Embed from Getty Images
The admiration of the traditional No.10 remains one of the iconic facets in modern football. A player of this mould is highly appreciated for his selfless ability to consistently create chances for others, but the constant evolution in philosophies throughout the sport ensures the significance of the role can decrease during certain spells.
But following the turn of the century, the box-to-box midfielder’s knack of covering ground on both ends of the field was pivotal in the popular 4-4-2 shape. Elsewhere, the deep-lying creator quietly gained prominence as well, but there’s something about the 10 jersey that always grabbed the eye.
Frankly, the diminutive creative players capable of slaloming into open space and creating key goal-scoring chances remains the most revered role in this sport. It’s the popularized jersey number that represents a side’s key player – if you go through youth systems across the world that don’t assign kits based on positions, the No. 10 is arguably the most popular jersey number apart from seven and nine.
More so, teams switching to a more expansive 4-2-3-1 reinvigorated the significance of the roles. The 4-3-3 presented too much congestion in central areas for intelligent playmakers to find space, and it was rare to see these players operate in wide areas during the mid-2000’s. This is not to say that creative players didn’t operate in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3, but they were strictly all-round dynamos opposed to solely basing their game around creating chances.
Perhaps there was a fear of being heavily reliant on one-source of creativity, whereas the emphasis on power and dynamism ensured the role was hardly decisive in most systems throughout the game. The other factor was that these decorated playmakers lacked the versatility to influence a match in a similar manner across the front-line – to be frank, they were solely creators.
In truth, the no.10 role has diversified over the years, and it’s difficult to identify various men that define the position. Mesut Ozil is possibly the only top-class player that ticks all boxes: a selfless, slender magician that solely strives in a central position, yet equally capable of making improving his side’s overall play by placing teammates in goal-scoring positions via perfectly weighed passes.
It’s the selfless intent to create space for others with his movement combined with the precise incisive passing that’s reminiscent of a throwback playmaker. Nowadays, a second striker playing off the centre-forward will be deemed a no.10: Wayne Rooney operated in this role during the latter stages of Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure, but he was more about goals than creativity.
Then there are players utilized as pure destroyer to negate the opposition’s deep-lying playmaker, but still capable of transitioning into a third central midfielder. Oscar was expected to thrive in this role for Chelsea but solely excelled with the former, whereas Toni Kroos’ success under Jupp Heynckes – largely remembered for his impact against Real Madrid in the 2011-2012 Champions League semi final – involved the latter.
In Italy, there was a spell were trequartistas – the term used to describe a playmaker in Italy – were merely energetic runners. Subsequent to Wesley Sneijder serving as the catalyst for Inter Milan’s successful second half of their treble season, the likes of Fredy Guarin and Kevin-Prince Boateng’s ball-carrying skills linked midfield and attack, whereas Juventus relied on Andrea Pirlo’s passing from deep areas – incisive passing to unlock deep defences within the final third was a rarity.
During Jose Mourinho’s second stint at Chelsea, the Portuguese manager offered a concise, yet valid description to define the role.
“For me a No.10 does a lot of things, with the ball and without the ball. So for me a No.10 is a very special player in my team,” said Mourinho.
“A No.10 for me is an eight-and-a-half when the team loses the ball, and a nine-and-a-half when the team has the ball. Who is my perfect No.10? Wesley Sneijder and Deco. They could defend, get in the box and finish.”
Though the conclusion to Mourinho’s comments were slightly incorrect – Deco and Sneijder received free roles as their teammates were responsible for their defensive work – it goes to show that the focus on pressing and defensive structure has largely extorted the requirement of a natural playmaker.
Even in MLS, a league driven by a creative player in the hole is now shifting in this direction. Look no further than the Eastern Conference final between Montreal Impact and Toronto FC – a heated rivalry, labeled the 401 Derby, that will ensure a Canadian team will make an appearance in MLS Cup for the first time in league history.
More interestingly, is the fact that the two-legged fixture will feature two of the best players in MLS, who were oddly snubbed of deserving MVP candidate status. Likewise, they both wear the No.10 jersey, but are far from genuine creators. Giovinco and Piatti are within the top three playoff scorers, both recorded 17 goals in regular season play to finish third behind lethal finishers in David Villa and Bradley Wright-Phillips, but don’t feature within the league’s top ten key passes-per-game figures.
