We are now in the home-stretch of our thousand-piece puzzle to break down the various roles that players adopt in a football team. The goal of this series has always been to identify how clubs achieve balance within their ranks, by creating a team of players who fulfill varying roles. We therefore break down the twenty-six player roles that footballers adopt as part of our Role Continuity Evaluation System, identifying the unique job descriptions, metrics for evaluation and the best of the art in 2022.Embed from Getty Images
Today’s article is all about the ‘Creative Ten’ – those responsible for creating chances in the final third, whether they operate as a quintessential ‘number 10’, or even out wide. Here is everything you need to know.
JOB DESCRIPTIONEmbed from Getty Images
When I say ‘Creative Ten’, I’m sure you immediately conjure up an image of a classical painter of a player, who wonderfully creates art with their passing and incisiveness in the final third. But as has been well documented over the past few years, that type of player does not tend to exist in the modern game. The Mesut Özil’s, David Silva’s and Cesc Fabregas’s of this world no longer tend to exist as they once did, or play in the same positions that they once held. Nowadays, ‘number ten’s’ must not only be capable contributors in the final third, but highly active in pressing from the front, and contributing to rotations that spread the width of the pitch.Embed from Getty Images
As a result of the changing function of the role, many of the old school ‘number ten’s’ are now tasked with playing in a deeper role or out wide, to help facilitate their chance creation from a different direction. Instead of pure magic creating geniuses, we now get incredibly mobile maneuvers operating as ’10’s’, such as Mason Mount or Marco Reus. Both examples provide wonderful emblems of the modern day ’10’ as someone who can not only create chances for others, but play in a variety of different positions with a variety of different functions due to their versatility in skillset. This is essentially what we are looking for in a modern-day ‘Creative Ten’. It’s not to say that Mesut Özil and David Silva wouldn’t be classified as ‘Creative Ten’s’ in our system, but that the role has needed to evolve to more than just one of creation.Embed from Getty Images
As we move along to the quintessential ‘Creative Ten’s’, you will then see a variety of different players with different skillsets enter the frame. Their connecting commonality is that they each play in the ‘number 10’ role for their teams, providing that link between midfield and the front-line. As you’ll come to find out, they may even be more ‘Goal-Scoring Ten’s’ than creative ones. But the key to the role is in excelling in the final third, from a deeper role than the team’s centre-forward, often as the facilitator that links the central attacking spaces together. Through their incisive movement, intelligent passing, and even at times box-to-box mobility, they enable the entire picture of what the team endeavours to engineer.Embed from Getty Images
So while many may also be capable goal-scorers through brilliantly timing late runs into the penalty area, the idea behind their role is one of facilitation for others, and allowing others to shine. Here we see the Bruno Fernandes debate become illuminated. While he failed to assist an outstanding number of goals last season in the league, he was always incredibly successful in creating chances through his risky approach, and forward-thinking endeavours. Perhaps in the future the role may change names within our system to something along the lines of a ‘Traditional Ten’. But we wanted something that illustrated their need for imagination in the final third.Embed from Getty Images
Terms like ‘Engache’ and ‘Trequartista’ also nicely sum up the idea of positioning being the central focus to the role, as evidenced by their translations to ‘hook’ and ‘three-quarters’ respectively. But they are not immediately descriptive to an English speaking audience, which is what I’ve endeavoured to create in the RCES. The terms above also fail to sum up any of the key roles and responsibilities of the players in question.Embed from Getty Images
So what are those responsibilities? ‘Creative Tens’ must be dynamic in roaming up and down the pitch, and side to side. They must be capable of creating chances and facilitating attacking play from not only a central position, but from the half-spaces, wide, and potentially even from a deeper pocket of space. They are not restricted to central channels, even if that acts as a useful reference for their starting position and relative role. However, as we’ll come to discuss, they typically thrive in central channels above all else, and would be expected to exude that on their heatmap.
Secondly, they typically act as a second striker in pressing phases, and later as an extra member of midfield closer to the team’s goal. This means they must be dynamic not only with their movement in the attack, but in positively contributing to the team’s defensive deeds.Embed from Getty Images
Finally, while we use the term ‘creative’ to envelop their role as a playmaker in the final third, their creativity must extend to all phases of play. In that ’10’ role, they can use their flair and imagination to get on the ball anywhere they like, pull the strings, and break pressure.
