The Playmaker. The Trequartista. The Enganche. The Creator. The Number 10.
It’s a position as elusive as those that play it. A role that has birthed some of the greatest footballers in history. An area on the pitch so vital, so involved, and often where the magic happens: the slide-rule pass, the fancy flick, the assist nobody else foresees but he who executed it.
Yet in the last few years, a misconception has arisen: many now believe that the no 10 position is no longer a big part of the modern game. The influence of managers like Pep Guardiola, the increasing use of systems like a 4-3-3, and the emphasis on creativity from all areas and positions on a pitch has led many to proclaim that the iconic role is dead.
But we’re here to tell you that’s wrong. Just like the game of football itself, roles and positions are always adapting and evolving. Systems and formations are becoming increasingly more trivial as teams are no longer defined by a single structure: players constantly rotate and interchange depending on the game-state. Creators, inventors, and playmakers are still very much alive, but just perform the role differently than many of us have come to know it.
In this Premier League season, we’ve seen multiple sides utilize their creative outlets in a number of different ways. Each have unique methods of finding space, exploiting areas in the attacking third, and producing opportunities for teammates. We explain how four specific players are redefining our understanding of the no. 10 position:
*For each player covered in this piece, we have a data visual that provides an insight into both what areas these players receive the ball on the pitch, and how and where they use it once in possession. These visuals have been created by @victorrenaud5 – a must follow on twitter and a really accomplished football data analyst! We can’t thank him enough for his help.*
Bruno Fernandes: high-risk, high-reward
We start with a player relatively new to the Premier League, one whose playstyle divides opinion, but an individual that has had an impact nobody can ignore or deny. Creative players are inherently risk takers and Bruno Fernandes takes this sentiment to an entirely new level. The Portuguese midfielder takes risks in possession, is often over-ambitious in his passing, but sacrifices ball retention in order to generate chances for his teammates and himself, oftentimes out of nothing.
Bruno is unique in that he’s both the primary chance creator and goalscorer in his side – meaning the majority of attacking moves flow through him, while he finishes a large portion of them too. His numbers speak for themselves: 15 goals and 10 assists means he has 25 goal contributions in 27 Premier League games. Bruno’s average position is often just behind the CF in the mould of a second striker, but he drifts everywhere to receive the ball. The ball reception map (the left-sided graphic), emphasizes the variety of positions Bruno picks up possession, but also highlights his tendency to drift to the left-hand side. United are a team often most effective in transition, and primarily use the side of their attack containing Shaw, Rashford, and the drifting Bruno to kickstart forward moves.
The right-sided graphic provides an insight into how Bruno passes the ball: both the direction and length of his passes and the frequency at which he plays them. Bruno’s appetite for attempting difficult and longer progressive and sideways passes is essentially unmatched – he looks to move the ball forward regardless of how obvious and easy the attempt is. To quantify Fernandes’ unique role as a creative outlet for his side we can look at a variety of different parameters. For example, as far as risk taking goes, his pass completion percentage (71.9%) ranks in the 31st percentile amongst attacking midfielders in Europe’s top 5 leagues, which is significantly lower than our other three 10’s. However, he sits in the >95th percentile for progressive passes (7.09), xA (0.35), and shot-creating actions (4.94) per 90. In fact, Bruno’s xA of 9.1 is the highest in the Premier League this season. Bruno, however, has struggled to replicate this attacking productivity in games against the “big-six” sides. Much of this is not his fault as United tend to sit in and soak up pressure; they’ve drawn 0-0 in their last four Premier League games against “big-six” opposition. Bruno is unique because of his playstyle: a risk-taker, turnover prone, not necessarily efficient, but unbelievably consistent in his continued output, and that’s exactly what makes him so valuable to United.
James Maddison: the between-the-lines roamer
Out of the four players in this article, Maddison is most similar to what we generally perceive as a typical no. 10, but there’s elements of his game that make him unique, too. Leicester primarily line up in a 4-2-3-1 system, with Maddison occupying the traditional no. 10 role in the central space behind the striker. The Englishman is most dangerous in pockets between the lines – constantly receiving the ball on the half-turn in the blind-side area behind the opposition holding midfielders. The positions he picks up and his tendency to drift is reminiscent of Bruno, but how he uses the ball is entirely different.
