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Conducting Play Between the Lines – The Premier League’s Best Number 10s

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The mysterious role of the archetypal ‘number 10’ has been a vital one across multiple footballing generations. With the overall trend in recent times moving towards intricate passing play and maintaining possession at all costs, the value that adept players in this position hold has sky-rocketed. There are a multitude of stars to choose from in the Premier League alone, tasked primarily with feeding the strikers and making their side tick. Below, I have explained my top 5 in this role. Feel free to comment at the end of the article or on twitter @TBRFootball with your opinions.

Santi Cazorla:

As one of the most naturally two-footed players you could ever wish to observe, Santi Cazorla’s talents have been both a blessing and a curse during his time at Arsenal. Wenger’s desire for continuous possession lent itself to wingers prone to cutting infield and not holding the desire to hug the touchline. Cazorla is a prime example of this type of player but while being stuck out on the left for the majority of his Emirates experience to date, it was often the case that games could pass him by.

With the physical requirements and necessity to make ground up and down the wing for 90 minutes, the former Malaga trickster struggled to impose himself on proceedings. Often overpowered and imposed upon by bigger defenders, his skill could go under-appreciated. Fortunately enough for Cazorla, Mesut Ozil’s long-term injury lay-off has proved a blessing in disguise as it provided Wenger with the urgency he clearly needed to shift the Spaniard infield. And how he has flourished.

6 goals and an equal number of assists this season from midfield speaks for itself. Although his form and contribution to Arsenal’s recent run of good results has been easily up there with any other member of the squad, Cazorla’s display against Manchester City at The Etihad is one that simply has to be marvelled at. He ran the show against the highly combative defensive duo of Fernando and Fernandinho and not for one instant did he shirk his responsibility. The sight of him chasing back towards his own box and putting in a sliding challenge that any midfield enforcer would be proud of was incredible. All of this only added to the usual astonishing set-piece delivery with either foot and absolute poise in and around the 18 yard box.

Arsenal’s defeat against Spurs cannot be put down to one factor alone, but the almost anonymous Santi Cazorla is certainly a highly important one. German World Cup winner Ozil has returned from his lay-off and as such, Arsenal’s build-up and attacking intent did not revolve around Cazorla. Finding himself on the periphery of proceedings somewhat, the Gunners were given a stark reminder of the Spaniard’s paramount importance to their side’s fortunes this season.

Re-invigorated. Santi Cazorla has captured his best form for Arsenal in the centre of the pitch.

Reinvigorated. Santi Cazorla has captured his best form for Arsenal in the centre of the pitch.

David Silva:

The only naturally left-footed player in this top five, David Silva is a mercurial talent who has graced Premier League pitches since his arrival in the blue half of Manchester in the summer of 2010. Finding himself used in several different attacking midfield roles through the years under a few managers, Silva has been played more centrally this year than most. Something of an injury crisis in the striking department at The Etihad led to the usual two up front being swapped for a primary forward and one man off him; more often than not being David Silva.

The ex-Valencia midfielder is very prone to coming infield to do his damage anyway, regardless of his apparent starting position. It is almost as if the game is being played in slow-motion when Silva has the ball at his feet, having all the time in the world to pick out a pass when all looks congested in front of him. He seems to glide across the pitch at times, escaping the grasp of defenders aplenty.

Furthermore, the 29 year old Spaniard has added an impressive new string to his bow this campaign. At the absolute worst of the injury crisis in Manchester City’s front line, there was no recognised striker to be seen and David Silva stepped up to fill the hardly insignificant boots of Aguero, Dzeko, and Jovetic. Operating in a false nine role made famous in modern times by Lionel Messi, the goals of Silva secured many a victory for The Citizens in a testing time. As a player not at all well known for converting chances into goals, the 7 successful strikes that he has racked up already put him well on the way to breaking his record for one season.

Christian Eriksen:

Spurs’ Great Dane has been absolutely key to everything positive from the North Londoner’s season to date. Somewhat overshadowed by the blistering goal-scoring form of local lad Harry Kane in recent weeks, the invaluable contribution of Christian Eriksen from the first breaths of the current campaign.

The ex-Ajax attacking midfielder has started every single one of Tottenham’s 25 matches since the start of the season and has already topped the 2000 minute mark. This is not something to be sniffed at, especially for a player often targeted by defenders and also one not shirking his responsibility in the Europa League campaign at White Hart Lane.