With that freedom, they must constantly scan and seek space that allows their team to gain an upper hand – such as through finding pockets to receive progressive passes, or playing progressive passes themselves. This is where the classification of certain players in the role becomes crystal clear. While the likes of Lionel Messi, Mason Mount and even Julian Brandt may operate in a wider role for their teams, they always function in creating space in central channels to receive passes, and act as a key creator of chances for their teams, as others roam wider or higher.
Heatmaps then become imperative to the establishment, helping us to rule out those that create more from wide roles, and simultaneously create space for those that over-extend themselves in maneuvering into central corridors even from that wide position. This is the critical difference between the ‘Creative Ten’ and the ‘Inverted Winger’.Embed from Getty Images
Most ‘Inverted Wingers’ would be more than capable of playing as a ’10’, and many come from a deep-rooted past in that role. As a result, they even tend to spike higher in being a ‘creative’ force than modern-day ten’s, particularly due to the width required in a high octane style of play. But ‘Inverted Wingers’ do that diligent work from a wider position. Here’s a perfect example of the difference in heatmaps between PSG’s Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr., both of whom operate in exactly the same ‘position’ on paper, just on opposite sides of the team’s 3-4-2-1. Neymar has even created more chances and assisted more goals this season than Messi, but his heatmap immediately illuminates the difference.
As you can see, their starting position does not necessarily mean that they have the same role in the team, even despite both operating behind Kylian Mbappe as a crucial creative force. It’s Lionel Messi who holds the centrally optimized position and role, as Achraf Hakimi overlaps down his side to dominate the wing. Like Jamal Musiala, Julian Brandt and Mason Mount, he then joins the crew of players that play more like a ’10’ from their wide role – both in the nature of their work on the field, and in terms of their tracking data.Embed from Getty Images
After all these considerations, we’re then left with a relatively small pool of players, from a few select clubs. Most clubs that possess a clearly-defined ’10’ operate in either a 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-1-2, where the player acts as a pivotal ‘hook’ between the midfield and forwards. Those teams tend to control matches through high possession, allowing a maverick of this nature to thrive in somewhat of a ‘free role’. Traditional ‘number 10’s’ have long been thought of to be dead, and our classification provides credence for this argument. Most who might have operated in the ’10’ role in the past now operate out wide instead, where they can exploit the half-spaces, cut inside and create from wide channels rather than from the centre. Some of those wide play-makers can still be classified in our system, but they must lend their creativity to central corridors more than wide ones.
So with that job description in mind, let’s dissect those that would be deemed ‘quintessential’ within the role in greater detail.
QUINTESSENTIAL CREATIVE TENSEmbed from Getty Images
When separating the ‘Creative Ten’ from other roles, we must ask a few key questions. Do they spike higher in dribbling magic and possession pizzazz than chance creation and goal-scoring? Then they, like Bernardo Silva, are a ‘Midfield Maestro’. Do they sit deeper, strictly in a ‘number 8’ position for their teams? Then they, like Hakan Çalhanoğlu, have no choice but to be considered a ‘Tempo Setter’. Even if evidently capable, they simply don’t play as a ’10’ to be classified within this type. We can also ask: Do they tend to play more of their football from the wing, or find themselves better suited to cutting inside from a position down the wide channels? Then they, like Angel di Maria, are an ‘Inverted Winger.’Embed from Getty Images
Finally, do they tend to play up top as a centre-forward, dropping in almost like a ‘False 9’? Then they, like Kelechi Iheanacho and Roberto Firmino, are a ‘Creative Link’. Although it should have been obvious knowing all of this information before beginning this process, the various discrepancies mean that we’re left with a small pool of players. You could easily make the argument that Bernardo, Di Maria, Çalhanoğlu, and even Firmino play more like a ’10’ and would be best suited to that role if given the choice. But for the purposes of our classification, ‘Creative Tens’ must play in the ‘ten’ role.
