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Interview

'You need to make the difference'

Among the greatest No10s to ever wear the shirt, Denmark legend Michael Laudrup explains how the job description differed from country to country – and how it has evolved in the modern game

WORDS Simon Hart

“In every team I played, some things were the same – you had to make the one against one, you had to make the passes for the goals.” That, in a few simple words, is how Michael Laudrup sums up the role of the No10 during his days as a wondrously elegant playmaker for some of European football’s finest line-ups of the 1980s and 90s. With Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’, he broke new ground by winning the club’s first European Cup in 1991/92, six years after he had dazzled with another bunch of trailblazers – the famous ‘Danish Dynamite’ side which lit up Mexico 86 on their World Cup debut appearance.

A tall, graceful footballer with the dribbling skills of a tricky little winger, Laudrup features on our list of No10s for good reason. Indeed, no less a judge than Thierry Henry once described the now 59-year-old as the footballer with whom he would have most wished to play, for Laudrup’s vision and ability to thread an immaculately precise pass.

Laudrup’s gifts illuminated a range of European clubs, from Brøndby in his home nation to Lazio and Juventus in Italy, plus Real Madrid – the club he joined from Barcelona – and finally Ajax. And, as he explains, the understanding of his position differed in each country. “The No10 role was never a universal role – it depended on which league you played in,” he says. “When I started in Serie A in 1983, the No10 was a guy who was moving the team around. That could be an offensive midfielder or one who was coming back almost as a central defender to pick up the ball. I played with Michel Platini at Juventus and he came back but was also the one who got into the box  and scored a lot of goals. You also had a player like Giuseppe Giannini at Roma who was more the guy just moving the ball around. 

“When I then went to Spain, to Barcelona in the late 1980s, the number was not that important. Actually, in my five years there, I played with the No9 shirt. The role of the No10 was as the offensive midfielder who could be the connection, who could find the space in between the lines, who could make the one v one, who could make passes for the goals but also sometimes get his own goals.”

Michael Laudrup lines up in the bright orange of Barcelona ahead of the 1992 final

It was at Barcelona, where he arrived in 1989, that Laudrup came under the influence of Cruyff. The Dutchman had a very different understanding of the 4-3-3 than he had encountered previously at Juventus. “I played as a false No9 with Johan Cruyff. He was the one who started that around 1990, 1991. At that time, it was very normal to have a centre-forward playing against two very strong central defenders. And Cruyff said, ‘We’ll put Michael there. We know he’s not a centre-forward, but we put him there and he drops off. That leaves the two central defenders with no one to defend against and we’ll have one more in midfield, and our wide players can be the forwards.’ My role as a No10 was then to drop off and be the guy who made the passes for goals or did the individual things.”

That meant supplying forwards like Julio Salinas, Hristo Stoichkov and Romário as Barcelona – amid a run of four straight Spanish title triumphs – conquered Europe in 1991/92 and finished Champions League runners-up in 1993/94. “A manager like Cruyff really understood how to use the quality of our best players in the best way for the benefit of the team,” says Laudrup, who counted Pep Guardiola as a colleague in midfield. “I learned a lot there how to use my skills playing in that No10 role, being that creative player to play more in the final third. The team needs to help you in the build-up so you can receive the ball in your best position and then, when you receive it, you need to make the difference – making a goal or a great pass for a big chance.”

On leaving Barcelona for Real Madrid in 1994, Laudrup had to shape his skills to another system. “It was more like a 4-4-2 and I was playing in midfield – we played with a diamond there, with a defensive midfielder, a player on the right and the left, and I was the offensive midfielder behind the two strikers.”

Looking back on the No10s of his playing era, he singles out one above all others. “In my generation, for me the greatest player – and one of the best players in the history of football – was Diego Armando Maradona. Was he a No10? I think he was a bit of everything. He scored a lot of goals in very different ways. 

Insight
Font of all knowledge

Get the presentation right and the number ten itself can become iconic, writes Sheridan Bird 

Every No10 interprets their role differently, and fittingly the digits on the back of their shirt are distinct. Design and marketing have moved on since everyone wore the same hand-stitched numbers. Clubs invest a lot for a bespoke identification to stand out from the rest. 

Real Madrid’s Luís Figo donned a no-nonsense number ten when he won the Champions League in 2001/02. Los Blancos deployed a US military alphabet stencil, created in the 1930s to be easily legible on army equipment and vehicles. Ironic that a team packed with such flair opted for the ultimate no-frills font, but it certainly worked.

