When Lionel Scaloni was appointed caretaker manager of Argentina after a disastrous World Cup campaign, he claimed that the game was becoming more direct and that he was going to implant a style in that image on his side. After a year of disjointed performances and having been given the job permanently since, the former West Ham player’s team have looked the part in recent months. He has built a side in the way he promised and whisper it quietly but without the sometimes overbearing presence of Lionel Messi in the national setup for certain periods, La Albiceleste have looked the better for it.
After an average Copa America, Argentina’s fortunes took a turn for the better with a 4-0 thrashing of Mexico. A creditable 2-2 draw in Germany followed and Ecuador were dispatched 6-1 before Messi returned in November. It is also telling that Argentina’s best spells in these games came when Paulo Dybala was not on the pitch either. The Juventus player has previously gone on record stating that it is difficult for him to play with Messi on the pitch because they operate in similar spaces. Even though the national team has gone through several formations in recent years to accommodate the best player on the planet, they have certainly benefitted from not having an advanced playmaker. Leandro Paredes has taken to dictating proceedings from a deeper position and Argentina look more dangerous in transitions.
It was another Argentinian, the great Juan Román Riquelme who best epitomised a previous generation of number tens who dictated play and constantly demanded the ball. If there was a criticism of him, it was that he hardly bothered to run and while he could get away with it as recently as the first half of this decade, times have changed.
The current travails of Mesut Ozil, James Rodriguez, Philippe Coutinho, Isco, Juan Mata and even Dybala who was deemed surplus to requirements by Mauricio Sarri at the beginning of the season suggest that the classic interpretation of the role is dead. Dybala has made telling contributions this season at his club, but there is still a lack of clarity about his exact role in the side. As the game gets more ‘vertical’, all the players mentioned above have had to adapt to the changing landscape; sometimes getting shunted out to the flanks but mainly having to be content with a place on the bench.
The spaces that the traditional number ten used to take are now those that are often vacated as number eights, wingers and even full-backs, as is the case with Liverpool, take on the mantle of being playmakers. If anything, it is the centre-forward or the false-nine who drops deeper to take defenders with him so that other outlets are found to exploit. As 4-3-3 or variations of it become more common, the number ten has had to adapt as the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Eden Hazard and Christian Eriksen have done. Those who have not shown the willingness or even ability to do so like Ozil find themselves in flux, starved of suitors where once there was a clamour for his signature.
A Riquelme could be ‘carried’ in a game with his exquisite skills more than compensating for his relative lack of effort. It was a time when a number ten could pause and pick a pass. Nobody gets a second on the ball these days in the middle of the park. Physical specimens who never stop for breath rule the roost. Dele Alli is 6’2” and at his best can be a nasty presence. A drop in intensity has major consequences on the fortunes of the side, as has been witnessed with Eriksen and Alli at Tottenham this season until Jose Mourinho took over at the club.
In a way, it is a shame because these are players with magical talents that we rarely get to see anymore. They get to showcase their skills in inconsequential cup games while the players who form the engine room are rested. Football has a way of bringing systems back into vogue in iterative cycles and the classical number ten might make an appearance again when we tire of end-to-end all-action football. When the day comes, he will inevitably be a treat for sore eyes but for now he has been put out to pasture.