There is one exception to this rule, and that is if the heatmap indicates that they play in a central-dominated ’10’-like position. That is where we have drawn the useful line between our ‘Inverted Wingers’, who are also incredibly inventive and ‘creative’.Embed from Getty Images
So when classifying the player type, we are then left with quite a few skillful dribblers, dynamic goal-scorers, and intelligent pressers, who spike higher in other realms than just chance creation. While this role is supposed to be more about facilitating chances for others, Bruno Fernandes tends to score more than he creates. Mason Mount could be considered the same. Martin Ødegaard is yet to assist a goal this season. Even Kevin de Bruyne scored more goals last season than chances created, despite his legacy as an unbelievable passer. Meanwhile, players like North Carolina’s Debinha and Bayern’s Thomas Müller operate more in the half-spaces to wide channels than through the centre, despite holding that ’10’ role for their teams. We’ve chosen to include both in our prototype, due to the way they still spike red in central corridors from that ’10’ position.
The point is that they play in a creative, linking role in that ‘number 10’ slot, with the end goal of being both a creative and scoring force. So rather than the heatmap of Debinha, which is arched to the left, and the heatmap of Muller, which presents right-sided dominance; we want to see a heatmap that nicely covers both sides. The ‘Creative Ten’ should be an active mover and shaker that roams up and down, side to side, and covers a range of areas from ‘Zone 14’ in the centre to the half-spaces. Here’s an example of Marco Reus’s heatmap to illustrate the idea.
Mason Mount provides a unique example of someone who features less as an ‘attacking midfielder’ and more of a winger in his team’s formation. But as we all know by now, Mount will typically operate deeper than the other two players in that 3-4-2-1, helping it become more like a 3-4-1-2, as he pulls the strings from that deeper position. He will also often change to a central midfield role late on in matches, only providing more credence for the argument that he’s not a winger.Embed from Getty Images
So then you might wonder, well then why not Grealish or Foden? Beyond the fact that they operate in the half-spaces to wide channels more than central corridors, they also have someone else in their team who can clearly be considered the ’10’. For Manchester City, that’s Kevin de Bruyne. Mason Mount is a standalone ’10’ for Chelsea, and virtually the only virtuoso they have to offer from central channels deeper on the field.Embed from Getty Images
Borussia Dortmund (Reus and Brandt) and Bayern Munich (Musiala and Müller) will be the only teams in our subset that have two starting players in this role. That’s because they remain incredibly fluid in their positioning and movement in the final third, particularly in accommodating the ability for ‘floatations’ (as we once dubbed it) in and out of that central territory. Every other team included here has one ‘Creative Ten’ that floats around central attacking corridors more than a partner on the wing (e.g. Messi and Musiala), striker up front (e.g. Bruno and Wirtz), or central midfield unit (e.g. De Bruyne and L. Pellegrini).Embed from Getty Images
To give you a few more examples of ‘quintessential’ prototypes of the role beyond positional facts, we bring you over to the NWSL. Long-time Canadian legend Christine Sinclair operates wonderfully as a ‘Creative Ten’ for the Portland Thorns, firmly floating in behind the strikers to facilitate attacks and receive progressive passes. Kristie Mewis of Gotham provides another great example, exuding confidence with her keen eye for a pass. She’s an excellent example of someone who creates chances in abundance, without always getting the reward in the volume of her assists. Evidently capable of playing as a De Bruyne styled ‘8’, she’s thrived this season for Gotham in between the lines.Embed from Getty Images
Kansas City’s driving force in Lo’eau LaBonta would be more of that Fernandes ’10’, providing more of a scoring threat in behind two powerful strikers, as she ghosts into the penalty area late on in moves. Here we can again see the variability of the ‘Creative Ten’, and the incredible importance they hold.Embed from Getty Images
You could make the argument in each case that Sinclair, Mewis and LaBonta just might be the most valuable member of their team, acting as the pivotal player behind attacking thrusts. So almost more than any other player type, the ‘Creative Ten’ combines a heavy list of un-droppable, unbeatable figureheads. They are absolutely essential to the way their teams attack, and the entire functionality of the team would be lost without their presence.