Barcelona drew more romantic inspiration in the early 2010s with numerals inspired by the curvature and carvings of architect Antoni Gaudi’s famous work. By then, Lionel Messi had long been a monument to the beauty of football. In the mid-2000s, Roma delved even further back with an elegant, precise style that paid homage to the capital’s ancient, sophisticated dwellers. And if there’s one player who had earned the right to wear Roman numerals, it’s Francesco Totti. 

Not everyone travels that far back. Manchester City embraced the digital age in 2021/22, when Jack Grealish and Co’s numbers resembled an electronic scoreboard (which referenced their last-gasp Premier League title win in 2011/12). But no matter how it is presented, the number ten is imbued with a special power. You need only spend a morning in central Naples to realise how much a charismatic person in the sacred shirt can capture the hearts of a generation… or three.

“In every team I played, some things were the same – you had to make the one against one, you had to make the passes for the goals.” That, in a few simple words, is how Michael Laudrup sums up the role of the No10 during his days as a wondrously elegant playmaker for some of European football’s finest line-ups of the 1980s and 90s. With Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’, he broke new ground by winning the club’s first European Cup in 1991/92, six years after he had dazzled with another bunch of trailblazers – the famous ‘Danish Dynamite’ side which lit up Mexico 86 on their World Cup debut appearance.

A tall, graceful footballer with the dribbling skills of a tricky little winger, Laudrup features on our list of No10s for good reason. Indeed, no less a judge than Thierry Henry once described the now 59-year-old as the footballer with whom he would have most wished to play, for Laudrup’s vision and ability to thread an immaculately precise pass.

Laudrup’s gifts illuminated a range of European clubs, from Brøndby in his home nation to Lazio and Juventus in Italy, plus Real Madrid – the club he joined from Barcelona – and finally Ajax. And, as he explains, the understanding of his position differed in each country. “The No10 role was never a universal role – it depended on which league you played in,” he says. “When I started in Serie A in 1983, the No10 was a guy who was moving the team around. That could be an offensive midfielder or one who was coming back almost as a central defender to pick up the ball. I played with Michel Platini at Juventus and he came back but was also the one who got into the box  and scored a lot of goals. You also had a player like Giuseppe Giannini at Roma who was more the guy just moving the ball around. 

“When I then went to Spain, to Barcelona in the late 1980s, the number was not that important. Actually, in my five years there, I played with the No9 shirt. The role of the No10 was as the offensive midfielder who could be the connection, who could find the space in between the lines, who could make the one v one, who could make passes for the goals but also sometimes get his own goals.”

Michael Laudrup lines up in the bright orange of Barcelona ahead of the 1992 final

It was at Barcelona, where he arrived in 1989, that Laudrup came under the influence of Cruyff. The Dutchman had a very different understanding of the 4-3-3 than he had encountered previously at Juventus. “I played as a false No9 with Johan Cruyff. He was the one who started that around 1990, 1991. At that time, it was very normal to have a centre-forward playing against two very strong central defenders. And Cruyff said, ‘We’ll put Michael there. We know he’s not a centre-forward, but we put him there and he drops off. That leaves the two central defenders with no one to defend against and we’ll have one more in midfield, and our wide players can be the forwards.’ My role as a No10 was then to drop off and be the guy who made the passes for goals or did the individual things.”

That meant supplying forwards like Julio Salinas, Hristo Stoichkov and Romário as Barcelona – amid a run of four straight Spanish title triumphs – conquered Europe in 1991/92 and finished Champions League runners-up in 1993/94. “A manager like Cruyff really understood how to use the quality of our best players in the best way for the benefit of the team,” says Laudrup, who counted Pep Guardiola as a colleague in midfield. “I learned a lot there how to use my skills playing in that No10 role, being that creative player to play more in the final third. The team needs to help you in the build-up so you can receive the ball in your best position and then, when you receive it, you need to make the difference – making a goal or a great pass for a big chance.”

On leaving Barcelona for Real Madrid in 1994, Laudrup had to shape his skills to another system. “It was more like a 4-4-2 and I was playing in midfield – we played with a diamond there, with a defensive midfielder, a player on the right and the left, and I was the offensive midfielder behind the two strikers.”