Giovinco, however, recorded 15 league assists, which leaves many to believe he’s a creative lynchpin, but averaging an MLS-high 6.3 shots per-game illustrates he’s more of a second striker than a creator. Both men are fielded in the front-line of their attack, and are equally not responsible for defensive duties due to the midfield base protecting fairly mediocre back-lines – although Piatti does his fair share of tracking attacking full-backs before sprinting forward to lead counter-attacks.
Greg Vanney’s TFC side showcased tactical flexibility throughout the 2015-2016 campaign, and the switch to a 3-5-2 improved the overall balance of the side. The wing-backs offer width and remain in advanced positions, the midfield is built around a combination of Johnathan Osorio’s guile and Armando Cooper’s dynamism ahead of Michael Bradley, whereas Jozy Altidore’s improved form creates vacant space between the lines for Giovinco.
Although Giovinco is capable of locating pockets of space to receive the ball around the opposition’s penalty box, the 29-year-old’s most dangerous in transition when he instantly offers an outlet in the channels to subsequently run at defenders. It’s the Italian’s individualism that solidifies his match-winning ability, and offering the last year’s MVP space to run at defenders or time to shoot from distance is risky.
“What’s going to make you win is having that focus for 90 minutes against a player like Giovinco, who is one of the best players in the league and who could turn the game in his favour in a moment,” said Impact manager Mauro Biello.
“This is something that’s shared; it’s not just one player on him,” said Biello. “Against a player like that, you need cover from the side, from the front. “You don’t want to give him space. We’ve been watching video over and over and the games where he’s been most frustrated are the ones where he has numbers around him and where he doesn’t get space to operate.”
Piatti, on the other hand, is cut from a similar cloth, relying on an elderly midfield trio to disrupt the opposition in central areas, whilst protecting the back four before breaking swiftly on the counter attack. Operating as a left forward in a 4-3-3 with license to drift into central areas, Dominic Oduro’s pace and Matteo Mancosu’s willingness to run behind the defence has seen the Impact transition into one of the best counter-attacking sides in the league.
Embed from Getty Images
While Piatti possesses the skill-set to create countless chances for his teammates, it’s the ability to dribble past defenders with ease – only Chicago Fire’s David Accam averaged more than 2.6 successful dribbles per game – and locate open space in the final third that elevates his threat. Following Giovinco’s earlier brace against the Impact earlier this year, the past two meetings against TFC – albeit the Reds operating in a 4-4-2 diamond – Piatti has been involved in all three Montreal goals.
“One of his greatest strengths is what people don’t sometimes see, what he does before he gets the ball,” Vanney said of Piatti’s anticipation. “He’s a guy who’s very, very clever about his moments when he’s helping the team defend, when he sees the team is about to win the ball.
“He quickly transitions into an attacking action before anyone else on the field is transitioning. He is already transitioning, which is what he wins, fragments of time, seconds, above everybody anyone else. That’s where he gets his space, where he gets his separation from defenders. Then what we all see is his ability to take on defenders one-on-one and score.”
First, Piatti received too much space to run at the box to curl an unstoppable effort towards the far corner. Then, the Argentine drifted laterally to the right channel to pick up the ball and charge towards the box, and was eventually clipped down to earn a penalty that he subsequently converted. Finally, Montreal defeated TFC with 10-men when Piatti drifted into the final third and latched onto Oduro’s link up play to fire a low shot past goalkeeper Alex Bono.
Last season, the Impact dispatched of TFC within 45 minutes in their single-knockout clash, but 12 months later, both sides have slightly evolved their overall game. Though TFC’s production in open-play substantially improved this season, the sudden prominence in counter-attacking football has witnessed both sides provide a platform for their star No.10’s to flourish.
Ultimately, the tie widely hinges on which side can negate the opposition’s No.10’s production within the final third. Regardless of the result, an MLS finalist will feature a creative player that serves as an “x-factor,” that can win a match on his own via goals, opposed to an outlet capable of making his teammates better.
With the influx of foreign players, the new admiration for dynamic pressing, and tactically astute managers plying their trade in the league, the brief era revolving around selfless no.10’s in MLS could slowly come to a halt. Still, the impressive individual statistics recorded by Piatti and Giovinco, along with their dominance over the past two seasons suggests the stylistic culture amongst creative players is shifting to MLS.