As old favourites Skinner and Baddiel used to say on football’s finest ever TV show, ‘here’s a few things we noticed whilst watching football this week’. Well, in a similar vein, I’ve noticed this; what on earth has happened to my favourite role in football? Having always had a passion for the beautiful game on the continent, I grew up looking forward to James Richardson’s cheeky adjectives on a Saturday morning with Gazzetta Football Italia on Channel 4.
I took to Calico from the very start of the stations weekly broadcast (mostly provoked by Paul Gascoigne’s move to Southern Europe), when Gazza’s new side Lazio lost in a 5-3 thriller to the then all conquering Milan on the opening day of the 1993/94 Serie A season I was already hooked on this apparently ‘boring’ brand of football. Anyway, it soon became clear that Italian sides, and later I was to realise that this was the case on much of the continent; all had a ‘number 10’. The first to capture my attention was the great Roberto Baggio, then of Juventus. The divine ponytail (as he was nicknamed by fans) would drift in and out of the game, seemingly at his own whim, playing the game as if he was painting a picture.
It appeared that he was almost watching the game as an on field spectator, only ‘getting involved’ when he saw that the match required his presence, when it needed lifting to a higher level. As my footballing education developed I discovered that Turin’s favourite son was not alone. Milan had Gullit, Sampdoria had Mancini. Further afield there was Gheorghe Hagi, Hristo Stoichkov, Ariel Ortega. Ludicrously talented individuals who controlled the game, linking midfield and attack, both creating and scoring goals. They were the icons of their clubs and countries. And this trend continued throughout the nineties, until more recently something seems to have changed this.
Players that would previously given the freedom to wander the park are now put into more rigid formations, possibly to the extent that the idea of the ‘free role’ is almost deceased. Take Barcelona as a prime example. Ten years ago the string puller of the side would have been the great Ronaldinho. He would have slotted in wherever he saw fit and worked his magic as he saw fit. However, fast forward to today and you find the Brazilian out on the left wing and the football being dictated from another source entirely.
Watching the Catalan giants over the past year or so and it has become clear that it is Deco that actually controls the tempo, masterminds the play, and where from? He sits deep in the midfield, virtually the same position as you will find an enforcer like Claude Makalele at Chelsea. Ronaldinho may be the magic, but Deco is the brains.
If we go back to where we began in Italy, we visit Milan and see a similar trend. Although, like Barcelona, they have a magician in the shape of Riccy Kaka’, they also have a conductor through Andrea Pirlo. Kaka’ has found himself employed wide right, left and as a centre forward as Ancellotti attempts to bring a structure to the rossinieri. When dwelling on this idle musing it dawned on me that this has been in the water for sometime.
Zidane, the finest exponent of the ‘Number 10’ since Maradona, was being more regularly employed by Real Madrid on the left flank, del Piero, the natural successor to Baggio, now on the left or ‘up top’. So does this mean that the hugely iconic role is something that will leave us, only to be replaced by a cunning holding midfielder such as Deco, Pirlo or Carrick on these shores?