Football Features

No more Bergkamps? The big victims of Cesc Fabregas’ “unfortunate” theory on modern football tactics

By Harry Edwards

No more Bergkamps? The big victims of the unfortunate tactical trend highlighted by Fabregas copy

Published: 12:55, 22 March 2023

Football is ever-changing but it isn’t always to the benefit of the players.

For some time since the turn of the century, technical players ruled the sport, but in recent years there has been a switch to a more athletic style of play — with managers requiring their squad to be able to contribute in both defence and attack.

As a result, some of football’s greatest attacking stars of the modern era have seen their usage slip over the past few years, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by footballers themselves.

In a Q&A on Twitter back in April 2020, former Arsenal, Barcelona and Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas spoke on the reduction of players who operate between the lines, playing adventurous passes.

“Football is now more physical than technical, that is for sure,” he said.

Fabregas also revealed his thoughts that the No.10 role was fading away, simply replying to a question on the matter: “Unfortunately yes. Big time.”

If this is true, we may see the end of a role which has given us footballing greats such as Dennis Bergkamp, Diego Maradona and Kaka to name just a few.

But which ‘active’ players (including those who have featured at some point this season) have fallen victim to this trend, with their abilities lost in a more physical game, causing questions to be asked of their use?

Mesut Ozil

Possibly the most obvious example of a player whose abilities have been rendered less useful with football’s switch to physicality is Mesut Ozil. Once an elegant enganche who flourished ‘in the hole’ picking passes otherwise unseen by the naked eye, Ozil has quietly faded out of the game.

His influence at Arsenal towards the latter stages of his career in north London waned, and he eventually left for Turkey in 2021. After uneventful spells at Fenerbahce and Istanbul Basaksehir, Ozil has officially retired from football at just 34 years of age, ending an era of playmaker wizardry, the likes of which we may never see again.

After becoming a star at Real Madrid under Jose Mourinho, Ozil was widely regarded as one of the best No.10s in the world, such was his ability to find a pass. In 159 appearances for Real Madrid across all competitions, the former Germany international recorded 70 assists.

That included 17 assists in back-to-back La Liga seasons — 2010/11 and 2011/12 — helping Real Madrid win the title in the latter, and ending Barcelona’s three-year run as champions in the process.

Interestingly, at the time of his arrival at the Bernabeu, Ozil prided himself on work-rate and athleticism, having been part of an incredibly counter-attacking German national side beforehand. It was, in his own words, the pressure put on him by Mourinho that kept his performance levels so high in Madrid.

“Oh, are you giving up now? You’re such a coward. What do you want? To creep under the beautiful, warm shower? Shampoo your hair? To be alone? Or do you want to prove to your fellow players, the fans out there, and me, what you can do.”

Jose Mourinho to Mesut Ozil in an extract from the German player’s book, The Magic of the Game

His performances for Real Madrid brought excitement when Ozil was announced as Arsenal’s newest signing in 2013, and the midfielder continued to assist in the Premier League. Despite a slow start, recording just 14 assists in his first two Premier League campaigns, Ozil continued to demonstrate his ability.

Ozil’s best campaign came in 2015/16 when he recorded 19 assists in the Premier League, just one behind the division’s all-time record set by former Arsenal forward Thierry Henry in 2002/03 (who shares the achievement with Kevin De Bruyne — 20 in 2019/20).

However, Ozil’s game was always built around playing on the periphery, waiting for the right moment to strike, without having too much influence on the match. And while that worked wonders for him during his time in Germany, Spain and at the start of his Arsenal career, he often drew ire towards the end of his time in north London for a perceived low work-rate, which was exacerbated by his languid playing style.

That saw Ozil’s playing time decline, particularly following Arsene Wenger’s departure at the end of the 2017/18 campaign and Unai Emery’s reign at the Emirates, before he eventually left in 2021. It will come as no surprise that Ozil’s influence fell after Wenger’s departure, as it was the Frenchman who echoed the views of Fabregas about fading 10s in the modern game.

On Ozil’s decline at Arsenal, Wenger commented in 2020: “The way football is going at the moment it’s quick counter-pressing, quick transitions and everybody plays the same.

“It’s kicked out players like Ozil. Although let’s not forget who this guy is. A world champion who has played at Real Madrid.

“He’s been the record player of assists, so you have to find a way to get him involved again.”

Mesut Ozil’s chance creation records

Most chances created in a single season across Europe’s top five leagues – 146

The 2015/16 season saw Arsenal come incredibly close to ending their long title wait, finishing second to Leicester City. In truth, had they added a consistent goalscorer to their ranks, they might well have overhauled the Foxes.

