By Michael Famoroti
It is really difficult to have a discussion about football that is reasonably free from the biases of individual tactical tastes or contemporary trends. Conversations about the role of No10s in the sport are no different. Thinking about this made me understand that it might help to look at the issue through the different dimensions of the sport. Football is neither as simple nor homogenous as it was in the past, which makes it more difficult to come to reasoned conclusions about any issues. So here I avoid the temptation of looking at the issue holistically and, focusing on what I believe are the three crucial dimensions of football right now, attempt to evaluate the role of No10s in each case with the hope of eliciting an answer to the broader question.
Football as art
A discussion about No10s in football has to be at least partly historical. The concept, if not the literal expression, of the No10 has been around from the mid 18th century when football was in its infancy at British public schools. Naturally, what began as a leisure exercise grew into a form of artistic expression. The skill and entertainment aspect of football established itself even before the initial codification of the games. Even today this is perhaps the first side of the game experienced by those who encounter it. The proliferation and popularity of street football is testament to this and many professional footballers (especially non-Europeans) began their adolescent careers on the street (so much so that it has become a cliché). The bottom line is that it’s impossible to look at football without remembering that it was and still is essentially an art form. Over the years, different cultures contributed particular elements to the art – the Italians are credited with Catenaccio while some of the darker arts have been (unfairly) assigned to Latin America. Today, we see the art form manifest in different ways. For example, from the tactical standpoint, Total football can be judged to be art at its finest while Route One strategies are seen to be more rudimentary. Meanwhile more recently, the artistic element of football has blossomed from an unexpected source – the ‘performances’ of managers and clubs in front of the media circus.
Growing up in the 90s, everyone wanted to be like Baggio, Maradona or Jay-Jay Okocha. Few roles contribute more to the conception of football as art than that of the No10. Just as Michael Jordan sold basketball to an entire generation by hanging in the air for what seemed like eternity, the skills of the No10 represent the most aesthetically attractive part of football. Whether it is the balance and lightness of touch needed to execute a perfect return pass or cryuff turn, a No10 on form is a joy to watch.
Now obviously there are many elements of football and personal tastes often determine what roles a spectator finds the most appealing. Personally, I relish the poise, rhythm and vision a deep-lying playermaker (regista) brings to a side but No10s have often been the foremost exponents of artistic license and expression in football. They are the chief artists of the sport, the most creative and often the most combustible. They inspire, confuse and delight in equal measure. Within this framework it is not just difficult but dangerous to contemplate their extinction. Indeed, the free-roaming, defensively negligent component of No10s is possibly inherent to their role as the central artists. Neither Sir Christopher Wren (St Paul’s Cathedral), Michelangelo (The Medici chapel) nor Daedalus (the labyrinth in Greek mythology) concerned themselves with the actual transporting of bricks or paving of stones – they were called for higher purposes. The No10 role is currently suffering from increased attempts to dilute it. The traditional values of grace and deftness are increasingly being sacrificed for athleticism, discipline and versatility.
Take the greatest football nation in the world as an example: Brazil can lay claim to giving us Zico, Socrates and Ronaldinho. Now they have Willian, Oscar, Hernanes. These three are definitely talented (I am a huge Willian fan) in their own right but not quite the classic Brazilian No10. The newest kid on the block, Felipe Anderson, is symptomatic of this – his game is being developed to rely less on flair and ingenuity and more on explosiveness and directness.
This is a very worrying development from the perspective of football as art. No10s are our natural geniuses. We need them for the game to survive and thrive as the great illustration of artistry that it is. We need the Riquelmes, Özils and Decos in the beautiful game. We need to preserve the role of No10s in football even if it comes at a price.
Rock ‘n’ roll, arguably the most successful art form in the 20th century, embraced the idolization and near-deification of it’s biggest stars. Those in the industry understood that the artist must sometimes be afforded freedom beyond all others. Genius and madness often go hand in hand. Just ask Zlatan.
Football as a competitive sport
No one can really explain why football is so popular. There are many other sports that are often as entertaining (close to blasphemy here perhaps). You probably have your own views on this, here is mine: competitive sports are inherently tribal and nothing contributed more to the popularity of football than it’s ability to both united and divide people in the blink of an eye. The worldwide spread of football is not quite complete (The Indian Premier League is a welcome development but the jury is still out on that) but football’s ability to sweep aside borders and cultures partly helps explain its popularity.
