New Delhi: There are few prettier sights in football than a No. 10 playing a through ball, splitting the opposition’s defence, for the striker who is then left with the simple task of putting the ball at the back of the net.

The player donning the No. 10 shirt carried a sense of inevitability about him. There were expectations from him, almost every time, to decide the game with a sudden stroke of genius, with a pass that only he could see and execute with pin-point accuracy.

From Socrates and Michel Platini in the past to Juan Roman Riquelme and Alessandro del Piero more recently, the image of a trequartista has enthralled spectators and inspired aspiring youngsters.

However, the classic No. 10 is conspicuous in his absence from the ongoing World Cup—despite each team having a player wearing that number. There was hope that Colombia’s James Rodriguez would turn on the show on Tuesday, but a lack of fitness ruled him out of the starting XI and when he eventually came on to the field, the circumstances of the game—Colombia were one man down—dictated a more pragmatic approach.

So what has contributed to the demise of one of the most iconic positions in football?

One of the main reasons has been the growing emphasis on pressing, and doing it in all areas of the pitch. The attempt to win the ball back often starts at the very top with the striker hounding the centre-backs, and the attacking midfielder going after the opposition’s defensive midfielder, and so on. This system demands players at the peak of their fitness for the entire duration of a game with no room to switch off.

In contrast, the trequartistas, apart from their obvious creative genius, also carry the notion of being luxury players. The midfielders sitting behind them would do the ball winning part before passing it to them.

But as the pace of the game has increased, all 10 outfield players need to do their share of the defensive work for the team to properly function. There is no longer a place for the work-shy or ‘lazy’ playmaker who relied more on the speed of thought than the legs.

Colombia’s James Rodriguez is a gifted passer but circumstances of their match against Japan dictated a more pragmatic approach. Photo: AP
Colombia’s James Rodriguez is a gifted passer but circumstances of their match against Japan dictated a more pragmatic approach. Photo: AP

Johan Cruyff famously said, “You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you." The trequartista is the perfect embodiment of the legendary Dutch’s quip.

But when the game is played at a breakneck speed, it also takes away that split second needed to measure the perfect pass. The increasingly defensive formations, including the usage of a double pivot, put in place to nullify space between the lines, have drastically reduced the passing range of a No. 10.

Another factor is the use of inverted wingers. The modern wingers no longer just pace up and down the touchline and deliver crosses in the box. They have also become inverted forwards who drift inside, looking for an incisive pass or have a go at the goal themselves.

Spain, for example, have many attacking midfielders who can play the No. 10. Andres Iniesta, Isco and David Silva, in particular, are exceptional with their decision making and passing range. But in Spain’s opening game against Portugal, the latter two were shunted on the wings, echoing their roles for their clubs, and their inverted roles meant that the Barcelona midfielder often had his influence area congested.

Nabil Fekir of France is also a gifted passer but he came on as a late substitute against Australia in Les Bleus’ opening game in Russia while Portugal’s Bernardo Silva also had to contend with a role on the wing.

In the likes of Morocco’s Hakim Ziyach, Russia’s Aleksandr Golovin, Denmark’s Christian Eriksen, and German international Mesut Ozil, there are several creative midfielders who can fit in the role of a No. 10, but the changing nature of the game has not been conducive to their best qualities.

The risk of getting caught through the centre resulting in a quick counter-attack is too high to indulge in romanticism at a high stakes tournament.

As the World Cup in enters the second round of group fixtures, the margins of error will narrow further. That will likely deprive football fans of the spectacle of exquisite through balls, which leave defenders hoping that the striker fluffs his lines.

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