Looking back on the No10s of his playing era, he singles out one above all others. “In my generation, for me the greatest player – and one of the best players in the history of football – was Diego Armando Maradona. Was he a No10? I think he was a bit of everything. He scored a lot of goals in very different ways. 

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“He was like a No10 in the sense he was not a first striker; he didn’t have a fixed position. A player like him couldn’t have a fixed position because they would kill him. They even tried – it wasn’t like today with 50 cameras on every pitch and the VAR system to protect the players. He needed to find his position where he could get the ball in a moment. When the team had the ball, they were moving it around, trying to find the exact moment they could pass it to Maradona so they could benefit from his quality.” 

Laudrup, who has since coached in five different countries, saw the same happen later with Lionel Messi at Barcelona. “You need the players to move the ball so their No10 can find the position where he can get the ball and make the difference.” 

Returning to the role as it was during his Serie A years, Laudrup shifts focus to another great No10 of the time, Michel Platini, with whom he played at Juventus from 1985 to 1987. “Platini was what they called a playmaker in the sense he could come back. At Juventus, it was a 4-3-3 with one or two central midfielders and then the offensive midfielder. But he was dropping very deep at times to get the ball because he had a fantastic pass over 30-35 metres, so sometimes in the build-up from the back you could see him drop off to receive the ball and then he could link his passes.

“Back then in Italy, when you dropped off to your own half, the opposition just let you receive the  ball as they didn’t care; this was different from how the British would play where there was much more pressure. In Italy, the pressure started when you entered your opponent’s half – then there was very hard pressure. So, he dropped off and they said, ‘OK, Platini, you can have the ball in that half, no problem.’ So, he would sometimes drop off and start the build-up. 

“An outstanding player can make a pass before the rest even know a space is there”

“What he had, which was fantastic, was that when he got to the opposition penalty area, he was very good at coming into the box at the last moment. He had a lot of quality because he was in the build-up and also there at the finish. He was top scorer in Serie A [for three consecutive seasons], which was very unusual for a midfielder. Yes, he had the penalties and free-kicks but he also scored a lot of goals at Juventus by entering the box at the last second.”

Today, Laudrup analyses Champions League football for Danish broadcaster Viaplay and he anticipates another question: whether the structures and systems of football today allow for such a player as the No10 of old. “Now, with a lot of teams, you see this role doesn’t really exist,” he says. “Now, you play with one man holding, one midfielder and one offensive midfielder. If you want to play 4-3-3, you need a controlling midfielder and what’s important is that the other two complement each other and have their own strengths. You need a bit of everything. If you see Manchester City, they have a holding midfielder in Rodri and in their best XI they’d probably have Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva too. You can ask are they No10s or are they two No8s?”

In Laudrup’s eyes, De Bruyne and Bernardo offer evidence that players who would have fitted the No10 mould in past eras are still out there. “I think both De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva have things you can say are like a No10 – it’s just another way of playing. De Bruyne has incredible vision. When he makes a pass, he already sees where he can make it before others. I was once told that a good player can make a pass that we all can see. If it’s a very good player, he can make a pass some of us can see. But an outstanding player can make a pass – they find a space – before the rest even know a space is there. Kevin De Bruyne is one of those. He is not individually a player who takes the ball and makes a one against one, but they have Bernardo Silva for that and that’s why their midfield is so fantastic – they complement each other so well, they have different qualities and all three are so intelligent at moving the ball.

“You need movement, as nowadays you can no longer have one player just standing behind the striker,” he adds. “Football is becoming more and more physical, players are much better prepared physically today than they were in the 80s or 90s, and so there is not much space. You need more movement and that’s why you don’t see a player just behind like you did before.” Maybe, but as the game continues to evolve, our fascination with its magicians endures. 

Insight
Font of all knowledge

Get the presentation right and the number ten itself can become iconic, writes Sheridan Bird 

Every No10 interprets their role differently, and fittingly the digits on the back of their shirt are distinct. Design and marketing have moved on since everyone wore the same hand-stitched numbers. Clubs invest a lot for a bespoke identification to stand out from the rest. 

Real Madrid’s Luís Figo donned a no-nonsense number ten when he won the Champions League in 2001/02. Los Blancos deployed a US military alphabet stencil, created in the 1930s to be easily legible on army equipment and vehicles. Ironic that a team packed with such flair opted for the ultimate no-frills font, but it certainly worked.