So with that, we now discuss how to assess the amazingness of one ‘Creative Ten’ over another.
MEASURING creative ten’sEmbed from Getty Images
Within our Role Continuity Player Evaluation System, players are first measured by what they are expected to do in their position and role first, accompanied by a secondary role. We utilize statistics to help measure performance, but go far beyond that to incorporate the eye test in analyzing player IQ, awareness and tactical understanding. We can then congregate data to more adequately assess their player positioning and movement around the pitch, the areas in which they contribute to attacking moves, and the success at which they create moments of magic for their team. So with that, here is how we measure our ‘Creative Ten’s’.
1. ATTACKING THREAT & IQEmbed from Getty Images
More than anything else, ‘Creative Ten’s’ must be capable of creating space, and creating chances. That can come in the form of scoring or assisting goals, dynamically progressing the play up the pitch, or even in creating chances from set-pieces. Regardless, how they balance those facets of creation in the attacking half to final third holds particular importance.
As a result, we first measure ‘Attacking IQ’ to understand their tactical and technical intelligence in creating space and creating chances. This includes…
- Decision making and ability to link play in the attacking half
- Expected threat (possession-value added)
- Spatial awareness in the attacking third + progressive passes received
- Decision making on dribbles, carries and forward thrusts (including dribble %)
- Creation from open play, set-pieces and crosses
- Shot on target %
- xG + xA
2. ATTACKING CONTRIBUTIONEmbed from Getty Images
After establishing threat and IQ as a baseline, we then measure actual attacking output. This includes sheer statistical values that allow us to gain a better sense of how successful players were in carrying out their attacking endeavours. This may include their total number of…
- Key passes, through passes + passes into the penalty area
- Goal and shot-creating-actions
- Shots + shots on target
- Dribbles + carries
- Touches in the attacking third
- Passes and carries into the final third
- Fouls won + fouls won to fouls conceded percentage
- Goal contributions (i.e. goals + assists)
3. POSSESSION & DISTRIBUTIONEmbed from Getty Images
While we want our ‘Creative Ten’s’ to spike highest in the attacking third, they must remain capable of coming deep and contributing to all phases of possession. The ‘Midfield Maestro’ and ‘Tempo Setter’ hold greater responsibility in maintaining the flow of possession, but ‘Creative Ten’s’ should not be finding themselves dispossessed left, right and centre. As part of our ‘Possession & Distribution’ score, we measure…
- Control (touches, miscontrols, dispossessed, passes received %)
- Passing % + long passing %
- Decision making in supporting the build-up and progression
- Progressiveness (i.e. prog. passes and prog. carries)
4. DEFENSIVE IQEmbed from Getty Images
The modern day ‘number 10’ must not only be capable going forward, but astutely aware in defensive phases. Their role will always be more about contributing to the attack, but they must uphold their responsibilities in pressing phases, and coming all the way back to help the team defend their own third of the pitch. This includes…
- Tackle % and decision making when tackling
- Pressure % and decision making when pressuring
- Dominance in midfield battles + combined % of duels won across thirds
- Positional awareness and positional discipline
- Awareness of own strengths vs. strengths of teammates
- Discipline (e.g. fouls, bookings, and positional discipline)
Unlike the vast majority of roles to this point, we don’t measure ‘Defensive Contribution’ as a separate category. We care more about the success of a ’10’s’ defensive deeds, rather than the sheer numbers they accumulate. This can be particularly clear in assessing for values like ‘aerial duels won’, ‘blocks’, or ‘clearances’, to which their output should be practically non-existent.
5. ABNORMALITIESEmbed from Getty Images
‘Creative Ten’s’ may also be given additional boosts or retractions for any abnormalities that they perform in a match, including the following…
- Defensive contributions leading to a goal (GCA-Def.)
- Penalty kicks won, or given away
- Errors leading to shots or goals
- Own goals
- Red cards
While these metrics may affect a player’s rating in a given match, they don’t tend to change a player’s score over the course of a season, unless repeatedly conducted.
So with that, based on the five key evaluation metrics, let’s jump into what you’ve been waiting for – the very best ‘Creative Ten’s’ in the world of men’s football as of 2022.
