number on their back: thrills, joy and not a drop of fear.