For someone who has only just turned 23 years of age, such levels of consistency week after week are highly impressive. A goal tally of 9 at this stage of the campaign is far greater than expected for someone not known for his ruthless finishing. Operating primarily from the left for significant parts of the year so far, Premier League star Eriksen is not shy in venturing infield to pick up dangerous areas that strike fear into the hearts of opposition defences.

One of the most obvious skills that the Danish international possesses is an unerring ability at any and every dead-ball situation. Not only producing regularly high quality deliveries from corners, the expectation when Eriksen lines up a direct free-kick is that the ball is inevitably going to end up in the net. To have that threat is a significant asset for Spurs and one that should not be underestimated.

Eriksen’s surprising lack of direct assists; only 1 to date, is one area of his game that may require some work but his efforts in attacking areas indirectly create space for others. His tireless work right to the final whistle have won several games for Spurs already this year, with the North London side becoming the specialists at picking up points late on. The number 23 has notched up many a strike himself in the dying minutes and is undoubtedly the most successful of the batch of signings brought in by AVB 18 months ago to replace Gareth Bale.

Deadly Dane. Christian Eriksen has really come to the fore for Spurs this season.

Deadly Dane. Christian Eriksen has really come to the fore for Spurs this season.

Philippe Coutinho:

Liverpool’s little Brazilian with dazzlingly quick feet has been a crucial part of The Reds’ return to form since the turn of the year. In the newly adopted 3-4-3 formation under Brendan Rodgers, Philippe Coutinho has lined up on the left of the front three more often than not. As if in response to prior criticism, he has found a way to not forgo his defensive responsibilities while always retaining his availability in offensive areas.

Whilst Raheem Sterling has been deployed as a nominal central striker, a fantastic understanding has been built up between the pair. Both diminutive figures have the quality and desire to play the game in tight spaces, and their relationship was shown most clearly against Burnley. The cutest of instant flicks over the top of the Turf Moor side’s defence released Sterling into space to finish and Coutinho’s vision made the goal possible.

He also seems to be consistently able of finding Alberto Moreno; Liverpool’s left wing-back, in dangerous areas after venturing inside himself. Creating the space for the Spaniard to exploit is one thing, but possessing the quality to find him time after time is the defining factor. Coutinho’s ability to find an accurate pass regardless of defenders’ proximity drew praise from Daniel Sturridge upon his return from injury against West Ham United. The English striker said “I knew that all I had to do was make the run and he would find me with the pass”. That utter confidence teammates have in Coutinho speaks volumes for the 22 year old’s recent form, finding 4 direct assists for goals in the Premier League.

While highly impressive in the last couple of months, Philippe Coutinho does still have areas of his game that require improvement. Having already seemingly overcome his stamina problem and issue with a lack of constant intensity, he now needs to look at adding more goals to his game. Only 3 goals from the slight Brazilian in all competitions this year is not up to the level required and his recent stunning winner versus Bolton notwithstanding, Coutinho needs to contribute with goals more frequently. He does not lack the natural striking ability, always developing a great deal of power from little back-lift, but his finishing leaves a lot to be desired at times. For example, a terrific jink and shuffle released him through on Courtois’ goal in the semi-final second leg but he failed to convert one on one. Add goals to his game, and Liverpool will have a potential world-beater on their hands.

Juan Mata:

Twice voted Chelsea FC Player of the Year, Juan Mata has all the technical ability and guile needed to play in the position just off a front man. However, when Mourinho saw fit to rather gracelessly ‘encourage’ a move away from Stamford Bridge, it was the common belief that his team ethic was the critical factor. With Manchester United all too keen to snap Chelsea’s hand off for multi-million pound transfer fee, for a while at least, it seemed like a steal.

Under the stewardship of Louis Van Gaal, the Spaniard has flourished to a degree but again does not seem to possess the complete faith of his manager. The formation now played at Old Trafford suits Juan Mata down to the ground. Wayne Rooney playing a deeper role freed up the position behind the striker. Furthermore, there are plenty of Manchester United bodies are always around him to find with intricate passes and occupy the attention of defenders, allowing him to pop up in pockets of space. In particular, Mata seems to have built up quite a fruitful understanding with Radamel Falcao, benefitting the previously struggling poacher immensely. In 17 league starts this campaign, the 26 year old Spanish star has notched up 5 goals and 3 assists – figures not to be sniffed at especially when you consider how frequently he is substituted. There are plenty of Premier League centre forwards who would be jealous of that goal to game ratio. For a player tasked with producing killer balls, to also boast an almost 90% passing accuracy is impressive.