TOP 20 CREATIVE TEN’SEmbed from Getty Images
When assessing ‘Creative Ten’s’, we’re searching for attacking midfielders who play in central corridors of space, and hold an imperative role in linking attacks together. In the table below, we’ve chosen to include three essential statistical categories that bring to light some of the best at the art. It’s worth noting that this list does not encapsulate the players best at being ‘Creative Ten’s’; but instead, the best of those who fall under this category based on our evaluation.
So after scouring the databases, and scrutinizing over statistics from league play across the 2021-22 season, these are the best of the best on the men’s side of the beautiful game.
|Rank #||Player||Team||G+A||SCA||Prog. P|
|1||Lionel Messi||Paris Saint Germain||6+14||6.02||10.2|
|2||Kevin de Bruyne||Manchester City||15+8||5.68||6.41|
|3||Thomas Müller||Bayern Munich||8+18||4.89||4.93|
|4||Bruno Fernandes||Manchester United||10+6||4.19||5.66|
|6||Marco Reus||Borussia Dortmund||9+13||3.49||4.03|
|8||Jamal Musiala||Bayern Munich||5+5||4.18||5.09|
|9||Florian Wirtz||Bayer Leverkusen||7+10||4.96||4.95|
|10||Charles de Ketelaere||Anderlecht*||14+9||3.69||3.69|
|11||Lorenzo Pellegrini||AS Roma||9+3||5.31||3.82|
|12||James Maddison||Leicester City||12+8||3.66||3.81|
|14||Julian Brandt||Borussia Dortmund||9+8||3.68||5.28|
|16||Nabil Fekir||Real Betis||6+8||5.19||4.48|
|17||Emiliano Buendia||Aston Villa||4+6||3.51||5.12|
|18||Andrej Kramarić||1899 Hoffenheim||6+9||2.79||2.62|
|19||David Silva||Real Sociedad||2+4||4.76||5.08|
Alongside goal contribution, we’ve include shot creation as an additional indicator of attacking threat for our ‘Creative Ten’s.’ We’ve also included progressive passes in the dataset, helping to illustrate those that play a particularly important role to all phases of possession. Andrej Kramaric and Andreas Pereira serve as the only examples of an underperformance in progressive passing, but both operate in teams with less possession.
It’s also worth noting that the stats were taken from FBRef, which does not include detailed data on leagues outside Europe’s top five powerhouses. We’ve therefore been able to include goal contribution data from league play, and then scrap together their last 365 days in all competitions to identify other outputs. Their data therefore does not necessarily fully capture what they accomplished in their home countries last season.Embed from Getty Images
Of these players, the only other eyebrow raised came after being presented with Lorenzo Pellegrini’s statistical output in 2021-22. He’s remarkably similar to many ‘Midfield Maestros’ but far more influential in the final third, both from a shot and chance creation perspective. He also frequently plays in that ’10’ position or on the wing, rather than in Mourinho’s midfield pivot, creating a concoction of awesomeness that becomes hard to fully capture. Safe to say, he won’t be making it to the next table.
PERFECT PROTOTYPESEmbed from Getty Images
Among the twenty names listed above, these are the ten most prototypical ‘Creative Ten’s’. To rank high on this list, a player should prioritize the attacking side of the game through a strong sense of creation on and off-the-ball, whilst playing in the ’10’ slot for their team. They should also test lower in traits associated with other player types, such as creating from a wider position. Let’s dive into the list!
|Rank #||Player||Team||Key P.||Thr. B||PP Rec.|
|1||Bruno Fernandes||Manchester United||2.54||0.43||5.84|
|2||Lionel Messi||FC Barcelona||2.64||1.00||5.31|
|3||Florian Wirtz||Bayer Leverkusen||2.72||0.49||8.20|
|5||Kevin de Bruyne||Manchester City||3.59||0.41||6.94|
|6||James Maddison||Leicester City||1.58||0.29||5.35|
|8||Julian Brandt||Borussia Dortmund||1.95||0.26||7.84|
|9||Nabil Fekir||Real Betis||2.68||0.16||7.35|
|10||Emiliano Buendia||Aston Villa||2.13||0.47||5.31|
As key evaluation metrics to assessing quintessential ‘Creative Ten’s’, we’ve analyzed ‘key passes’, through passes and progressive passes received on a per 90 basis. What can’t be captured by our table is the tracking data that has also gone into the rankings, where those possessing more of the ‘Inverted Winger’ or ‘Midfield Maestro’ persona were excluded. We’ve opted for Bruno Fernandes as our quintessential ‘Creative Ten’, as someone who always operates in the position for his club, while producing a high volume of statistical output in the final third.
