Football Features

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

By Harry Edwards

Published: 13:00, 8 July 2020

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, 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 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.

Since becoming a star at Real Madrid under Jose Mourinho, Ozil has been 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, ending Barcelona’s three-year run as champions.

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.

However, Ozil’s game has always been built on playing on the periphery, waiting for the right moment to strike, without having too much influence on the match. And while this has worked wonders for him in the past, allowing the midfielder to still make game-changing passes late on, he has received a lot of criticism for his perceived low work-rate, especially without the spectre of Mourinho as motivation.

This has seen 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.

Since Emery was sacked at the end of November, Ozil initially began to see more time on the pitch under both Freddie Ljungberg and Mikel Arteta. However, since football’s restart the much-maligned German has not featured in any of the club’s seven games, and question marks over his future have resurfaced.

In Arsenal’s 22 Premier League games post-Emery, Ozil has started 14 times but recorded just two assists and scored once.

Juan Mata

Another 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 has been able to impose himself on matches for United, the Spaniard has never hit the heights of his Chelsea career — now spending more of his time as a substitute than a starter, excluding the Europa League.

Many United fans would now feel indifferent were Mata to leave the club in the summer, with the Spaniard loved more for his work off the pitch — through his blog posts and charity work — than what he does on it.

Philippe Coutinho

Although many will now see Philippe Coutinho as a winger, as they tout his next destination, 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 terrifying front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane was 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 has 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, Coutinho hasn’t had the impact many would have hoped for him.

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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.

And although injuries have dominated his return campaign with Real Madrid, the Colombian looks unlikely to have the same impact on the team as he once did — given how Zinedine Zidane has Los Blancos playing.

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.

And it has been a familiar tale on loan at Roma this season, playing more predominantly on the left wing for Paulo Fonseca’s side.

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.

Gotze has since left Dortmund and is a free agent following the expiration of his contract, though he is still only 28. Not exactly old but without youth on his side, Gotze may never have an influence on a team like he did for Klopp’s Dortmund as a No.10.