Barcelona drew more romantic inspiration in the early 2010s with numerals inspired by the curvature and carvings of architect Antoni Gaudi’s famous work. By then, Lionel Messi had long been a monument to the beauty of football. In the mid-2000s, Roma delved even further back with an elegant, precise style that paid homage to the capital’s ancient, sophisticated dwellers. And if there’s one player who had earned the right to wear Roman numerals, it’s Francesco Totti. 

Not everyone travels that far back. Manchester City embraced the digital age in 2021/22, when Jack Grealish and Co’s numbers resembled an electronic scoreboard (which referenced their last-gasp Premier League title win in 2011/12). But no matter how it is presented, the number ten is imbued with a special power. You need only spend a morning in central Naples to realise how much a charismatic person in the sacred shirt can capture the hearts of a generation… or three.

“In every team I played, some things were the same – you had to make the one against one, you had to make the passes for the goals.” That, in a few simple words, is how Michael Laudrup sums up the role of the No10 during his days as a wondrously elegant playmaker for some of European football’s finest line-ups of the 1980s and 90s. With Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’, he broke new ground by winning the club’s first European Cup in 1991/92, six years after he had dazzled with another bunch of trailblazers – the famous ‘Danish Dynamite’ side which lit up Mexico 86 on their World Cup debut appearance.

A tall, graceful footballer with the dribbling skills of a tricky little winger, Laudrup features on our list of No10s for good reason. Indeed, no less a judge than Thierry Henry once described the now 59-year-old as the footballer with whom he would have most wished to play, for Laudrup’s vision and ability to thread an immaculately precise pass.

Laudrup’s gifts illuminated a range of European clubs, from Brøndby in his home nation to Lazio and Juventus in Italy, plus Real Madrid – the club he joined from Barcelona – and finally Ajax. And, as he explains, the understanding of his position differed in each country. “The No10 role was never a universal role – it depended on which league you played in,” he says. “When I started in Serie A in 1983, the No10 was a guy who was moving the team around. That could be an offensive midfielder or one who was coming back almost as a central defender to pick up the ball. I played with Michel Platini at Juventus and he came back but was also the one who got into the box  and scored a lot of goals. You also had a player like Giuseppe Giannini at Roma who was more the guy just moving the ball around. 

“When I then went to Spain, to Barcelona in the late 1980s, the number was not that important. Actually, in my five years there, I played with the No9 shirt. The role of the No10 was as the offensive midfielder who could be the connection, who could find the space in between the lines, who could make the one v one, who could make passes for the goals but also sometimes get his own goals.”

Michael Laudrup lines up in the bright orange of Barcelona ahead of the 1992 final

It was at Barcelona, where he arrived in 1989, that Laudrup came under the influence of Cruyff. The Dutchman had a very different understanding of the 4-3-3 than he had encountered previously at Juventus. “I played as a false No9 with Johan Cruyff. He was the one who started that around 1990, 1991. At that time, it was very normal to have a centre-forward playing against two very strong central defenders. And Cruyff said, ‘We’ll put Michael there. We know he’s not a centre-forward, but we put him there and he drops off. That leaves the two central defenders with no one to defend against and we’ll have one more in midfield, and our wide players can be the forwards.’ My role as a No10 was then to drop off and be the guy who made the passes for goals or did the individual things.”

That meant supplying forwards like Julio Salinas, Hristo Stoichkov and Romário as Barcelona – amid a run of four straight Spanish title triumphs – conquered Europe in 1991/92 and finished Champions League runners-up in 1993/94. “A manager like Cruyff really understood how to use the quality of our best players in the best way for the benefit of the team,” says Laudrup, who counted Pep Guardiola as a colleague in midfield. “I learned a lot there how to use my skills playing in that No10 role, being that creative player to play more in the final third. The team needs to help you in the build-up so you can receive the ball in your best position and then, when you receive it, you need to make the difference – making a goal or a great pass for a big chance.”

On leaving Barcelona for Real Madrid in 1994, Laudrup had to shape his skills to another system. “It was more like a 4-4-2 and I was playing in midfield – we played with a diamond there, with a defensive midfielder, a player on the right and the left, and I was the offensive midfielder behind the two strikers.”

Looking back on the No10s of his playing era, he singles out one above all others. “In my generation, for me the greatest player – and one of the best players in the history of football – was Diego Armando Maradona. Was he a No10? I think he was a bit of everything. He scored a lot of goals in very different ways. 

