Conducting Play Between the Lines - The Premier League's Best Number 10s
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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