Ozil certainly played his part in the effort by Wenger’s side that year, creating a monumental 146 chances across his 35 Premier League appearances. A staggering 19 of those were converted into goals but while that is an impressive figure in itself, it leaves you wondering how the Arsenal forwards didn’t finish off more of those chances.

Most chances created in a single game across Europe’s top five leagues – 12

When Arsenal beat Sunderland in May 2017, the 2-0 scoreline didn’t even come close to telling the whole story as the Gunners fired 36 shots at the Black Cats. Ozil created 12 chances on his own that day — one of which provided an assist for Alexis Sanchez — giving him not only the Premier League record, but the European record too. However, the latter is a record he holds jointly with a few players, including Hakan Calhanoglu, who repeated the feat for Milan against Verona back in November 2020.

Most chances created in a Champions League and a Europa League game – 12

Of course, Ozil was pulling off 12-chance games way before he joined Arsenal, doing so in the Champions League for Real Madrid back in April 2011. Gunners fans will be pleased to read he also did so against none other than Tottenham Hotspur, helping himself to an assist along the way as Los Blancos thrashed the London side 4-0.

In creating 12 chances in a single game, Ozil moved ahead of then-record-holders David Beckham and Francesco Totti, who had provided 11 chances in single games for Real Madrid and AS Roma, respectively. Juan Cuadrado has since moved level with Ozil after registering 12 for Juventus against Porto in 2021, though that came in extra-time, meaning the German’s record over a 90-minute match remains untouched.

Ozil’s other high recordings

While Xavi is the record-holder for most chances created in a single La Liga season (data recorded since 2003/04) with his 124 in 2008/09, Ozil occupies second and fourth place on that particular list, laying on 119 chances for Real Madrid in 2010/11 before managing 103 a season later. The 34-year-old is also third for chances created in a single Champions League campaign with 39, which he managed in 2010/11 — a truly stellar season for Ozil. Ahead of him on that list are Alex, Ronaldinho and Xavi, jointly with 41 each, and Jerome Rothen.

Ozil also translated his creative exploits onto the international stage. At the 2012 European Championships, the German was once again outstripped by Xavi, who created 25 chances, but Ozil’s total of 22 still places him fourth on the all-time list since 1980, with Dimitri Payet (24) and Kevin De Bruyne (23) sandwiched between the former Barcelona and Real Madrid men.

That total of 22 was helped largely by his terrific performance in the quarter-finals against Greece, where Ozil assisted the first and third goals of a 4-2 win for Germany, creating a total of nine chances for his teammates on the night. That total is only bettered at the Euros by Gary McAllister (vs Germany in 1992) and Wesley Sneijder (vs Denmark in 2012) who each managed to create 10 chances in a single game.

Juan Mata

Another former Premier League player who has certainly suffered from football’s move away from the No.10 is Juan Mata.

There is no denying the creative ability Mata has, as he has shown it on so many occasions in the past. In his second season with Chelsea, the Spaniard recorded a ridiculous 29 assists and scored 19 goals in 64 games across all competitions, thriving both as a No.10 and a winger.

But the arrival of Mourinho at Chelsea in the summer of 2013 was the beginning of the end for Mata in London. Less than six months later, the Spaniard was sold to Manchester United, with Mourinho preferring to play Oscar in his No.10 role.

One of the biggest parts of Mourinho’s style of play has always been his reliance on players who can impose themselves on the pitch, showing physicality as well as technical ability. And that was perhaps the one criticism many Chelsea fans would have had about Mata, he couldn’t contend with the stronger defenders no matter how magical his work on the ball was.

As the years have gone on, although Mata was able to impose himself on matches for United, the Spaniard never hit the heights of his Chelsea career and he eventually left in the summer for Galatasaray.

Philippe Coutinho

Although many will now see Philippe Coutinho as a winger at Aston Villa, there was a time when he was one of the brightest young No.10s in the world.

Signed by Liverpool as a No.10 from Inter Milan in January 2013, Coutinho was initially played on the wing at Anfield with some success as the Reds often operated with a 4-3-3 — scoring three goals and recording five assists in 13 Premier League appearances.

The 2014/15 season was when Coutinho made the big switch from winger to attacking midfielder in the Premier League, as Brendan Rodgers experimented with a 3-4-2-1 for most of the campaign. The positional change didn’t affect Coutinho’s goal contribution too much, but it allowed him to create more freely, operating behind the striker and sometimes joining his team-mate in attack.

