Following Wesley Sneijder’s move to Turkey, The False Nine’s Simon Smith looks at the multidimensional position of the ‘number 10’…
As Wesley Sneijder completes his move to Galatasaray, Internazionale – and perhaps world football in general – need to take stock and ask why a player once revered as a magician of his generation has been allowed to leave for a paltry fee rumoured to be as little as £8 million. In Jose Mourinho’s all-conquering treble-winning team he seemed the perfect fit for the ultra chic 4-2-3-1. In fans’ minds he is the type of creator yet to be tarnished by the modern game’s obsession with pace and fitness over style. In transfer gossip columns Sneijder is still the unquestionable ultimate number 10. So why were no more substantial bids for such a player forthcoming?
To answer that, it is important to understand what it was that made Sneijder so brilliant. The 4-2-3-1 has breathed life into a magisterial role that had been virtually man-marked out of the game by the early 2000s. Certainly a decade ago we had our second strikers, elusive and creative forwards looking for pockets of space in front of the defence, and attacking midfielders that could drive forward; but the true Trequartista had yet to experience a revival. The formation is ideal for a player like Sneijder, allowing him a solid platform in central midfield to remain high up the pitch as an ever present threat and with narrow wingers close enough that he cannot easily be man marked without repercussions for the opposition in leaving other attackers free. It is simply the best formation for allowing one player a completely free role, in “the hole”.
The Netherlands has long struggled to find a solution to the problem of how to get the best out of all their creative talents, with most of the other players better suiting a more traditional 4-3-3. The obvious solution then seems to be to play Sneijder as the playmaker-in-chief within this formation: however, attempts at this simple switch have tended to fail even against only moderate opposition. Sneijder’s fall from grace includes a wage row, dressing room disputes, managerial upsets and a chronic drop in form since 2010. What is perhaps less obvious is Sneijder’s inability to adapt to any system that is not built around him in the way that other number 10s are capable of. This is the problem with a homogenous conception of the number 10 position: there are several ways to play it, and in different systems these are more or less effective. Is there one number 10, or many?
The so-called number 10 in a 4-3-3 is required to link the now further apart midfield and attack, and also cover more ground. And no, while it is certainly a criticism many would level at dear Wesley, it is not simply a matter of laziness. Tactical discipline and intelligence is required for a number 10 who moves deeper to decide the opportune moment to support the attack, in comparison to a true playmaker who is never out of dangerous positions. No match exemplifies this better than Bayern Munich versus Real Madrid in last season’s Champions League semi-final first leg. The contrasting styles of Toni Kroos and Mezut Ozil dominated the tactical battle between two teams deploying formations at least vaguely 4-2-3-1 in conception, but with Kroos shuttling between attack and midfield while Ozil elected to stay in support of Ronaldo and Benzema, significantly higher up the pitch. While this gave Madrid a potent and constant threat that Bayern often struggled to deal with, it was the Bavarians who were able to control the tempo of the game, who had more time to think on the ball and won both the match and the tie.
Kroos is one of the most underrated number 10s in world football for his ability to offer penetration and creativity while simultaneously using his excellent tactical and positional awareness to nullify threats from the base of the opposition midfield. While less spectacular than the likes of Sneijder’s smouldering genius, it is arguably harder to deal with. A player that demonstrates our under-appreciation of this style of number 10 Aaron Ramsey, a name many Arsenal fans have grown to dread reading on the teamsheet because of the assumption that he is not good enough to play the role. Granted, the 2011/12 season was far too big an ask for the young player returning from injury: not only replacing Cesc Fabregas “in the hole” but also the winger given licence to drift inwards, Samir Nasri, and deeper-lying passer Jack Wilshere.
Ramsey looks out of depth high up the pitch and does not have the trickery of a player like Santi Cazorla to terrify opposition markers in the final third. Ergo, he is not Sneijder. However, his timing of late arrival runs and ability for getting other players involved in the build up is useful from a tactical perspective. He is an understated, subtle playmaker in the Kroos model (though clearly not the finished article like his German comparison has become). Wilshere offers Arsenal a third option in this area of the pitch: the number 10 in the all-action model. His heart on sleeve style and willingness to get stuck into a slide tackle are perhaps most reminiscent of Steven Gerrard circa 2008, but while the Liverpudlian has a reputation for his headless chicken approach, there are players who are recognized as fulfilling an important role in their club’s system by doing this.
Serie A is the best place to find the ‘Action Men’ of playmaking, the Trequar-testosterone players. Kevin-Prince Boateng found the perfect role for himself last season at AC Milan linking a split team in which a chasm between two strikers and a narrow three man midfield was his territory. His drop in form this year is at least partially down to the formational switch by Massimiliano Allegri to a 4-2-3-1 in which he does not have the ability to lose markers or individual brilliance to adapt to a more static position between the lines.
The 4-3-1-2, or “diamond”, that Boateng thrived within is another formation that Sneijder was unable to adapt to, this time for club rather than country. In a similar way to a 4-3-3, the number 10 is given more ground to cover, but unlike the highly technical and cautious approach that the attacking midfielder of the 4-3-3, there is no need to provide defensive assistance to the three man platform from which attacks can be built. Italian football in recent seasons has become full of pacey, strong, energetic number 10s that can connect the two parts in the front 6 and offer some width through natural movement.
Sneijder’s style does not suit this at all, and his replacement Fredy Guarin is a much better fit for this position in terms of his physical game and excellent attitude as a team player, even if he has yet to find anything coming close to his predecessor’s 2010 consistency. It is interesting that Sneijder fails to adapt to these new positions because in his Ajax days, he was trained to play as the traditional Dutch attacking midfielder, patient and probing in the build up with a responsibility to retreat to midfield in support of team mates. His evolution to the current player has allowed him to reach a level of technical brilliance that few Spanish players can even match, but the cost has been an extreme specialization into a niche role of his own creation.
Is he doomed to roam the transfer market in search of the formula that made him so successful under Mourinho? Perhaps his move to Galatasaray, a brave option under world football’s intense scrutiny, will be the acid test for his late career: either he will adapt to a new system and prove the critics wrong, fail to do so and prove them right, or have the team built to his needs and find his ghosting destructive streak once again.
Whatever the outcome of Sneijder’s Turkish adventure, it seems that we need to acknowledge the great variety in different playmakers across world football. In the 4-2-3-1 none are more devastating than the offensive specialist who can beat his man, waiting in the exact spot between opposition defence and midfield for the ball. However the older this formation gets, the more its weaknesses are becoming exposed and the more teams are returning to other systems that require a different game from their trequartista. After a decade of dominance by a single type, there is now not one number 10 but many.
Follow Simon on Twitter: @smiffysi
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