The transfer window restated again the willingness of the leading clubs to import an element of fantasy into their teams. The players almost fit an identikit: small, mobile, clever, imaginative, technically accomplished, and foreign. The game is becoming increasingly homogenised across Europe, but that can still expose deficiencies.
Traditions in British football revert back to 4-4-2 and a style of play that was direct and physical. Supporters still crave an element of thunder in games, and grumbles can be heard if possession is retained too far away from the opposition penalty area. This instinct survives the sophistication of the British style in the past two decades, and the exposure to the continental game through the Champions League and widespread television coverage of Spanish and Italian football in particular.
The modern generation of fan dwells on possession percentages as though they are a new way of understanding the game. Managers, too, are susceptible to fads, and many sides in the Barclays Premier League now adopt the 4-2-3-1 system that has become commonplace across Europe. It is a flexible structure, but it emphasises a failing of the British game. Clubs do not routinely develop players to fill the central attacking role behind the striker.
Its shorthand definition is the No.10 role, but even that can be ambiguous. The position can be filled by a schemer as much as a goalscorer. Arsenal spent £15m on Santi Cazorla, a Spaniard with vision and brilliant close control, in a transfer that contradicted Arsene Wenger's policy of developing talent. Even the Frenchman, who has turned the club's youth set-up into a centre of excellence, has not moulded a young British player with the instincts and guile to play the role.
Chelsea, naturally, were more extravagant, and paid a combined £57m for Eden Hazard and Oscar, while Manchester United were more shrewd and prudent in signing Shinji Kagawa for £13m. The transfer policies reflect the mindset of the club, and Tottenham Hotspur missed out on signing Joao Moutinho from Porto as negotiations dragged beyond even an extended deadline.
Other clubs had already filled the position, with Manchester City relying on David Silva, the Spaniard nicknamed Merlin by his team-mates. Liverpool bought Luis Suarez, even if he now plays the central striker's role because of the 4-3-3 formation that Brendan Rogers prefers. The Anfield club already has a No.10, but Joe Cole spent last season on loan at Lille and remains in the margins.
Cole is an example of prevailing attitudes. His skill has always been lauded, but he was generally shunted around the field as his career progressed, so that he is now seen as something of a misfit. There will be flaws particular to Cole, but he remains an isolated example of such a player emerging in Britain whose youth coaches were still too likely to prize size, strength and athleticism over ball control.
Not enough youth sides play any shape other than 4-4-2, although more club academies adopt the strategy of using a uniform formation that is the same as the first team's. That legacy explains why so few British players are specialised for the role, but also why managers were initially suspicious of it. There is a tendency in the British game to be scornful of players who contribute to attack but not also defence.
Skilful players were usually placed on the wing, where it was believed that they could be accommodated without exposing the team. That belief was also sustained by the culture of wing play being viewed as the best way to break opponents down. Mindsets change, and now wing-backs are expected to provide attacking width.
Playing abroad opened minds. When Gordon Smith, who had spells in Austria and Switzerland, reflects on the career of his friend and former Rangers teammate, Davie Cooper, he often remarks that the winger would have been perfect for the No.10 role. Neil Murray, now Rangers' chief scout, also played abroad and identified the different responsibilities of the position – to often be the team's sole creator – as just as demanding as the need to track back that is expected in the British game.
Attitudes have altered, but none of the four Home Nations are likely to line up this weekend with a No.10 in their ranks, even if Scotland, England and perhaps Wales will play with a sole striker. Few of the managers have that type of player to select.
As more emphasis is placed on developing youngsters' technique, and appreciation grows for the qualities of players like Silva and Hazard, British football might yet begin to bring through the kind of figures who are widespread in South America and on the continent.
If nothing else, it is a method of being economical for the leading clubs to develop their own.
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