When studying what makes a ‘Creative Ten’ so incredibly effective, these are the players most worth scrutinizing over.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Creative Ten’s are some of the most valuable footballers on the planet, for their influential role in producing magic in the final third. They must not only be capable of creating chances and scoring goals, but capable of creating space to exploit the opposition’s defensive desires. They are therefore often versatile in skillset and positioning, even if they prioritize a typical ‘number ten’ role on the pitch. Bruno Fernandes, Kevin de Bruyne and yes, the great Lionel Messi, all act as perfect prototypes of the role, illustrating the massive importance of the ‘Creative Ten’ to the modern game. As we progress into the future, we may see another evolutionary change in the involvement of the ‘number 10’. But for now, they are some of the most hard-working, dynamic and influential players at their clubs, in all phases of the game.
So there it is! Explaining our ‘Creative Ten’ within our Role Continuity Evaluation System. Be sure to check out more from this series as we detail all twenty-six roles, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
More in this series…
-> Explaining the Shot Stopper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Sweeper Keeper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Wide Warrior – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Inverted Fullback – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Wing-Back – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Ball-Playing-Centre-Half – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Stopper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Sweeper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Midfield Destroyer – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Anchor – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Deep-Lying Playmaker – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Shuttler – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Box to Box Midfielder – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Tempo Setter – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Midfield Maestro – Player Role Analysis
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Unlike their name might imply, ‘Inverted Wingers’ are far more than just wingers that cut or drift inside. That is only one small part of an overarching role that prioritizes playmaking in the final third, and dynamically linking play between the other members of the front-line. The best of the art will often post high numbers in goals and assists, but ‘Inverted Wingers’ need to be so much more than just creative goal-scorers – generally tasked with creating space, rotating with teammates, and moving off the ball to exploit the half-spaces at the right moments.
As the ball-dominant magic-wand sorcerers in central midfield, ‘Midfield Maestros’ accomplish feats that few other players would be capable of showcasing to the world. They ooze class every time they touch the ball, always looking dangerous as they dribble, carry or skillfully dance their way around the opposition. But beyond technical precision and pizzazz, ‘Midfield Maestros’ might be some of the most tactically adept out there, possessing the awareness of space that very few have mastered. Here is our analysis of the Midfield Maestro.
The ‘Tempo Setter’ is a unique player type to our system, taking into account the possession-based players that operate in a ‘number 8’ position, and thrive when given the ball in the half-spaces. Youri Tielemans, Christian Eriksen and Jordan Henderson feature as some of the best within the role from an emblematic perspective, perfectly exuding the cucumber coolness required. But the likes of Thiago and Tchouaméni also stake a claim despite their extreme exceptionalities on the ball, due to the high influence they present in keeping the game moving along from a withdrawn position. Beyond the streamlined skill of Thiago, they tend not to be the flashiest of players in their teams. But ‘Tempo Setters’ are key to setting the tone of a football match, and conducting the orchestra from start to finish. Quite simply, without their class and composure in possession, the whole entire musical production could crumble.
As goal-contributors, defensive warriors and midfield engines all wrapped up in one modem, ‘Box to Box Midfielders’ end up being some of the most imperative members of their squads. Unlike other midfield player types, they consistently catch the eye for their attacking performances, even when deployed in a deeper, defensive, ‘number 8’ role. The likes of Conor Gallagher, Sergej Milinković-Savić and Georgia Stanway perfectly encapsulate the role, helping us to qualify and quantify more of these ‘Box-to-Box’ engines in the future.