Despite all of this however, LVG can often leave out the diminutive Spaniard in favour of Angel Di Maria now that the Argentinian World Cup finalist has returned from a spell on the sidelines. Mata certainly allows for a more ‘beautiful’ style of play by adding copious amounts of guile to the mix, but clearly offers nothing like the defensive qualities of Di Maria tracking back towards his own goal. Guile and trickery are apparent in everything he does, but as Van Gaal demonstrated to the global audience at the World Cup, players for him need something extra. While other managers may feel it worthwhile to accept a so called ‘luxury player’ for the match-winning moments they provide, it is not enough for the Dutchman. Stars of the side Robben and Sneijder worked just as hard as everyone else; not exactly a frequent sight for such mercurial talents. Should Mata really be unable to change his approach to getting about the pitch, it is the unfortunate truth that we will not see as many magic moments from him as we would like.

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Luxury item. Is Juan Mata’s talent enough for a regular place in the side?


Do you agree with this suggestion, or perhaps believe that a player such as Oscar should have made the list? Let us know in the comments section or on twitter @TBRFootball and get debating!

I am currently at university studying Mechanical Engineering, but in my spare time I'm into all things football. I'm an avid Liverpool fan but always try to remain impartial. My other interests include gaming and Formula One.

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Bournemouth 2-1 Arsenal: Three talking points from the Vitality Stadium

Rob Meech

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Bournemouth
Photo: Reuters

Bournemouth came from behind to claim a much-needed victory over Arsenal, whose hopes of qualifying for the Champions League have suffered another blow.

After an insipid opening period at the Vitality Stadium, the action sparked into life when Hector Bellerin broke the deadlock on 52 minutes.

But Arsenal’s lead was short-lived, as goals from Callum Wilson and Jordon Ibe – his first for the club – secured the Cherries’ fourth home win of the season, which lifted them to 13th in the table.

Arsenal, meanwhile, slipped further adrift in the battle to finish in the top four after their third consecutive league game without a win. Here are three talking points…

Alexis Sanchez moves closer to the Emirates exit door

All the pre-match talk centred on a player who wasn’t involved in the contest. Not only was Alexis Sanchez not named in the starting XI, he wasn’t even on the bench having not travelled to the south coast.

Manager Arsene Wenger was ambiguous when pressed on this in the aftermath of the defeat, but the insinuation was clear; the want-away Chilean will not be an Arsenal player come the end of the transfer window.

Both Manchester City and Manchester United have been heavily linked with a move for Sanchez, whose contract at the Emirates expires in the summer. Despite his uncertain future, this match was crying out for his never-say-die attitude.

Arsenal controlled the first half and deserved to be in front when Bellerin fired home. However, the Gunners were unable to add a second and Bournemouth capitalised with two late efforts. Arsene Wenger’s side are now without a win in four games in 2018 as their troubles mount.

Bournemouth buck the trend against the ‘Big Six’

Before this fixture, Bournemouth had lost all of their matches against the ‘Big Six’ this season, scoring only one goal in seven outings.

While those are not necessarily the games that will define their campaign, it was a worrying statistic that Eddie Howe needed to address. Facing an Arsenal team without Sanchez or Mesut Ozil looked like being the Cherries’ best opportunity to buck that trend, and so it proved.

With only nine points separating all the teams in the bottom half, an unexpected win can do so much to alter the picture. The Cherries didn’t fold after going a goal behind and they merited the three points for an enterprising second-half display.

Having beaten Arsenal for the first time in their history, Bournemouth are now four points clear of the drop-zone. They are by no means safe because of this result, but the psychological impact could be immense.

Jack Wilshere getting back to his best

Returning to the club at which he spent last season on loan, this was not the afternoon Jack Wilshere would have hoped for. Though it didn’t go well from a team perspective, the 26-year-old was close to his best at the Vitality Stadium.

He touched the ball more than any other player on the pitch and also completed more passes. After a frustrating start to the campaign where he struggled for minutes in the Premier League, Wilshere is now establishing himself in the starting XI.

