Number 10

Who is the first player that comes to mind when someone mentions a “number 10”?

Is it Kevin de Bruyne, Luka Modrić, Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho, or maybe Pelé or Maradona?

Before we get into detail about why this number is so special, we need to take a closer look at the role also known as “number 10” and differentiate the two terms. 

What is a “number 10” in Soccer?

Traditionally, the number 10 is usually given to a player who acts as the playmaker. Just like in basketball, the playmaker is the one creating chances and being responsible for the majority of the assists in the team. The playmaker is usually placed behind the forward (or forwards, depending on the strategy).

To make everything a bit clearer, there are two things that the number 10 refers to:

  1. The number that a certain player wears on the back of their shirt
  2. The position, or more precisely, the role on the field that the number 10 is associated with

You might be wondering – are the rest of the numbers also associated with a certain role/position?

Yes, they are, but there probably isn’t a single number more popular and synonymous with class than the number 10. Modern soccer has introduced us to many different technical improvements in the game, such as the introduction of the term “false 9”. But even with the rise in popularity of the “false 9” role over the past decade, the number 10 is still seen as the most prestigious one.

What numbers are associated with that position then?

If we take a quick look at the number history in soccer, we will see that the first time numbers were introduced to the game was in Australia, all the way back in 1911.

The game between Sydney Leichhardt and HMS Powerful was the first one ever to introduce players who wore numbers on the back of their shirts. 

South American teams, especially those in Argentina followed the trend and introduced shirt numbers in 1923. The next one on the list was the United States, in 1924.

England began using numbers a bit later, in 1928 to be more exact. This might sound a bit shocking since England is the home of the modern game.

The reason some teams decided to use numbers was simple – by assigning a certain number to a position, it was much easier to watch the game and understand what was going on on the pitch strategically. Each position was given a number from 1 to 11 to differentiate positions, roles, and the areas of the pitch the players would be most active on.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • If a player wears number 1, it is only logical that the player is a goalkeeper. We already mentioned that many younger players today tend to take numbers that seem fairly random at first sight, but number one is almost never taken by an outfield player (a player other than a goalkeeper)
  • If a player wears number 9, that player is most likely the center forward. We already mentioned the “false 9” role earlier in the article, but to yet again make everything a bit clearer, the traditional number 9 is the most offensive player on the pitch whose sole purpose is to score goals.

Let’s take a quick look at what each number represents.

1 – As mentioned, number 1 is reserved for goalkeepers.

2 – The number 2 is usually reserved for the right (full) back – the defensive player running along the right touchline.

3 – Left back – same as the right one, but on the left side of the pitch.

4 – Right center back – one of usually two (or sometimes even three) central defenders placed a bit more to the right.

5 – Left center back – same as the right one, but placed to the left.

6 – The number 6 is usually the central defensive midfielder – the central midfielder who is mostly focused on the defensive side of play.

7 – This number is usually reserved for either a right/left winger or a right/left midfielder (depending on the formation and the strategy). Number 7 has been hugely popularized in modern soccer by Cristiano Ronaldo.

8 – Central midfielder – probably the most centrally-oriented player on the pitch. The number 8 usually has more offensive roles compared to the number 6 and is sometimes worn by box-to-box midfielders.

9 – As already mentioned a couple of times in this article, the number 9 is reserved for the center forward.

10 – The special number.

11 – Another number usually reserved for either a winger or another creative midfielder.

What is the role of a number 10 on the pitch?

Even though soccer is already a quite complex sport, there are certain roles that require a bit more technical quality compared to the others. Defensive positions usually require players to be physically stronger and better at tackling than the others. Attacking positions, on the other hand, tend to require some other qualities, while goalkeepers usually develop a completely different set of skills compared to outfield players.

Midfielders are the ones who have to have a bit of both – not only offensive but also defensive qualities. Finding the perfect number 10 is not as easy as it might seem. This role is arguably one of the most unique ones on the pitch.

A good number 10 is the player who “plays 4D chess”. Top-tier playmaker always has to think several steps ahead and be able to execute the perfect pass or the through ball to their teammates. A really good example in modern soccer would be the one and only – Kevin de Bruyne. Seen by many as the best number 10 in the past decade, de Bruyne has built his reputation as one of the most creative players not only in the Premier League but in the rest of Europe as well.

The Belgian maestro boasts quite impressive numbers not only when it comes to assisting but scoring goals as well. Even though de Bruyne wears number 17 in his club and number 7 in his national team, he is the definition of a complete number 10 that can also cover several other positions.

The quality of his teammates both at Manchester City and the Belgium national team helped him become what he is today. Next time you watch him play, make sure you pay attention to his creativity and the difference in the quality of passing compared to the majority of other players on the pitch.

A more technical view of the number 10 role

To give a more technical insight into where the number 10 is usually positioned and what duties it has, we’ll try to give a somewhat in-depth analysis of the role as well.

As briefly mentioned at the beginning of the article, the number 10 is usually positioned behind the forward. Depending on the formation, the playmaker could also have not one, but two forwards at the front. While the number 10 is in theory mostly a central role, it doesn’t always have to be that way in practice. 

Number 10 could easily go wide and roam freely as long as the basic duty of creating chances is fulfilled. Depending on the build of the player and other physical attributes, the number 10 could be utilized in different ways. There are many pacy playmakers who can also act as forwards. They make runs behind the opposition, but there are also those who are not as rapid and don’t have pace in their arsenal. 

A good example here would be Lionel Messi – the Argentinian has been known for his pace throughout the majority of his career, but since he is currently in his mid-thirties, his swiftness has diminished a fair bit. Messi has somewhat reinvented himself and acts as a number 10 who doesn’t make that many runs and utilizes the passing skillset. If you take a look at Messi’s playstyle now and compare it to how he played 10 years ago, you will see a difference.

Instead of trying to be one of the players avoiding offside traps from the opposition when making runs, the Argentinian is now mostly responsible for trying to find that perfect pass and provide as many chances as possible for his teammates. 

Why is it so special then?

There are, of course, several reasons – one of them being the fact that some players, like in Messi’s case above, tend to take on the role of number 10 more as they age. The pace, agility, and rapidness diminish over time – no one can stay fast forever, and while many would just give up and completely come to terms with the fact that they are now older, some would try to extend their career by focusing on other aspects of their game – like passing and being the playmaker, or number 10.

Some examples of world-class number 10s

If we decided to list every top-tier number 10 of the past decade only, this article would be much longer.

If you’re new to the sport, you will most likely learn a thing or two, but if you’re already a soccer enthusiast, you might even disagree with the list and even say to yourself – “hey, you guys missed this guy and that guy”. Don’t worry, we’re aware that we can’t name every single number 10 who has ever played the game.

Here it is. Keep in mind that the list contains both legends and current notable players:

  • Kevin de Bruyne
  • Luka Modrić
  • Francesco Totti
  • Lionel Messi
  • Pelé 
  • Ronaldinho
  • Diego Maradona
  • Michel Platini
  • Zinedine Zidane
  • Dennis Bergkamp
  • Kevin de Bruyne
  • Luka Modrić

Final thoughts

By now you probably understand the difference between just wearing a number 10 and having the number 10 role.

There are many world-class number 10s who don’t even wear that number on the back of their shirts. What’s more is that in the past decade or so, we’ve witnessed many of them wear what might seem like random numbers. 

Either way, with this in mind, you should probably be able to spot the number 10 next time you watch a game even though there might not be a single player on the pitch wearing that number. Feel free to even make a list that contains all your favorite number 10s and see if you agree with us. Your list will most likely contain a name or two that’s been mentioned in this article.