Whenever I hear a player is positioned “off the striker” or “in the hole,” I make the mental translation that this is a guy who pretty much does what he wants. And I immediately make a note to focus in on him the next time I see him play. These are men who lurk on the borders, playing behind forwards, in front of the midfielders, flitting off the flanks and swapping wings at will. This is the position of Maradona, where a team places its undisciplined but mouthwatering talent, its temperamental star, its unfocused little prodigy. With a swing of his favored foot he can win you a game; just don’t ask him to work too hard to prevent you from losing one.
These players aren’t expected to score as much as the striker, and if they were expected to defend, they’d be central midfielders. They are not there to make you feel better about a mistake, pull you up from the ground after Jamie Carragher has kicked you in the calf, or cover your position when you make a daring run forward. They don’t roll on Shabbos. Defending is somebody else’s problem. If they play in the no. 10 role,1 they are expected to be brilliant. And with brilliance usually comes a bit of difficulty.
English football has historically placed a higher value on attributes like industry, endless running, getting stuck in, and screaming while pointing. The big fellas played up front, the fellas who ran played in the middle, and the fellas who kicked the other fellas played in back. Crafty playmakers were a thing of far-off lands. Like Spain.
More and more, though, we are seeing the rise of the no. 10 in English football. This weekend’s Premier League action saw Arsenal and City stumble, United move closer to title, Bolton and Wigan continue to scrape, and Liverpool continue their swan dive into post-Carling misery. But aside from the results, we saw noteworthy performances from several temperamental, streaky no. 10s, all of whom showed flashes of genius and rewarded their managers for putting up with their occasional lapses in communication. Each of these four players has made circuitous journeys to the league, plying their trade in the top flights of France, Spain, or Germany. They’ve fallen out with managers and often found their names in the transfer rumor gossip columns. But they are here now, and their presence makes the Premier League a much richer and more entertaining competition.
Sunderland 3, Manchester City 3
Against a stuttering Manchester City, Stephane Sessegnon, while displaying the creativity and occasional temperament of a no. 10, showed us a more industrious way to play the role, doing so in a fashion befitting a Martin O’Neill–managed team.2 Sharing the field with City’s hundreds of millions of dollars in talent, the man in the hole for the Black Cats was the dominant player in a thrilling match that Sunderland players rather vocally expressed their disappointment to draw rather than win.
The edge of the Manchester City “D” to the edge of the Sunderland half of the midfield circle was Sessegnon territory, and he was seemingly always on patrol, popping wherever the ball was and wherever the ball might be. The 27-year-old from Benin — who joined Sunderland from Paris-St. Germain at the beginning of the season — was the decisive player in the first half.
For Sunderland’s first goal, Sessegnon beat Micah Richards one-on-one, torched James Milner, and practically read Mario Balotelli a bedtime story as he dumped the ball off to Seb Larsson, who then pulled off one of the snooker shots he scores about half a dozen times per season. Therein lies the rub when trying to defend against no. 10s: How do you mark a player that has the freedom to play everywhere?
Sessegnon struck again right before halftime. Coming off several stoppages, the game was sputtering into the break when Sessegnon popped up on the ball, this time on the right flank. His dribbling drew three defenders, but he was still able to find Nicklas Bendtner with an inch-perfect pass, allowing the on-loan Arsenal striker to easily head it past Joe Hart (special citation for the defense of Kolo Touré, the 400-year-old man, for not even jumping).
Larsson’s second, coming early in the second half, was the product of another brilliant creative act by Sessegnon. Bendtner will get the assist on the goal, but it was born from a seeing-eye pass from Sessegnon, who pulled the trigger on a through ball at exactly the right moment — catching Bendtner, who is not exactly Edwin Moses on his best day, perfectly in stride.
Whether passing the ball from a deep-lying position, defending in the middle of the park, or making aggressive runs at defenders and attacking on either flank, Sessegnon was everywhere. Remember when Chris Paul practically filmed a video on how to play point guard during the Hornets’ playoff series with the Lakers last season? You could do worse than to box and sell a tape of Sessegnon’s shift against Man City.
Some other quick notes on this game:
• I like Stephane Sessegnon’s chant. It’s pretty real.
• Squad rotation used to drive Liverpool fans crazy when Rafa Benitez was in charge, but I’m starting to appreciate the art after watching David Silva slowly sputter into the gas station over the last few weeks. He’s played the most games of any City outfield player and it’s really starting to show. Neither he nor Yaya Touré looks like he has anything left in the tank.
