Almost everybody has wanted to be a 10 growing up since the 1980s.
The most revered number epitomized the playing position of the mercurial magicians who discombobulated defences with spellbinding skills and kept crowds captivated with moments of pure inspiration.
They are the ones who have adored history as the greatest players. Diego Maradona, named FIFA Player of the 20th Century alongside Pele, and European Championship winner Michel Platini dazzled audiences in the 80s. Ballon D’or winners Roberto Baggio and Ruud Gullit dominated games in the 90s, and World Cup champions Zinedine Zidane and Kaka carried the torch of mesmeric brilliance with flashes of genius in the 2000’s. At the peak of his form, those who saw Abedi Pele said he was as good in that role as it got.
But with Pep Guardiola’s inverted wingers and the Jürgen Klopp’s gegenpress taking dominance in the 2010’s, it seems the usefulness of a central attacking midfielder is gradually fading out in football.
Mesut Özil is the most axiomatic victim of this change in tactics and philosophy. One of the most gifted attacking midfielders of all time, Özil’s vision and execution of a pass is right up there with the very best to have ever played the game. It comes as no surprise to anyone even with a passive knowledge in football then that he has a remarkable 256 assists in just 692 games for club and country.
However, the change in the tactics and pace of the game has resulted in a dramatic decline in Özil’s performances, and has led to him being often vilified and lambasted for his languid style of play, which was once considered classy.
He has only managed an appalling 3 goal contributions in 23 league games this season, a terrible statistic in sharp contrast to the 39 goal contributions in just 46 games that he managed as a 21-year-old playing for Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga. Özil is not the only central attacking midfielder to have suffered a fall from grace. James Rodriguez, Christian Eriksen, Philippe Coutinho, Isco and Julian Draxler have all seen their stocks plummet in recent years after once being highly coveted.
Not every central attacking midfielder has been adversely affected by the change of tactic though. Luka Modrić is a paragon of the evolution of some attacking midfielders into a deeper central midfield advanced playmaker role. The silky Croat modified his game from an energetic pocket wizard at Tottenham Hotspur into a calm and composed midfield orchestrator at Real Madrid after being voted the worst signing in LaLiga in 2012, and has bore much fruit.
The 7-time Croatian Player of the Year and former Ballon D’or winner has won 16 trophies at Real Madrid, including 4 UEFA Champions League titles and 4 FIFA Club World Cup trophies, to go with the 35 individual honours he has picked up over his 8 year stay at Los Merengues. And he’s not the only CAM to have adapted his game to great effect. His midfield partner Toni Kroos, Kevin De Bruyne, Thiago Alcantara, Mateo Kovačić and Georginio Wijnaldum have all yielded great results from dropping deeper into an advanced or deep lying playmaker role from central midfield.
Is this the end of an era for the legendary number 10 role in football then? Will all upcoming attacking midfielders be forced to change their game into a deeper and less exciting role to suit the demands of the game?
The answer to these questions is fortunately no. Just as there have been different phases in football over the years, this too shall pass, and we shall once again be blessed with the sight of swashbuckling entertainers in the 10 role, transforming games in an instant with their abundant dexterity.
And the rebirth has already started, with a new wave of technically gifted creators ready to hit the shores of the football world. Chief among these conjurers is Norwegian prodigy Martin Ødegaard. The precocious Real Madrid loanee, long tipped to set the world alight since he made his debut for the Norwegian national team aged 15, has already started showing everyone why the early hype around him was justified. Ødegaard is gifted with so much dexterity at times that he seems to have the ball on strings; bamboozling midfields and defences with his nifty footwork and threaded passes.
The dead ball specialist already has 15 goal contributions in just 28 games in all competitions this season at the tender age of 21, and is set to carve his niche into football folklore for years to come. He is not the only one ready to resurrect the classic 10 role either. Kai Havertz, Mohammed Ihattaren, Thiago Almada, Reinier and Yari Verschaeren are all eager to rekindle the flame of the CAM.
It’s just a matter of time before the position we’ve adored forever is back in all its glory.
By Nene Afadzinu
The writer was an intern with TV3 Sports