By Sam Blakeley, writing from London
To the uninitiated, the ‘number 10’ in football is that archetypal player who links midfield with attack, floating between the two and becoming the playmaker of the side. He must be blessed with vision, composure, awareness, and an incredible range of passing, culminating in an almost extra-sensory ability to control the game and be within and without everything that happens going forward for the team. Historically these players have also been ground-breaking skill players, popularising and even inventing their own incredible pieces of flair, from the ‘Cryuff Turn’ to the ‘Flip-Flap/Elastico’. The ‘number 10’ moniker is due to the fact that this positon was traditionally given the number 10 shirt - in the days when a number would denote the position in which the player would operate.
Notable examples are Zidane, Pele, Ronaldinho, Cryuff, Maradona, Bergkamp, Messi, Cantona…essentially those players who are seen as the best of all time. Very rarely will you find a player from any other position winning the prestigious awards. Fabio Cannavaro (a central defender) made waves in 2006 by winning the Ballon D’or (basically the world player of the year). I would submit that the only reason Zidane didn’t win that year was becase of that headbutt, but nonetheless the point is there: we love the number 10, and we fully appreciate their generous talents.
Many argue that England doesn’t really produce this kind of player, and really this is a lamentable omission. I can’t help but hear the distant cries of ‘Paul Scholes?’, ‘Matt Le Tissier?’, ‘Steven Gerrard?’, ’Paul Gascoigne?’, ‘Wayne Rooney?’. Frankly they were my own cries, distant because I’m currently sat on a mountain (for illustrative purposes). They perhaps do raise a good point however. There isn’t really a big name that springs to mind as easily as the Ronaldinhos and the Zidanes. Maybe this is because we have lumped those five examples (and many others besides) into either a midfielder or an attacker. Somewhere in our English conception of football there must be two central midfielders and two strikers; whoever plays in that general area of the pitch who isn’t a striker must be an attacking midfielder, and those who aren’t midfielders are just a striker who plays a bit deeper but who is still essentially a second striker - more on this later. Whether this is still the case in ten years time, once Rooney has fully established himself as one of the best number 10’s, not to mention best players, of all time is up for debate. Moreover, perhaps the reason we overlook these players is simply that none of them fulfill the real attribute that singles out the number 10 from an attacking midfielder or a second striker: the flair.