• Balotelli and Aleksandar Kolarov arguing over who should take the free kick in 63rd minute might remind City fans a little too much of Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack’s similar disagreement in 2008. Ironically, it was mid-range goals, from around the same area as where the free kick was placed, from Kolarov and Balotelli that got City its desperately needed point. Incidentally, Kolarov looks like someone who gets killed in the first act of a Connery-era Bond movie.
• This was an interesting study in contrasting managerial styles. Neither O’Neill nor Roberto Mancini are known for beautiful football,3 but watching the way their respective teams play is fascinating. O’Neill is known to inspire his players (at least initially), making even the most pedestrian, journeyman midfielder feel like Michael Laudrup. Mancini, on the other hand well, I don’t know that he even knows how to say inspiration in English (much less in his native Italian). You could see these different styles in the team spirit of the two sides. Sure, they were winning, but Sunderland seemed to be pulling in the same direction, wildly celebrating their goals with one another, while City, even when they scored, were a band of recriminating stepbrothers.
Queens Park Rangers 2, Arsenal 1
Every time Adel Taarabt passes the ball, a little part of him dies. When he moves on from this mortal coil and goes to heaven, the Moroccan attacking player will see nothing but an endless stretch of defenders for him to weave, step over, dummy, feint, and bulldoze through. And somewhere on the streets of paradise, Bobby Zamora will be waving his hands screaming, “I’M OPEN, YOU PRICK!”
If all you needed to be a great player was self-belief, Taarabt would be better than Lionel Messi. To watch him slalom (or attempt to slalom) through opposing players is to watch a man who obviously thinks YouTube crashes every time he touches the ball. And after watching him dazzle in the second division last season, grabbing 19 goals, 16 assists, and winning the Championship Player of the Year Award, you might have thought he was onto something. But his first tour in the Premier League with QPR has been miserable, with Taarabt coming back down to earth going right through the floor, past the basement, and setting up shop underground like some goal-allergic mole man. Coming into Saturday’s match with Arsenal, he had yet to score a goal in the top flight.
Lining up, officially at least, on the left side of midfield but drifting toward the center, right pretty much wherever he pleased, Taarabt was ever-present in the first half at Loftus Road. You can sometimes tell how effective a playmaker is being by the frequency with which you hear his name called by the announcer; they’re usually not involved in defense (if they are, watch out), so the more you hear about them, the more it means they are getting into the flow of the game and dictating its proceedings.
In the opening minutes of Arsenal-QPR, we heard Taarabt’s name a lot. This was largely due to several free kicks and corners, all of which were handled by him, of course. Free kicks allow Taarabt to show off and require no running, so they are basically his preferred platform. On Saturday he was in the zone, whipping in curving entry passes like someone flamboyantly writing the letter “D” in cursive.
Where Sessegnon showed how to play the no. 10 role in an industrious way, Taarabt was way more feast-or-famine. In the 17th minute he took off down the left flank with the ball and slid what he obviously thought was going to be the first part of a one-two pass toward Zamora, who mishandled the ball. Instead of tracking back, Taarabt spent a moment flapping his arms in anger at Zamora, all while the Arsenal player he was supposed to be covering, Bacary Sagna, took off downfield.
The feast came moments later, when Taarabt pulled a move so cold that it humiliated Thomas Vermaelen’s unborn great-grandchildren. In the 22nd minute, he received the ball outside the Arsenal “D,” spun the Belgian central defender, took two dribbles, and sent a cut fastball sinking, away from Wojciech Szczesny. It’s the kind of play only a handful of players in the world can pull off, and it goes a long way toward explaining why notorious hardcases like Neil Warnock and Mark Hughes put up with all the plays he doesn’t make.
• If I ever get back over to England, I definitely want to ask Clint Hill and Shaun Derry about what it was like to be there for the invention of soccer.
• Mikel Arteta kicked Joey Barton in the face. That was pretty great.
Newcastle 2, Liverpool 0
To read the headlines in the English press, this game was about Liverpool losing, not Newcastle winning. The story was Pepe Reina’s red-card insanity and the ensuing Steven Gerrard/Kenny Dalglish on-field conference (which, yes, heat of the moment and all that, certainly was not a good look for King Kenny — see 5:40 of this video). That’s kind of a crime, because Newcastle’s Hatem Ben Arfa put in one of the more subtly influential performances of the season. Playing as an inverted winger, working off of the Senegalese strike partnership of Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse, Ben Arfa was the main upfield creative force, linking Newcastle’s ferocious midfield trio of Danny Guthrie, Yohan Cabaye, and Cheick Tiote with the forwards. The former Marseille player, whose career was seriously jeopardized when Nigel de Jong broke his leg last season, has really started to regain his form, almost single-handedly putting down West Brom on March 25 and torturing Liverpool on Sunday.
