Mesut Ozil retired from football this week at the age of 34. The former Real Madrid, Arsenal and Germany star was plying his trade at Istanbul Basaksehir in the Turkish Super Lig. The 34-year-old told his social media followers, “In recent weeks and months, having also suffered some injuries, it’s become more and more clear that it’s time to leave the big stage of football.”
His departure from that big stage feels like a sad watershed moment for one of the game’s great traditions. Ozil was perhaps the last of the tried-and-true number 10s. Others of his ilk have fallen by the wayside in recent years and now the most quintessential modern example has departed from the world stage.
The passage of the playmaker era was part of the reason Ozil ended his career at Basaksehir rather than at one of the cathedrals of the elite game. After becoming obsolete at Arsenal due to his attitude and maverick playing style, Ozil has flattered to deceive. A move to boyhood club Fenerbahce promised much but ended with then-manager Ismail Kartal being backed after a spat with a player the club saw no need to indulge.
During his best moments with the Gunners, Los Blancos and his national side Ozil could bend games to his will. His trophy cabinet bears this out. Inside you will find World Cup, FA Cup and La Liga medals. You will also come across five German Player of the Season awards, won consecutively between 2011 and 2016. There are Team of the Tournament awards for both international and club competitions.
Yet there is also something less palpable casting a pall over those glistening accomplishments. That is the sense that Ozil could have done so much more. He hasn’t been a major factor in a team since 2019, when he was usurped as Arsenal’s talisman by Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang. The fact he was dislodged by a similarly petulant presence says it all about how sick the Gunners hierarchy was of indulging him.
It used to be that a world class number 10 was the one player you would be keen to indulge. But football has no place for “the free role” in these tactically-focused times. The onset of full-team pressing means that the luxury player has died out. Managers are no longer willing to carry a passenger in the defensive and transitional phases of play simply because they excel at the attacking phase.
Because the modern game has moved away from the pure creator, coaches have looked elsewhere for assists. The rise of the attacking full back has been a key factor in snuffing out the freewheeling not-quite-midfielder from football parlance. Jurgen Klopp turned Liverpool into an indomitable force at home and on the continent with Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold marauding up and down the flanks. This tactical shift has seen the three-man attacks that are en vogue get ever narrowed, with players like Marcus Rashford, Mohamed Salah and Raheem Sterling functioning like inside forwards.
Another barrier to traditional playmakers making any impact has been the universality of skills in the modern game. Take a player like Manchester United’s Casemiro for example. He is seen as an old school destroyer and he performs that role admirably. But the Brazil international is capable of intelligent, line-breaking balls when he has gained possession. Casemiro is a proper defensive midfielder, but one with the football IQ to launch his team’s attacks too. Teams are less likely to carve out a position for a pure, 100% creator when their existing players can perform the function alongside their existing roles.
Some players who would traditionally have ended up sat behind the striker, scheming and space-invading, have moved positions altogether. Kevin De Bruyne has shifted into a slightly deeper role as one of the world’s premier number eights. His club colleague Phil Foden is most often used in a wide berth. Roberto Firmino started as a number 10 but has come to define the false nine role in England. Even Lionel Messi played plenty of football in the traditional playmaker position before his otherworldly talents necessitated a move into attacking areas.
Those who have failed to adapt have largely fallen by the wayside. Isco is without a club, having initially served as Ozil’s heir in Madrid. Juan Mata never recaptured his Chelsea form at Manchester United, where shifting attitudes saw him used in an ill-fitting right-wing position. Ross Barkley never made good on the promise he showed at Everton and is now plying his trade in Ligue 1 with Nice. Everyone listed is a talented footballer, but none quite offer the broad skillset coaches now want.
Football is cyclical and today’s emphasis on universality and positional play will perhaps naturally give way. Where there is push there is also pull and we could end up with a freer, less complicated style usurping the current press-focused systems. It is into that environment that the next generation of number 10s will walk. But it will come too late to save Ozil, Isco, Mata and the rest.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change