Insight
'You need to make the difference'

Get the presentation right and the number ten itself can become iconic, writes Sheridan Bird 

Every No10 interprets their role differently, and fittingly the digits on the back of their shirt are distinct. Design and marketing have moved on since everyone wore the same hand-stitched numbers. Clubs invest a lot for a bespoke identification to stand out from the rest. 

Real Madrid’s Luís Figo donned a no-nonsense number ten when he won the Champions League in 2001/02. Los Blancos deployed a US military alphabet stencil, created in the 1930s to be easily legible on army equipment and vehicles. Ironic that a team packed with such flair opted for the ultimate no-frills font, but it certainly worked.

Barcelona drew more romantic inspiration in the early 2010s with numerals inspired by the curvature and carvings of architect Antoni Gaudi’s famous work. By then, Lionel Messi had long been a monument to the beauty of football. In the mid-2000s, Roma delved even further back with an elegant, precise style that paid homage to the capital’s ancient, sophisticated dwellers. And if there’s one player who had earned the right to wear Roman numerals, it’s Francesco Totti. 

Not everyone travels that far back. Manchester City embraced the digital age in 2021/22, when Jack Grealish and Co’s numbers resembled an electronic scoreboard (which referenced their last-gasp Premier League title win in 2011/12). But no matter how it is presented, the number ten is imbued with a special power. You need only spend a morning in central Naples to realise how much a charismatic person in the sacred shirt can capture the hearts of a generation… or three.

Interview

'You need to make the difference'

Among the greatest No10s to ever wear the shirt, Denmark legend Michael Laudrup explains how the job description differed from country to country – and how it has evolved in the modern game

WORDS Simon Hart

“In every team I played, some things were the same – you had to make the one against one, you had to make the passes for the goals.” That, in a few simple words, is how Michael Laudrup sums up the role of the No10 during his days as a wondrously elegant playmaker for some of European football’s finest line-ups of the 1980s and 90s. With Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’, he broke new ground by winning the club’s first European Cup in 1991/92, six years after he had dazzled with another bunch of trailblazers – the famous ‘Danish Dynamite’ side which lit up Mexico 86 on their World Cup debut appearance.

A tall, graceful footballer with the dribbling skills of a tricky little winger, Laudrup features on our list of No10s for good reason. Indeed, no less a judge than Thierry Henry once described the now 59-year-old as the footballer with whom he would have most wished to play, for Laudrup’s vision and ability to thread an immaculately precise pass.

Laudrup’s gifts illuminated a range of European clubs, from Brøndby in his home nation to Lazio and Juventus in Italy, plus Real Madrid – the club he joined from Barcelona – and finally Ajax. And, as he explains, the understanding of his position differed in each country. “The No10 role was never a universal role – it depended on which league you played in,” he says. “When I started in Serie A in 1983, the No10 was a guy who was moving the team around. That could be an offensive midfielder or one who was coming back almost as a central defender to pick up the ball. I played with Michel Platini at Juventus and he came back but was also the one who got into the box  and scored a lot of goals. You also had a player like Giuseppe Giannini at Roma who was more the guy just moving the ball around. 

“When I then went to Spain, to Barcelona in the late 1980s, the number was not that important. Actually, in my five years there, I played with the No9 shirt. The role of the No10 was as the offensive midfielder who could be the connection, who could find the space in between the lines, who could make the one v one, who could make passes for the goals but also sometimes get his own goals.”

Michael Laudrup lines up in the bright orange of Barcelona ahead of the 1992 final

It was at Barcelona, where he arrived in 1989, that Laudrup came under the influence of Cruyff. The Dutchman had a very different understanding of the 4-3-3 than he had encountered previously at Juventus. “I played as a false No9 with Johan Cruyff. He was the one who started that around 1990, 1991. At that time, it was very normal to have a centre-forward playing against two very strong central defenders. And Cruyff said, ‘We’ll put Michael there. We know he’s not a centre-forward, but we put him there and he drops off. That leaves the two central defenders with no one to defend against and we’ll have one more in midfield, and our wide players can be the forwards.’ My role as a No10 was then to drop off and be the guy who made the passes for goals or did the individual things.”

