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Plights of Isco, Ozil, James and Coutinho suggest the archetypal number 10 may be redundant

January 29, 2019

IT might be no consolation to out of favour Real Madrid playmaker Isco, but his current struggles for minutes on the pitch at the Bernabeu are just a sign of the times.

A regular during the short ill-starred reign of Julen Lopetegui, Isco has started just three games since Santi Solari took over as Madrid coach last October. He scored twice in a facile 6-1 Copa del Rey second leg win over third tier Melilla, but was then conspicuous by his presence in the embarrassing 0-3 at Champions League group defeat at home to Spartak Moscow, and limp 0-1 Copa defeat at Leganes earlier this month.

At first, the three-time Champions League winner’s apparent cold-shouldering made him a cause celebre for fans and pundits around the Bernabeu, with many supposing that there must be some personality clash involved. But as Madrid’s results and performances have picked up in recent weeks, the questioning of Solari’s selections has died down considerably.

There is a growing realisation that Isco's issues are to do with the type of player he is – and a look around many of Europe’s top clubs shows quite a few very talented traditional number 10s in almost exactly the same situation.

Just 12 months ago, Mesut Ozil signed a bumper new contract tying him to Arsenal until 2021. But current Gunners manager Unai Emery cannot find a use for the German in his team. Ozil was a late substitute in Friday’s 1-3 FA Cup defeat to Manchester United, having not featured at all in the team’s two previous Premier League games.

James Rodriguez is having similar difficulties with Bayern Munich coach Niko Kovac. Colombian star James was in and out of the XI all through the autumn, and has been a late replacement in both Bayern’s Bundesliga games since the winter break.

The weekend did see recently dropped Philippe Coutinho back in the Barcelona XI, although the Brazilian owed his recall to an injury to first choice left winger Ousmane Dembele. Ernesto Valverde has not found a way to get the best out of Coutinho in his preferred 4-3-3 shape, as for the blaugrana coach (and many observers) the ex-Liverpool schemer lacks the pace to play as a wide attacker, and the mobility and game management skills to start in the midfield three.

Valverde backed Coutinho after he missed two clear chances in Sunday’s 2-0 La Liga win at Girona. Although the blaugrana coach also admitted his team [without Dembele] had trouble breaking through the opposition’s high press. Coutinho was also widely criticised for being caught in possession in the wrong area leading directly to Sevilla’s second goal in last Wednesday’s 0-2 Copa del Rey reverse.

A mix of tactical and physical reasons are also clearly behind James’ issues at Bayern. Kovac is currently using the physically more imposing Leon Goretzka in the number 10 role, with the German scoring a header [not a speciality of the Colombian] in the weekend’s 4-1 Bundesliga win over Stuttgart.

Solari has so far refused to go into details about why exactly he does not pick Isco, while stressing that there was “nothing personal” behind his selection decisions. But in the Argentine's favoured 4-3-3 shape he prefers the pace and directness of Gareth Bale or teenager Vinicius Junior on one wing, with the workrate and tactical discipline of Lucas Vazquez on the other side.

The most revealing quotes possibly come from Emery in November, when he explained that Ozil was left out of a 2-1 win over Bournemouth because of the “physicality and intensity” required for the game. Arsenal’s best performance recently was the 2-0 Premier League victory over Chelsea, which featured the more athletic Aaron Ramsey in the attacking midfield role supporting twin strikers Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

January’s transfer window brought rumours that all of Isco, Ozil, James and Coutinho could leave their current clubs, no surprise really given their talents and CVs. However, no firm offers appeared. And it is difficult to see any of them joining one of Europe’s biggest clubs next summer.

Manchester City have been regularly mentioned in the Spanish press as potential buyers for Isco. But City let it be known they were not interested, with Pep Guardiola looking for a different profile of midfielder next summer.

James’ camp have admitted that he has a decision to make over his future next summer. But making permanent his loan to Bayern or returning to Madrid both seem unlikely, particularly if Kovac and Solari remain in their current jobs.

Napoli have been mentioned as a possible destination for James and Isco, for either or both to work again with their former Bernabeu coach Carlo Ancelotti. That could make sense as Ancelotti is a bit of a throwback in his approach to team organisation and physical preparation. However, a pretty detailed recent analysis found the Italian was underperforming pretty drastically in his most recent jobs, perhaps as the game has moved on even over the last few years.

The issues faced by all these traditional number 10s seem to be more physical than tactical, given the different systems and approaches preferred by Solari, Kovac, Valverde, Guardiola and Emery. Whatever the shape of the team, anybody playing any ‘midfield’ position – whether central or wide – now needs to be able to cover the ground on and off the ball.

That does not bode well for Isco's long-term future at Madrid, or anywhere at Europe's top clubs. His type of player is just not needed any more.