When defenders see one of their teammates get beat, they naturally lose focus on their own jobs and worry about helping. Against good teams, this loss of attention can result in a goal. It’s exactly what happened with Newcastle’s first. Ben Arfa roasted Jay Spearing, switching directions on the Liverpool local, gaining just enough space and grabbing the attention of the Liverpool backline. With just that small window, Ben Arfa lofted a perfectly weighted pass to the head of Cisse. It was a perfect connection between a no. 10 and a no. 9.
That goal was somewhat telling because it exposed just how much Liverpool is missing Lucas and Daniel Agger. This team looks entirely out of sorts, out of ideas, and just generally crabby. According to the Liverpool blog Bass Tuned to Red (with stats from EPL Index), when Agger is on the pitch, Liverpool concede a goal every 129.7 minutes; without him they give up a goal every 58.9. Lucas provides similar stability (108 minutes per goal with Lucas, 80.3 without).
Ben Arfa played an equally influential role in the second goal, as well. In the 59th minute, picking up the ball deep, on the right side of the center circle, the Frenchman — now fully on Liverpool’s defensive radar — drew the longing looks of no less than three Reds, creating all sorts of space behind the jumpy trio of Jose Enrique, Jonjo Shelvey, and Jay Spearing. Perhaps it’s team spirit, maybe it’s the Yoda-like teachings of the distinguished gray manager Alan Pardew, but Ben Arfa, critically, kept running after dumping off a pass to the flank, galloping into the box, getting the ball back from Ba, and making the lightest of touches into the path of the oncoming Cisse: 2-0, thanks for coming. It was a great example of what can happen when brilliant individual players work within a team passing game.
Tottenham 3, Swansea 1
Rafael van der Vaart is perhaps the most prototypical no. 10 playing in the Premier League right now. Ben Arfa and Taarabt play within far more structured systems, David Silva and Samir Nasri start their attacks from wing positions, Sessegnon functions a bit more like a central midfielder, and Wayne Rooney plays more like a striker who drops deep (or a “false 9,” as it is sometimes called). Watching van der Vaart against Swansea, in what was one of the most technically proficient (just wonderful passing going on) games of the season, you could see why he makes Spurs boss Harry Redknapp equally delighted and agitated.
Van der Vaart has the most important characteristic of a no. 10: He’s an opportunist. Spurs’ first goal, in the 19th minute, took 19 seconds to get from Brad Friedel’s hands to the back of the Swansea net. Most of this involved Gareth Bale’s dead sprint down the left wing. He did the work, but Rafa got the glory. The Dutch international picked up a deflected ball and side-footed the shot past his countryman Michel Vorm. He was in the right place at the right time. You can’t drill for that.
On the other hand, when van der Vaart defends he does so out of embarrassment rather than responsibility. In the 55th minute he lost the ball on the right side of the center of the park, and proceeded to chase the ball for the next 20 seconds or so, clearly looking to right the cosmic wrong done to him. The hustle was admirable (and uncommon from van der Vaart), but it threw off Spurs’ shape, putting an extra man on the left-hand flank and requiring his teammates to shuffle around to cover while Rafa searched for vengeance.
For as “Fuck it, we’ll do it live” as Tottenham can be, the idea of balance has been essential to its success this season.
When Aaron Lennon stepped onto the field at White Hart Lane in the 71st minute of Tottenham’s match against Swansea, it was the first time he had played for Spurs since March 7 (when he limped off the field in the first half of Spurs’ FA Cup match versus Stevenage). Tottenham scored twice within 15 minutes of his introduction, with the on-again-off-again England international assisting on one. It showed just how crucial Lennon’s presence is and how damaging his absence was. It’s not just his high-performance engine pace on the right wing, it’s the balance he provides the team; when Lennon plays, everyone else seems to slot into their preferred position: Luka Modric in central midfield with Scott Parker, Bale on the left, van der Vaart off the central striker.
• Rafael van der Vaart has a pretty boring song.
• Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson is the most exciting new addition to the Premier League no. 10 club. His off-the-turf goal in the second half of the Spurs match made it six in 11 for the Hoffenheim loanee. The big question surrounding this slick Icelandic player is whether or not he can keep up this pace. He was Hoffenheim’s 2010-11 player of the year (based on fan voting), but wound up fading out of the team, leading to this admittedly random loan spell in Wales.
Goal of the Week: Samba Diakité, Queens Park Rangers
Tottenham’s first was fantastic and Taarabt put on a goddamn fez while celebrating the QPR opener, but I really love a mid-range thunderbolt.
Quote of the Week: Martin O’Neill
On Nicklas Bendtner’s performance against Manchester City: “I thought he played like a proper centre-forward. When he plays like that, he justifies his own self-vaunted opinion.”