That meant supplying forwards like Julio Salinas, Hristo Stoichkov and Romário as Barcelona – amid a run of four straight Spanish title triumphs – conquered Europe in 1991/92 and finished Champions League runners-up in 1993/94. “A manager like Cruyff really understood how to use the quality of our best players in the best way for the benefit of the team,” says Laudrup, who counted Pep Guardiola as a colleague in midfield. “I learned a lot there how to use my skills playing in that No10 role, being that creative player to play more in the final third. The team needs to help you in the build-up so you can receive the ball in your best position and then, when you receive it, you need to make the difference – making a goal or a great pass for a big chance.”

On leaving Barcelona for Real Madrid in 1994, Laudrup had to shape his skills to another system. “It was more like a 4-4-2 and I was playing in midfield – we played with a diamond there, with a defensive midfielder, a player on the right and the left, and I was the offensive midfielder behind the two strikers.”

Looking back on the No10s of his playing era, he singles out one above all others. “In my generation, for me the greatest player – and one of the best players in the history of football – was Diego Armando Maradona. Was he a No10? I think he was a bit of everything. He scored a lot of goals in very different ways. 

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Penalty Pedigree

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“In every team I played, some things were the same – you had to make the one against one, you had to make the passes for the goals.” That, in a few simple words, is how Michael Laudrup sums up the role of the No10 during his days as a wondrously elegant playmaker for some of European football’s finest line-ups of the 1980s and 90s. With Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’, he broke new ground by winning the club’s first European Cup in 1991/92, six years after he had dazzled with another bunch of trailblazers – the famous ‘Danish Dynamite’ side which lit up Mexico 86 on their World Cup debut appearance.

A tall, graceful footballer with the dribbling skills of a tricky little winger, Laudrup features on our list of No10s for good reason. Indeed, no less a judge than Thierry Henry once described the now 59-year-old as the footballer with whom he would have most wished to play, for Laudrup’s vision and ability to thread an immaculately precise pass.

Laudrup’s gifts illuminated a range of European clubs, from Brøndby in his home nation to Lazio and Juventus in Italy, plus Real Madrid – the club he joined from Barcelona – and finally Ajax. And, as he explains, the understanding of his position differed in each country. “The No10 role was never a universal role – it depended on which league you played in,” he says. “When I started in Serie A in 1983, the No10 was a guy who was moving the team around. That could be an offensive midfielder or one who was coming back almost as a central defender to pick up the ball. I played with Michel Platini at Juventus and he came back but was also the one who got into the box  and scored a lot of goals. You also had a player like Giuseppe Giannini at Roma who was more the guy just moving the ball around. 

“When I then went to Spain, to Barcelona in the late 1980s, the number was not that important. Actually, in my five years there, I played with the No9 shirt. The role of the No10 was as the offensive midfielder who could be the connection, who could find the space in between the lines, who could make the one v one, who could make passes for the goals but also sometimes get his own goals.”

Michael Laudrup lines up in the bright orange of Barcelona ahead of the 1992 final

It was at Barcelona, where he arrived in 1989, that Laudrup came under the influence of Cruyff. The Dutchman had a very different understanding of the 4-3-3 than he had encountered previously at Juventus. “I played as a false No9 with Johan Cruyff. He was the one who started that around 1990, 1991. At that time, it was very normal to have a centre-forward playing against two very strong central defenders. And Cruyff said, ‘We’ll put Michael there. We know he’s not a centre-forward, but we put him there and he drops off. That leaves the two central defenders with no one to defend against and we’ll have one more in midfield, and our wide players can be the forwards.’ My role as a No10 was then to drop off and be the guy who made the passes for goals or did the individual things.”

That meant supplying forwards like Julio Salinas, Hristo Stoichkov and Romário as Barcelona – amid a run of four straight Spanish title triumphs – conquered Europe in 1991/92 and finished Champions League runners-up in 1993/94. “A manager like Cruyff really understood how to use the quality of our best players in the best way for the benefit of the team,” says Laudrup, who counted Pep Guardiola as a colleague in midfield. “I learned a lot there how to use my skills playing in that No10 role, being that creative player to play more in the final third. The team needs to help you in the build-up so you can receive the ball in your best position and then, when you receive it, you need to make the difference – making a goal or a great pass for a big chance.”

On leaving Barcelona for Real Madrid in 1994, Laudrup had to shape his skills to another system. “It was more like a 4-4-2 and I was playing in midfield – we played with a diamond there, with a defensive midfielder, a player on the right and the left, and I was the offensive midfielder behind the two strikers.”