Maddison’s ball reception map illustrates the wide range of areas he covers in the attacking third, while the pass sonar shows how his playstyle differs from the more erratic Bruno — Maddison’s actions in possession are more calculated, less-risky, and the variety of his passes are different. He prefers shorter layoffs to onrushing midfielders and wide players, and incisive and threaded through balls to Vardy ahead of him. He also looks to switch and progress play horizontally, capable of the long diagonal or long pass to his wide teammates. When drifting wide, he also aims to form overloads with his fullback and winger, relying on neat combination play to create chances.
But it’s Maddison’s improvement in front of goal that emphasizes the recent development of his game. Jamie Carragher has said that Maddison needs to improve his goal involvement if he wants to get in the England side and he’s done just that. Maddison referenced Carragher’s analysis in a post-match interview on January 19th, and has gone on to record an impressive 7 G/A in the last 9 matches. He has been remarkably efficient in front of goal this season and has outperformed his xG by 4.6, meaning he’s scored 8 goals on 3.4 xG, the second best margin in the league behind Heung-Min Son. Calculated in possession, best between the lines, but quickly becoming a complete advanced midfielder by refining his ability to finish chances, rather than just creating them.
Emile Smith Rowe: the wide drifter
Arsenal were in a really poor position in December. 15th place, on 14 points, and winless in seven Premier League games, they needed a short-term boost. Surprisingly, they found it in the form of 20-year-old Emile Smith Rowe. A switch in system and the introduction of ESR behind the striker gave Arsenal midfield and attacking balance, provided options between the lines, and allowed for rotation and interchange between their front four.
In the majority of his PL starts, Smith Rowe has been deployed on the teamsheet as a conventional no. 10, but the areas he drifts towards, the spaces he infiltrates, and the manner in which he manipulates the ball makes him so unique. The ball reception graphic emphasizes exactly this – he predominantly receives possession on either flank, while his actions in the middle of the pitch are fairly limited. His tendency to drift wide is vital for multiple reasons – 1) his inside-out movement opens central pockets for teammates to exploit, and 2) it enables him to form combinations and overloads vs. an isolated fullback.
When on the ball, Smith Rowe’s quick and decisive decision-making stands out. The pass sonar highlights his tendency to play both short backwards and progressive passes. His one or two-touch combination play is so impressive – smart layoffs, neat flicks, and one-twos are a massive part of his game. He’s also excellent on the dribble, and unafraid to drive at opposition defenses before executing cutbacks from the half spaces. There’s a beautiful simplicity to ESR’s playstyle, and it’s his huge impact in wide areas, and lack thereof centrally, that makes him such a unique no. 10.
Ilkay Gündogan: the space invader
Man City’s unstoppable form has been very well documented in recent times. They’ve undergone somewhat of a rebrand in system: one that’s almost positionless, constantly adapting and re-shaping, and unbelievably fluid. For large portions of the season, they’ve been strikerless, but one individual has suddenly evolved into a marauding, goalscoring midfielder. Ilkay Gundogan has scored 11 in 15 PL games since December 15th – and while his starting position is nothing like that of a 10, it’s the spaces he infiltrates, the intelligence in his movement, and his advanced position in possession that led to us including him in this article.
Man City’s current system is the perfect example of why all positions in football (not just the no.10 role) are no longer refined to a certain area on the pitch. Gundogan’s starting position is closer to Rodri, but as the ball progresses, the midfielder makes the left half-space his own. His ball reception map shows just that – he’s a constant in that area, but the majority of his touches are in the attacking third. When on the ball, he’s always so deliberate in his decision-making: producing beautiful left-to-right switches, combining on the edge of the area, or playing slide-rule passes across the box to onrushing finishers.
It’s his actions off the ball, however, that make him so unbelievably impressive. The timing of his runs, the spacial awareness, and the repeatability of his movement means he’s always a step ahead of anyone else. He locates and penetrates gaps in the opposition backline with such ease – and even if he doesn’t receive the ball, he simultaneously creates space for others. Gundogan’s newfound advanced position means he’s always involved and a constant influential figure in the final third for Man City – and it’s his off-ball movement that has made him the side’s primary creative and attacking force.
No. 10’s are still very much prevalent in today’s game
As football evolves, it’s become increasingly more obvious that players, and teams, are no longer restricted and refined by a single shape or structure. Players constantly move, rotate, switch, and interchange. Many have exclaimed that the no. 10 position is fading from the modern game – but we believe that’s not true at all.
The main creative outlet is no longer simply the individual behind the CF. Players can now be the primary creative influence in a number of different ways, and the four examples above show exactly how that’s possible. The number 10 position isn’t dead – but has adapted, evolved, and reinvented itself in a multitude of different ways – and is still very much alive in the Premier League.