Conduct a survey to find the greatest No. 10s in footballing history and the chances are that Lionel Messi would be found somewhere in the top three, in elite company alongside Diego Maradona and Pele.
It would probably be deemed pedantic to point out that, despite the shirt on his back and his beguiling combination of creativity and class, goals and assists, that Messi has not actually been a No. 10 for much of his club career. Pep Guardiola famously deployed him as a false nine. Luis Enrique restored him to his original position as the left-footer on the right of a front three who could veer infield to shoot.
Perhaps it is only now, after Neymar agitated to leave possibly the greatest front three in club history, after Ernesto Valverde recalibrated Barcelona into something resembling a 4-4-1-1 formation, that Messi is actually a No. 10 by trade, deployed centrally between the midfield and the striker.
Messi’s career shows he is an outlier in almost every respect. He reflects the times in others. There may be more No.10-style players than in previous generations but comparatively few are selected as such, chosen as the fulcrum charged with bringing flair, safe in the knowledge the team is built around them.
A new team-mate is a case in point. Philippe Coutinho spent his time under Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool as either the left of the front three or on the left of a midfield trio; officially, anyway, as he got to wander into the No. 10 role. Eden Hazard has either been an inverted outside-left in 4-2-3-1 formations or an inside-left in Antonio Conte’s 3-4-2-1, a system that has the benefit of incorporating two with the skillsets of No. 10s, even if they are sometimes, erroneously, described as wingers.
Some who might seem classic No. 10s are used in wider roles: Christian Eriksen and Juan Mata, to name but two. Others have dropped deeper, like Miralem Pjanic in the Juventus midfield, or Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva in the position the Belgian branded a “free eight” in Manchester City’s central trio.
Real Madrid sacrificed the No. 10 – adios, James Rodriguez – for a midfield trio. They did so with one of the great No. 10s, Zinedine Zidane, in the dugout, even if the Frenchman spent many of his playing days at the Bernabeu playing off the left, wandering infield while Roberto Carlos powered outside him.
As a player, the Juventus alumnus Zidane traded Italy for Spain, leaving the league where the No. 10 had its greatest prominence. Serie A may have been low-scoring for much of the 1980s and 1990s, but it was still the spiritual home of the No. 10, the designated craftsman surrounded by grafters. The division of labour was strict and often rigorously enforced.
Now a trend towards universality sees more players with creative responsibilities, but few afforded the luxury not to defend that, say, Roberto Baggio really wanted. Footballing fashions require a broader skillset. Gegenpressing is not for the delicate and managers such as Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino want the attack to be the first line of defence and the defence to engineer attacks. Another who favours an up-tempo approach, Diego Simeone, does not have a No. 10 as much as a second striker, with Antoine Griezmann more the foil to the leader of the line in a 4-4-2 formation, than a trequartista in his own right.
And Guardiola, the man who conjured the best from Messi, who eulogises his protégé more than almost anyone else, may seem an unlikely scourge of the No. 10. Yet his favoured formation, however it is tweaked, has tended to be 4-3-3, a shape without a professional No. 10.
It highlights the enduring influence of Johan Cruyff and, in turn, of Ajax, with the Dutch fondness for genuine wingers plus numerical superiority, or parity at the least, in midfield, and an interchanging of positions that is at odds with the prioritisation of a No. 10. In another team, in another era, Cruyff would have been a No. 10. Instead, for Holland and Ajax, he was often a distinctly unconventional No. 9 with a licence to drop deeper. Four decades later, Messi reprised that role. There is a temptation to say the comparatively recent heyday of the No. 10, especially in continental Europe, fell in between. The influence of the No. 10s of the 1990s and early 2000s can be felt in a host of would-be successors, many of them coveting the most prized shirt of all, but often bringing some of the qualities of a No. 10 from other positions in sides without a designated specialist.