We reached Peak Attacking Midfielder sometime between August 2015 and May 2016. It might’ve been on Feb. 2, or perhaps it was a couple of days after Christmas. There’s a case for mid-October and a couple of candidates from late September, too.
The precise day, though, is less important than the totality of them. Most people remember the 2015-16 Premier League season as the one when Leicester City shocked the world and shattered the odds. But that campaign was also host to the greatest individual creative season this decade — in any of the Big Five leagues across Europe.
Across 35 games that season, Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil created 146 total chances — 20 more than any other player since 2010, according to TruMedia data. His 19 assists are the high-water mark in the Premier League this decade, as are the 28 Big Chances (defined by Opta as “a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score”) he created. From Sept. 26 through Nov. 21, Ozil recorded an assist in seven straight games, something no Premier League player had ever done before and no one’s done since. In fact, only 18 other players in the league that year even reached seven assists across the entire season.
Despite leading the league in both expected goals and expected goals allowed, the Gunners — who take on Bayern Munich in the International Champions Cup on Wednesday (11:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2) — finished a distant second behind Leicester. Had Arsenal’s results matched up with their performances, they probably would’ve won the league and Ozil probably would’ve won Player of the Year. Instead, Ozil didn’t even make the PFA Team of the Year. And so rather than being remembered as a crowning creative achievement, Ozil’s 2015-16 serves as a different kind of signpost: The player and his position would never be as important ever again.
Think about the best teams in the world. How many of them are built around the classical idea of a No. 10, the central creative attacking playmaker whom all possessions in the final third run through? Not many, if any.
The Premier League champions, Manchester City, converted both of their No. 10s, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva, into traditional midfielders. Bundesliga winners Bayern Munich did the same with James Rodriguez, while their leading assist man was Joshua Kimmich, a full-back. Liverpool were similarly reliant on their full-backs for creativity, and oh yeah, they won the Champions League after selling their No. 10 to Barcelona. That guy, Philippe Coutinho, has struggled in Spain, playing for a team built around a positionless, all-conquering supernova. And meanwhile in Italy, Juventus didn’t have a single player hit double-digit assists this past year.
“If we look at the world’s top 500 players in our ratings, the proportion of number 10s has been falling since 2013,” said Omar Chaudhuri, head of football intelligence at 21st Club, a consultancy that maintains a player-rating system akin to the NBA’s plus-minus system. “In 2013, 59/500 were number 10s, but this has fallen to 51, 41, 37, 30, 30, 30 from 2014 through to 2019. In other words, the number of genuine number 10s has roughly halved in six years.”
The numbers back it up, too. Among the 100 best creative seasons from central attacking midfielders this decade — defined by the number of chances created while playing that position — only 16 of them have occurred after the 2015-16 campaign. (We’re excluding France from this, given the lower quality of teams in the bottom half of the table compared to the other Big Five Leagues. As such, the No. 10 is still alive in Ligue 1.) The best creative season since Ozil’s 2015-16 season was … Ozil’s 2016-17 season. However, while in the No. 10 role, the German playmaker created 69 chances, less than half of what he churned out the year before. More importantly, though, 2016-17 marked the first time in 20 seasons that Arsenal didn’t finish in the top four of the Premier League.
It seems, then, that there’s a cap on what a team can achieve when their creative play runs directly through a No. 10. Or at least, the managers coaching the top clubs in the world certainly seem to think there is.
Pressing high up the field has become an ever-present strategy among most clubs that hope to challenge for the Champions League every year. To press effectively, a team needs to have some structure when it’s in possession, but for a No. 10 to do the ultimate amount of offensive damage, he needs to be able to float across the field in search of space. If the ball gets turned over with the attacking midfielder out of position, that’s one less player to win the ball back with. When Jurgen Klopp said, “No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation,” he wasn’t just correct, he was putting his finger on the defining tactical trend of the past five years.
On top of that, running your attack through a single player simply isn’t the most efficient way to win games. When the decisive pass can come from four or five different players, that’s just much harder to defend against. Plus, sometimes great players just have bad game or get game-planned into invisibility; what if that happens to your No. 10? For the strategic trade-offs to be worth it, the attacking midfielder has to be so much better than his teammates, and as talent continues to be concentrated upward, there’s rarely that kind of skill difference among players at Europe’s top clubs — unless that club has Lionel Messi.
This tension is evident in the transfer market, too. While prices for every position have continued to rise, Zinedine Zidane’s 2001 move from Juventus to Real Madrid remains the second-most expensive transfer (in euros) for a central attacking midfielder after Barca’s move for Coutinho. Real Madrid’s move for James checks in right after Zidane as the third-most expensive deal for a No. 10. Ironically enough, Zidane the manager doesn’t seem to fancy either James or Real’s other attacking midfielder, Isco. Coutinho’s name, meanwhile, seems to be in a new transfer headline every other day. Other players of a similar mold — Paulo Dybala, Christian Eriksen — seem like they’re facing uncertain club situations, too.
The same goes for Ozil, who signed a massive three-and-a-half-year contract in January 2018 and who then spent Unai Emery’s first season at Arsenal being yanked in and out of the doghouse. Ozil’s best year came when he was 26 years old — right in the middle of his peak years. The club re-upped him at age 29 — right when most players start to decline. And so the hit is twofold: their best player occupies a position of marginalising importance and he’s likely to only get worse.
That’s not to say that Ozil can’t still contribute. When you see a great attacking midfielder like him take over a game, it’s as if someone in your television is also holding the remote — moving at their own speed, all while everything around him speeds up or slows down with one shoulder feint, through ball or touch with the bottom of the foot. That’s certainly what it felt like when Ozil tore Leicester apart at the Emirates last October. He created four chances, scored a goal and assisted on another en route to a rampant second half and a 3-1 win.
However, Ozil only notched one more assist the rest of the season. He never really re-created anything resembling that Leicester performance, and that’s the problem with Arsenal and any other team with a player like Ozil: they need him to do that every game.