Looking back on the No10s of his playing era, he singles out one above all others. “In my generation, for me the greatest player – and one of the best players in the history of football – was Diego Armando Maradona. Was he a No10? I think he was a bit of everything. He scored a lot of goals in very different ways. 

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“He was like a No10 in the sense he was not a first striker; he didn’t have a fixed position. A player like him couldn’t have a fixed position because they would kill him. They even tried – it wasn’t like today with 50 cameras on every pitch and the VAR system to protect the players. He needed to find his position where he could get the ball in a moment. When the team had the ball, they were moving it around, trying to find the exact moment they could pass it to Maradona so they could benefit from his quality.” 

Laudrup, who has since coached in five different countries, saw the same happen later with Lionel Messi at Barcelona. “You need the players to move the ball so their No10 can find the position where he can get the ball and make the difference.” 

Returning to the role as it was during his Serie A years, Laudrup shifts focus to another great No10 of the time, Michel Platini, with whom he played at Juventus from 1985 to 1987. “Platini was what they called a playmaker in the sense he could come back. At Juventus, it was a 4-3-3 with one or two central midfielders and then the offensive midfielder. But he was dropping very deep at times to get the ball because he had a fantastic pass over 30-35 metres, so sometimes in the build-up from the back you could see him drop off to receive the ball and then he could link his passes.

“Back then in Italy, when you dropped off to your own half, the opposition just let you receive the  ball as they didn’t care; this was different from how the British would play where there was much more pressure. In Italy, the pressure started when you entered your opponent’s half – then there was very hard pressure. So, he dropped off and they said, ‘OK, Platini, you can have the ball in that half, no problem.’ So, he would sometimes drop off and start the build-up. 

“An outstanding player can make a pass before the rest even know a space is there”

“What he had, which was fantastic, was that when he got to the opposition penalty area, he was very good at coming into the box at the last moment. He had a lot of quality because he was in the build-up and also there at the finish. He was top scorer in Serie A [for three consecutive seasons], which was very unusual for a midfielder. Yes, he had the penalties and free-kicks but he also scored a lot of goals at Juventus by entering the box at the last second.”

Today, Laudrup analyses Champions League football for Danish broadcaster Viaplay and he anticipates another question: whether the structures and systems of football today allow for such a player as the No10 of old. “Now, with a lot of teams, you see this role doesn’t really exist,” he says. “Now, you play with one man holding, one midfielder and one offensive midfielder. If you want to play 4-3-3, you need a controlling midfielder and what’s important is that the other two complement each other and have their own strengths. You need a bit of everything. If you see Manchester City, they have a holding midfielder in Rodri and in their best XI they’d probably have Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva too. You can ask are they No10s or are they two No8s?”

In Laudrup’s eyes, De Bruyne and Bernardo offer evidence that players who would have fitted the No10 mould in past eras are still out there. “I think both De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva have things you can say are like a No10 – it’s just another way of playing. De Bruyne has incredible vision. When he makes a pass, he already sees where he can make it before others. I was once told that a good player can make a pass that we all can see. If it’s a very good player, he can make a pass some of us can see. But an outstanding player can make a pass – they find a space – before the rest even know a space is there. Kevin De Bruyne is one of those. He is not individually a player who takes the ball and makes a one against one, but they have Bernardo Silva for that and that’s why their midfield is so fantastic – they complement each other so well, they have different qualities and all three are so intelligent at moving the ball.

“You need movement, as nowadays you can no longer have one player just standing behind the striker,” he adds. “Football is becoming more and more physical, players are much better prepared physically today than they were in the 80s or 90s, and so there is not much space. You need more movement and that’s why you don’t see a player just behind like you did before.” Maybe, but as the game continues to evolve, our fascination with its magicians endures. 

Insight
Font of all knowledge

Get the presentation right and the number ten itself can become iconic, writes Sheridan Bird 

Every No10 interprets their role differently, and fittingly the digits on the back of their shirt are distinct. Design and marketing have moved on since everyone wore the same hand-stitched numbers. Clubs invest a lot for a bespoke identification to stand out from the rest. 

Real Madrid’s Luís Figo donned a no-nonsense number ten when he won the Champions League in 2001/02. Los Blancos deployed a US military alphabet stencil, created in the 1930s to be easily legible on army equipment and vehicles. Ironic that a team packed with such flair opted for the ultimate no-frills font, but it certainly worked.

