When did it all begin?
Maybe it was between 2008 and 2012 when Barcelona ruled the European roost and all we English could do was applaud, not compete.
Maybe it was when we all fell in love with Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne, with his mazy runs and cheeky grin.
Maybe it is all Bobby Charlton‘s fault.
England’s obsession with the Number 10 has deep roots in footballing history. While we salivate over a prosperous new generation under plucky Roy Hodgson, it looks as though our obsession may become our downfall.
What is a Number 10? Well, its a player that doesn’t actually have to wear the Number 10 at all (though they often do). No – the label ‘Number 10’ is given to any play-maker, attacking midfielder or midfield maestro that assumes the role of assisting consistently, scoring often, and contributing very little defensively. All while not actually being an out-an-out striker.
We English, with our reputation for long ball, waterlogged pitch, ‘passion before skill’, leg breaking style of play, oddly have a penchant for producing Number 10s. Along with the aforementioned Charlton and Gazza, we have more recently manufactured Scholes, Lampard and Gerrard – three players who have constantly and alternately been dubbed ‘The Greatest English Player of Their Generation’.
In the current squad we have Rooney, Barkley, Sterling, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain. All fabulous talents, no doubt, but there’s a distinct difference between the contemporary crop and those before them; very few were nurtured as Number 10s.
You could whittle it down to Barkley as the one of those five who was born a Number 10. The rest all gravitated deeper or more centrally over time, some are still in the process. Rooney was initially a second striker, but just last week was lauded for his performance against Liverpool in midfield. Midfield! Sterling and Oxlade-Chamberlain were brought through as wingers, but have both since developed aspirations in ‘The Hole’. Not forgetting Ashley Young and Adam Lallana, drifters in the current squad but whom both have intermittently expressed interest in the coveted role.
It seems to me that while Barcelona of 2009, for instance, were propelled to greatness by Number 10s such as Iniesta, Pedro and – the main man himself – Messi, it was built upon a foundation of strength and experience in Xavi, Keita and Busquets.
Similarly, while the 2014 World Cup winning German squad wowed us with play-makers such as Gotze, Kroos and Ozil, where would they be without the backbone of Schweinsteiger and Lahm?
While we purport to be the hard-men of Europe, the dog with too much bite and not much of anything else, we actually seem to be incessantly churning out the most creative players of all, without a recognised defensive-midfielder in sight. In fact, our best (or only) defensive midfielders often come in the form of retired Number 10s, as demonstrated by the idolised Gerrard and the mis-used Scholes.
The emerging youth of English football is exciting. It is. We haven’t had this much potential, this much raw talent, in a squad since 2004. But the form in which the talent is surfacing is extremely imbalanced. This means when the likes of Sterling and Barkley ripen, we will be an attacking force to reckon with but with the defence of a Sunday-league team.
And that doesn’t win World Cups.