He was Arsenal’s best player against Bournemouth and in a team that lacks leaders, he was one of the few who looked like he wanted the ball. Wilshere ran the show in midfield and was always keen to move forward with purpose.

England manager Gareth Southgate surely can’t ignore Wilshere’s form and, fitness permitting, he must be a shoo-in for the next squad. In a World Cup year, Wilshere is peaking at just the right time.

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An absence of progress at Arsenal leaves Arsene Wenger in danger of becoming the villain

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Reuters

“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”.

So says Harvey Dent, a character in the 2008 DC Comics action movie The Dark Night Rises, which portrays the story of the fictional superhero Batman as he fights against organised crime in Gotham City.

There may be no men dressed as bats around the Emirates Stadium but it is a quote that might resonate with the thoughts and feelings of a growing number of Arsenal supporters regarding the position of Arsene Wenger in recent seasons.

The Frenchman is one of the most influential and successful managers in the club’s history, having secured ten major trophies since his appointment in 1996 and overseen the transition from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium, but has come under increasing pressure over the last three seasons as The Gunners struggle to maintain the pace set by their title rivals.

The previous campaign was tainted by calls from from a portion of the Arsenal fan base for the 68-year-old to resign, although the club eventually opted to hand him a new two-year deal.

However, eight months on  and Wenger’s position has never been more fragile and the number of dissenting voices in the stands is beginning to increase.

The frustration around the Emirates Stadium is completely understandable. The Gunners are 23 points behind league leaders Manchester City, face an uphill task to qualify for the Champions League next season and suffered an early exit from the FA Cup at the hands of Nottingham Forrest.

Furthermore, Arsenal are in danger of losing two of their prize assets in the summer for nothing after allowing the contracts of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to run down into their final year. The unwillingness of the duo to remain in North London is a definitive sign that the club are no longer considered to be a significant threat in the domestic game.

With the club slipping behind their title rivals and struggling to retain key players, Wenger is in danger of turning from a hero into a villain.

A lack of forward momentum

The one thing that Arsenal have lacked this season, and arguably for a number of years, is a sense that the club is making progress or moving in the right direction.

The Gunners have been on a gradual decline that is only now beginning to come to the fore and there has been nothing to suggest that Arsene Wenger has the vision or prowess to reinvigorate a club that is anchored in stagnation. Even success in the FA Cup has felt like a brief moment of respite rather than a signal that a corner had been turned.

The Frenchman has failed to correct the issues that have undermined the team on the pitch, exemplified by his inability to purchase a top-quality central defender or defensive midfielder, and it has now been nearly thirteen years since the club last won the Premier League title.

A sense of progress is why Jurgen Klopp and Mauriccio Pochettino have sustained their positions at Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively, despite failing to secure any silverware between them and have retained the favour of their club’s supporters.

Both have implemented a clear philosophy and playing style whilst creating the feeling around Anfield and Wembley that the team is moving forward in the right direction.

Wenger has secured more silverware than both Klopp and Pochettino combined since 2014 yet he finds himself under increasing pressure due to a lack of any forward momentum at the Emirates Stadium.

Whilst there is a general feeling that Liverpool and Tottenham are improving, the perception of many Arsenal supporters is that the club is standing still at best and certainly slipping behind their counterparts.

There have been question marks around Wenger’s future for some time and yet this feels like the 68-year-old is on the edge of cliff.

Success in the FA Cup has provided him with a degree of respite in recent years which made his team selection for the defeat to Nottingham Forrest appear especially bizarre.

With Arsenal already out of the title race you would have thought that Wenger would have put extra emphasis on winning the competition which, arguably, allowed him to negotiate a new contract in the summer.

However, such is the obvious disparity in quality between the Gunners and Manchester City that Wenger can no longer hide behind domestic cup success.

Failure to qualify for the Champions League for a second consecutive year would signify how far the club has fallen and the pressure on the Frenchman has been further exacerbated by the seemingly imminent departures of Sanchez and Ozil.

Whilst Liverpool and Tottenham are moving forward, Arsenal seem to be moving backwards. With Wenger’s position appearing increasingly fragile and the club in decline you have to wonder whether the Frenchman has now become the villain of the piece.

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Why Manchester United must go all out to steal Alexis Sanchez away from Manchester City

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Photo: Reuters

In the midst of winter, things are starting to heat up.

It seemed for all the world that Manchester City were finally going to get their man in the January transfer window after missing out on Arsenal talisman Alexis Sanchez on deadline day in late August.