Barcelona drew more romantic inspiration in the early 2010s with numerals inspired by the curvature and carvings of architect Antoni Gaudi’s famous work. By then, Lionel Messi had long been a monument to the beauty of football. In the mid-2000s, Roma delved even further back with an elegant, precise style that paid homage to the capital’s ancient, sophisticated dwellers. And if there’s one player who had earned the right to wear Roman numerals, it’s Francesco Totti. 

Not everyone travels that far back. Manchester City embraced the digital age in 2021/22, when Jack Grealish and Co’s numbers resembled an electronic scoreboard (which referenced their last-gasp Premier League title win in 2011/12). But no matter how it is presented, the number ten is imbued with a special power. You need only spend a morning in central Naples to realise how much a charismatic person in the sacred shirt can capture the hearts of a generation… or three.

“In every team I played, some things were the same – you had to make the one against one, you had to make the passes for the goals.” That, in a few simple words, is how Michael Laudrup sums up the role of the No10 during his days as a wondrously elegant playmaker for some of European football’s finest line-ups of the 1980s and 90s. With Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’, he broke new ground by winning the club’s first European Cup in 1991/92, six years after he had dazzled with another bunch of trailblazers – the famous ‘Danish Dynamite’ side which lit up Mexico 86 on their World Cup debut appearance.

A tall, graceful footballer with the dribbling skills of a tricky little winger, Laudrup features on our list of No10s for good reason. Indeed, no less a judge than Thierry Henry once described the now 59-year-old as the footballer with whom he would have most wished to play, for Laudrup’s vision and ability to thread an immaculately precise pass.

Laudrup’s gifts illuminated a range of European clubs, from Brøndby in his home nation to Lazio and Juventus in Italy, plus Real Madrid – the club he joined from Barcelona – and finally Ajax. And, as he explains, the understanding of his position differed in each country. “The No10 role was never a universal role – it depended on which league you played in,” he says. “When I started in Serie A in 1983, the No10 was a guy who was moving the team around. That could be an offensive midfielder or one who was coming back almost as a central defender to pick up the ball. I played with Michel Platini at Juventus and he came back but was also the one who got into the box  and scored a lot of goals. You also had a player like Giuseppe Giannini at Roma who was more the guy just moving the ball around. 

“When I then went to Spain, to Barcelona in the late 1980s, the number was not that important. Actually, in my five years there, I played with the No9 shirt. The role of the No10 was as the offensive midfielder who could be the connection, who could find the space in between the lines, who could make the one v one, who could make passes for the goals but also sometimes get his own goals.”

Michael Laudrup lines up in the bright orange of Barcelona ahead of the 1992 final

It was at Barcelona, where he arrived in 1989, that Laudrup came under the influence of Cruyff. The Dutchman had a very different understanding of the 4-3-3 than he had encountered previously at Juventus. “I played as a false No9 with Johan Cruyff. He was the one who started that around 1990, 1991. At that time, it was very normal to have a centre-forward playing against two very strong central defenders. And Cruyff said, ‘We’ll put Michael there. We know he’s not a centre-forward, but we put him there and he drops off. That leaves the two central defenders with no one to defend against and we’ll have one more in midfield, and our wide players can be the forwards.’ My role as a No10 was then to drop off and be the guy who made the passes for goals or did the individual things.”

That meant supplying forwards like Julio Salinas, Hristo Stoichkov and Romário as Barcelona – amid a run of four straight Spanish title triumphs – conquered Europe in 1991/92 and finished Champions League runners-up in 1993/94. “A manager like Cruyff really understood how to use the quality of our best players in the best way for the benefit of the team,” says Laudrup, who counted Pep Guardiola as a colleague in midfield. “I learned a lot there how to use my skills playing in that No10 role, being that creative player to play more in the final third. The team needs to help you in the build-up so you can receive the ball in your best position and then, when you receive it, you need to make the difference – making a goal or a great pass for a big chance.”

On leaving Barcelona for Real Madrid in 1994, Laudrup had to shape his skills to another system. “It was more like a 4-4-2 and I was playing in midfield – we played with a diamond there, with a defensive midfielder, a player on the right and the left, and I was the offensive midfielder behind the two strikers.”

Looking back on the No10s of his playing era, he singles out one above all others. “In my generation, for me the greatest player – and one of the best players in the history of football – was Diego Armando Maradona. Was he a No10? I think he was a bit of everything. He scored a lot of goals in very different ways. 

Insight
Penalty Pedigree

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