It was under Jurgen Klopp that Coutinho thrived most, however, adding more goals to his game and becoming known for his strikes from outside the area. It can also be easy to forget that Liverpool’s once terrifying front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane was also once a ‘Fabulous Four’ including Coutinho. Under Klopp, Coutinho scored 37 goals and recorded 22 assists across all competitions.

Coutinho’s move to Barcelona in January 2018 brought an end to his spell as a No.10 and the Brazilian hasn’t had the best time since. He struggled with the intensity of the Barcelona way of playing, stuck out on the wing, and even at Bayern Munich when moved back to the centre.

As such, he now finds himself at Aston Villa trying to reinvent his career.

James Rodriguez

Another No.10 to have struggled following a move to La Liga, James Rodriguez was one of the stars of the 2014 World Cup, with his performances for Colombia earning a switch to Real Madrid.

To be fair to Rodriguez, his first season with Real Madrid was a decent one, as he scored 13 goals and recorded 13 assists in 29 La Liga appearances. But since then he has been on a slow downward spiral.

With so many stars in the Real Madrid squad, it was always going to be hard for Rodriguez to nail down a consistent spot in the starting XI — considering his name wasn’t Cristiano Ronaldo or Karim Benzema. It also meant Rodriguez spent some of his time on the wing depending on the formation, limiting his effectiveness.

A two-year loan move to Bayern Munich in 2017 looked as though it might revive Rodriguez’s faltering career, reuniting the midfielder with Carlo Ancelotti — who initially brought him to Madrid. But, again, after an initially good start playing through the middle, Rodriguez’s impact on the German champions waned as Bayern had to work harder for their results on the pitch — during a low 2018/19 despite winning another Bundesliga.

He didn’t get much of a look-in on his return to Madrid, and eventually left for Everton, again reuniting with Ancelotti. He was an initial hit on Merseyside, but faded and then eventually upped sticks for Qatar upon Ancelotti’s departure. After a year at Al-Rayyan, he is now playing for Olympiacos in Greece at only 31.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan

When Henrikh Mkhitaryan was at Borussia Dortmund, he was excellent, one of the key pieces in an exciting team playing through the middle of the pitch.

In his final Bundesliga campaign before his move to Manchester United, Mkhitaryan was directly involved in 26 goals, scoring 11 and providing a further 15 assists — the latter a league-high.

But upon his move to the Premier League with United, Mkhitaryan was unable to carry the high-level performances, struggling with the extra physical demands of English football — and in particular, Mourinho’s way of playing.

In his 18 months with United, Mkhitaryan couldn’t match the 2015/16 campaign with Dortmund, scoring five goals and recording six assists in the Premier League. One of the reasons for this was Mkhitaryan’s inability to finish a match — playing the full 90 minutes on just four occasions. He did also have to undergo a position change, moving to a winger, rather than playing through the middle — although that is just another example of the No.10 role disappearing.

Mario Gotze

He will be remembered in history as scoring the goal that won Germany the World Cup in 2014, but Mario Gotze may look back on his career with some unhappiness.

A member of Klopp’s exciting Dortmund team which won the Bundesliga in 2011 and 2012, temporarily halting Bayern Munich’s dominance, Gotze was a great attacking midfielder with a long career ahead of him.

Between 2010 and 2013, Gotze scored 22 goals and recorded 25 assists in 78 Bundesliga appearances for Dortmund all before his 21st birthday. His friendship and on-pitch understanding with Marco Reus was a highlight of Dortmund’s side as they often switched positions freely — meaning Gotze drifted centrally even when playing out wide.

Like many promising young German stars in the Bundesliga, Gotze made the move to Bayern Munich in the summer of 2013 and — although he did win the World Cup the following year — things didn’t work out.

Again, after a good first season, Gotze struggled to deal with the added demands of being an attacking midfielder for Bayern, a role that Thomas Muller has filled so well over the years.

But unlike the others on the list, Gotze has struggled with injury and health problems, some of which have been fairly serious and have cut into his playing time. Even his return to Dortmund to take over the No.10 role didn’t go to plan, with further problems seeing Gotze left on the wayside while the younger players and Reus ran the show.

Klopp’s once favourite midfielder moved to PSV in 2020 to try and rediscover his former panache, and he was able to rekindle some of his former spark, which prompted Europa League winners Eintracht Frankfurt to sign him last summer as they embarked on their first Champions League campaign.

He has been a steady operator for the club this season, though not to his once world-class standards.