On that occasion they offered £60 million to lure the Chilean to the Etihad, only to see their offer rebuffed by the Gunners after Arsene Wenger failed with his pursuit of replacement Thomas Lemar.

Instead, it seemed inevitable that Pep Guardiola would finally persuade Arsenal into selling once January came around, a feeling that has grown due to a lack of contract negotiations between Sanchez and his current Club – although it may not be as straightforward a move as first seemed.

Quite sensational reports from around the globe over the past two days have now suggested that City’s bitter rivals Manchester United are also in the race to sign the soon to be out-of-contract Arsenal forward.

Sky Sports Italia were the ones that broke the news on Thursday, claiming that United have now entered advanced talks with Sanchez’s agent ahead of a proposed move to Old Trafford this month.

The report also claims that United are preparing to offer a larger transfer fee – which the The Guardian believe to be in the region of £25 million – than Manchester City, and that any deal that would see Sanchez move to Old Trafford could also see the out-of-favour Henrikh Mkhitaryan go the other way.

And quite frankly, if there’s any truth behind these reports, United should go all out to get him.

After starting the Premier League season in fine form, setting the pace with City at the top of the table, United’s form has derailed somewhat and it seems that their pre-season hopes of the title are a distant memory.

That’s not to say that they’ve been poor, because they haven’t.

Not many teams only lose three times in the opening 22 league matches yet find themselves 15 points behind the leaders, and the size of the gap is testament to just how good City have been.

Yet it’s hard to deny that there has been a spark missing at Old Trafford this season since their blistering start to the 2017-18 campaign, and a player in the mould of Sanchez could be exactly the tonic required for a mid-season boost.

There’s a distinct lack of width in the United side, something that boss Jose Mourinho has been aware of for a while after trying – and ultimately failing – with his pursuit of Ivan Perisic last year.

Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata have all played their parts in wide areas but none are fully comfortable there, and United are in need of a fully-fledged winger who possesses the talent to deliver consistently into the area for the likes of Romelu Lukaku to work with.

And in Sanchez there’s few better options around as of now.

His Premier League pedigree is anything but a secret, scoring 31 times in his last 57 appearances since the start of last season, and he can add 13 assists to his impressive record during this period.

Mourinho is on the hunt for a creative hub and the Chilean forward is just that, and despite coming in for criticism this season for his performances he’s still created 50 clear-cut chances for Arsenal, only second to Mesut Ozil.

For a point of comparison United’s most creative player this season has been Mata, crafting 31 opportunities for his teammates, and that just shows the impact Sanchez could have upon arrival.

Yet, a move for Sanchez would run far deeper than just his creativity.

He’s a player ideal for Mourinho, one that’s determined, willing to give his all until the final whistle and leave nothing behind on the pitch, and his never-say-die attitude could lift the Old Trafford dressing room no end.

It seems to be a viewpoint that is shared by those with an avid interest in United too, with ex-defender Phil Neville telling Sky Sports that it could be an ‘unbelievable’ coup for them should they pull it off.

Addressing the transfer rumours yesterday, he said:

“It’s pretty obvious he’s not going to stay at Arsenal. I think if United were going to buy him, £25m would be an absolute snip.

“United missed out on buying Ivan Perisic in the summer, and with that missed out on a winger. I think Sanchez provides the quality, the goals and the world-class ability he has got.

“I think it would be an unbelievable signing. If you look back at the big signings over the decades, [Eric] Cantona came out of the hat, [Robin] Van Persie was a surprise, and they both helped United win titles. I think this could have a similar impact. He’s got the character to play at Old Trafford.”

His point on Cantona and Van Persie is a hugely valid one, and whilst a move for Sanchez now isn’t likely to help them overhaul Manchester City this season it sets them up perfectly for next time out – and could help their Champions League push in the latter part of 2017-2018.

However, perhaps more than anything, being able to hijack Manchester City’s proposed move for him would almost give them an air of having something over their rivals in a season where Guardiola has dominated.

Should the rumours be true, and should both Manchester sides be in for Sanchez, then ultimately the Chilean’s choice of final destination will be down to his personal preference – and this would say a lot.

January is often known for being a more mundane transfer window than the summer installment but that’s certainly not the case this time around, and Manchester United could be drawing ever closer to one of the most memorable hijacks in Premier League history.

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