The Fabled Number 10 Role
Jack Grealish and James Maddison are both enjoying phenomenal seasons at their respected clubs and have been catching the eyes of England boss Gareth Southgate of late. Both players are being tipped highly to don the famous number ten shirt for the upcoming 2020 Euros, but which athlete is a cut above the rest?
In football, the number 10 role is one that stands out from the rest, goalkeepers excluded. The players who have worn the famous shirt and carried out the task over the decades roll off the tongue: Pele, Maradona, Del Piero, Bergkamp, Zico, Platini, Zidane, Valderrama, Messi and Hagi…to name but a few. Grealish? Maddison? They’re most certainly not on that list just yet but we’ll come to them in a bit.
Number 10s are the lead singers of the side, the virtuosos, the ones born with natural talent rather the ones who nurtured what they had. Sometimes moody and at times even erratic, often charismatic and opinionated in equal measure, it’s the price to pay for genius.
They’re the ones who make the team tick and control the mood of the side, whether willingly or otherwise. Very often they make obvious captains. Of the list above, only a couple weren’t skippers of either club side, national side or both, for the vast majority of their careers.
What they actually do all day (on the pitch) varies somewhat based on the exact system the team plays and to an extent, the unique characteristics of the player himself.
The likes of Hagi or Maradona just roamed around being wherever they liked and doing whatever the hell they liked. Del Piero and Bergkamp were more second strikers, in-the-hole players who supported the main striker. In his Real Madrid days at least, Zidane operated a little more from the left, drifting inside as his natural trigger when he had the ball and then moving wide again when he didn’t, so as not to overcrowd the middle of the park.
But the concept is virtually the same. Give them the ball and they’ll make something happen.
A quick turn to find space, a lofted pass over the top, a perfectly measured slide rule pass that somehow finds the dashing winger just as he’s running into a gap. They’re normally excellent set-piece takers and the first in line to take spot-kicks.
The job description also includes scoring goals. With the exception of Valderrama, all of those players on the list were quite natural goalscorers because clearly, the ability to curl one into the top corner or hammer it into the bottom one come with the territory.
Meet James and Jack
There are a handful of high-class ones in the Premier League right now. Mesut Ozil, either of the Silvas at Manchester City and Kevin de Bruyne as well, Gylfi Sigurdsson and though he’s now in the twilight of his career with game time at a premium, Juan Mata.
But if you’re an England fan, the two whose progress you really want to be monitoring are James Maddison at Leicester and Jack Grealish at Aston Villa.
Their backgrounds are slightly different. Maddison played at clubs below Premier League level and even had a short spell in Scotland before his big-money move to Leicester when they were already in the Premier League.
Grealish made his first team debut in Villa’s ill-fated season where they ended up being relegated, paid his dues in The Championship and then returned to the big-time once Aston Villa were promoted at the start of the 2019/20 campaign.
To further muddy the waters about what being a number 10 is, you don’t always have to actually wear the number 10! Johan Cruyff played in the role and preferred 14, Eric Cantona favoured 7 and David Silva has always gone with 21.
But Grealish and Maddison have grabbed the 10 jersey and aren’t giving it up anytime soon. Both have somewhat interpreted it in the same way as Zidane, drifting left to find space and almost always turning inside to increase the number of options available to them.
That could be a short pass inside, an in-swinging cross to the back post, a double bluff by going inside and then laying the ball out wide to the overlapping left-full back or a shot from the left-hand side of the box. They don’t always operate from the left of course because well…a number 10 isn’t meant to always do what you expect them to. That’s the whole point.
Who’s had the better season?
Well, the stats show that Maddison has six goals and five assists, while Grealish has scored six and assisted seven. So very slight advantage Grealish there but that doesn’t tell the full story.
Maddison is playing in a fine side who will almost certainly finish Top 4 and may have a shot at third. He’s got two excellent ball-winners who do the hard graft of recovering possession, so he doesn’t have to. In Jamie Vardy he has just about the most willing runner in the league, an easy outlet because of his electric pace that means that as long as you put the ball into space within his area, he’s likely to get there first. Because Leicester tend to create more chances than the opposition, he has his fair share of set-pieces providing him a further chance to shine.
Grealish is in a different boat. Villa have struggled all season and are far from sure of even staying in the division. Very often it’s been a case of either Grealish creating a moment of magic out of nothing or the side simply not having the imagination and talent to unlock defences. As the side’s young skipper, he’s very often had to carry the team in times of need. His has been the harder task of the two, though that of course isn’t Maddison’s fault.
So, these two are fighting it out to be England’s number 10 for Euro 2020, where England are favourites to go all the way, right?
Not quite. They say possession is 9/10 of the law and with that in mind, it’s currently Dele Alli who is in prime position to play in the coveted role. After all, they have just one cap between them (Maddison) so it’s pretty unlikely that Gareth Southgate will throw all his preparations of the last two years out of the window at the last minute and play one of those two ahead of the Spurs man, whose form has improved massively since Jose Mourinho’s arrival. And that’s not where the bad news ends for the pair.
Ross Barkley is a contender, albeit with his chances damaged by not getting much game time at Chelsea this season. His Chelsea team-mate Mason Mount has also impressed in the role and Jesse Lingard has played there in the past as well, though he’s lower down in the pecking order having not played much this season either at club level.
The smart money is on one or the other being in the squad, the chosen one being determined by their performances between now and the end of the season. Whoever gets the nod would then be a good option to bring off the bench and the obvious contender to step in for Alli should anything happen to him.
Either way, with Alli, Maddison, Grealish and a few others such good options to play in the all-important number 10 role, it’s certainly a nice problem for Southgate and whoever is his successor, to have.