Meanwhile, the establishment of the Football Association (FA) in England and the refinement of the professional aspects of the game sometimes happened inadvertently (The Bosman rule for example) but have come to shape the sport we know now. The competitive aspect of football exists on the playground and transmits itself seamlessly on to the grandest stages. For a lot of people, this is the most important aspect. You want yourself or your team to win. Today, there are a range of competitions that satiate the football appetites of fans all over the world. But competition is inherent in the sport. Give two sets of 11 year olds a football and you immediately awaken the competitive drive within them.
Finally, a point that is sometimes overlooked is that modern football is one of the most competitive and dynamic working environments there is. A lot of money is spent by owners, clubs, players and fans to extract ever-marginal increases in performance. Today, the line between victory and defeat cuts as sharply as a sword. Whether on the pitch, in the boardroom or on the podium, competition is everywhere.
With football as a competition, the only thing that matters is winning and losing. There are many ways to win a football match and admittedly, No10s help in some ways and hinder in the others. The biggest criticism of No10s is that they have become an unaffordable luxury for teams squarely focused on getting results. Whether this is true or not, it is consistent with recent tactical trends. Lionel Messi is a fantastic player. Possibly the greatest the world has ever seen. Quarter of a century ago he would probably have been used as a classic No10. Instead Messi is played as close to goal as possible, his effectiveness in front of goal often overshadowing his world-class playmaking ability. Similarly, other possible No10s are being shunted around the pitch to fit into tactical systems. The gradual extermination of specialist No10s is also consistent with the growing dislike of having specialists in your starting XI. The goal poacher is another targeted breed being driven out of the game.
Apart from tactical trends, there has been a shift towards physicality and athleticism over the last decade (the tactical and physical aspects are often linked. For example Mandzukic/Costa thriving within Simeone’s system at Atletico Madrid or Conte having to use Pogba/Vidal/Marchisio to compensate for Pirlo’s shortcomings). On face value, No10s are less suited to these recent developments and generally have had to adapt their game in some way.
Ultimately, the qualities possessed by No10s can never become entirely redundant. They have fit into many teams across many generations (Some consider Ruud Gullit to be a No10 and he played for Milan in the early 90s – perhaps the best club side ever). Much depends on the extent to which number No10s can adapt to ensure they remain effective without sacrificing their core artistry.
Moreover, we have seen even recently that when used properly, these players can be absolutely devastating. Wesley Sneijder excelled with Holland at the last two World Cups while Christian Eriksen is thriving this season at Tottenham in a more central role. There is definitely a case to be made against the role of No10s in football as a competitive sport and this is the dimension of the game that most threatens the role. However, we have all come to learn that football, just like life, is cyclical. Wing-backs, inverted wingers and sweeper-keepers have all come and gone (and come back again) and I don’t expect our No10s are gone forever.
Football as a commercial game
The truth is the sport we know today is nearly unrecognizable from the perspective of a player in the 1950s. The commercial shift initially propelled in the 90s accelerated after the turn of the 21st century and has created a sport unique in it’s pull and influence. This paradigm shift has often brought us the good (The unmissable Sky Sports Ford Super Sunday, super speedy injury recoveries etc) and the bad (The supposed erosion of certain traditional values, asymmetric leagues etc). However we may feel about all this, what is clear is how much the commercial side of the game shapes modern football at the moment.
There are two ways of evaluating the role of No10s in football as a commercial game.
The first is by understanding that the commercial aspect of the game is dependent on the other two dimensions mentioned above. The extent to which football blossoms commercially will depend on how it thrives as an art and a competitive sport. Thus, the role of No10s here depends on the points made above.
Secondly, we need to look at No10s as a marketable product themselves. Here again we see how vital they are to the sport. No10s remain one of the most marketable groups in football. Whether it’s through shirt sales, individual sponsorship deals or foreign tours, few other roles command as much fan adulation. In this sense, there is a very healthy relationship between No10s and the commercial side of the sport. The flip side is it isn’t too farfetched to argue that if No10s do indeed become extinct, fans will just learn to identify with and worship other players. Football is such a commercial behemoth that this hypothetical change is unlikely to seriously derail its financial success.
Football as art. Football as a competitive sport. Football as a commercial game. Since its conception, football has evolved along these lines. The future role of No10s depends on the continuity of this evolution. No10s are inherent in the conception of football as an art but have come under threat within the competitive dimension of the game.
Meanwhile, the steady contribution of No10s to the commercial boom of the sport could in turn make the role a mere luxury as football becomes less reliant on the selling power of these players. Most importantly, the discussion here suggests that the presence of No10s is linked to the idea of how we want our sport to be. As fans, players, managers and so on, we have a part to play in deciding the role we want for No10s in football based on what we want the nature of football to be, both on and off the pitch.