Real Madrid: the place where Number 10s go to die?

Number 10 Colombia

World Cup superstar James Rodriguez will be looking to prove that, as a Number 10, signing for the Madrid giants doesn’t necessarily sound the death knell, as so many recent playmakers have found.

It was perhaps inevitable that Real Madrid would sign whoever proved to be the 2014 World Cup’s standout talent, and in doing so, prove themselves a galáctico in a landscape where those labelled as such already wear the famous all-white strip – and those that don’t adorn the Blaugrana colours of arch-rivals Barcelona.

Madrid’s president, Florentino Perez, admitted as much in the wake of the club’s decima victory in Europe. Having already signed the world’s two most expensive players, Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo and Welsh winger Gareth Bale, there were not many – if any – left on the market.

Indeed, the only other players deemed galácticos were unreachable to Los Blancos, with it widely accepted that Luis Suarez only wished to hook up with Neymar and Lionel Messi in Catalonia.

Step forward James Rodriguez.

As Sid Lowe wrote in The Guardian about Perez’s predicament:

The World Cup came to the rescue, as it was always likely to. Nothing creates superstars like it. There is almost always a player who emerges from the tournament as a galáctico-in-waiting.

The wealth of attacking talent already shoe-horned into Madrid’s first team did not deter Rodriguez from making the £63m switch – and why should it? After all, this is Real Madrid; the Champions of Europe and a team he has quite openly supported since childhood.

But should he have heeded some obvious warning signs left by players of his ilk? The experiences had by recent Number 10s who have been sucked in by the inevitable pull of Real Madrid, then spat out with varying levels of disappointment and unfulfillment? The list of names during the last 8 years is quite astonishing.

Dutch playmaking duo Wesley Sneijder (2007) and Rafael van der Vaart (2008) both failed to fully establish roles for themselves in the team despite some sparkling performances and wonderful goals, whilst Kaka’s (2009) disastrous time in the Spanish capital is well documented.

Brazil number 10

Perhaps he was destined to fail; superseded by Cristiano Ronaldo just days into his £56m arrival, from then on there was only ever going to be one player Los Blancos would build their offensive threat around – and it wouldn’t be the one-time brilliant Brazilian. The system and style employed (based around athletic explosiveness), mixed with injuries and a loss of confidence all contributed to the failure of a player who is still the last Ballon d’Or winner to be crowned outside of the aforementioned Portuguese and Lionel Messi.

Undeterred by the sufferings of Kaka, Spain’s ‘next big thing’ in 2010, Sergio Canales chose to join. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but perhaps the delightfully gifted player’s career would have been best served by continuing his incline as a starlet at his hometown club, Racing Santander, instead of moving after one full season of top-flight action.

A total of 518 match-action minutes tells its own story: failing to make any meaningful contribution after being effected by a team unwilling to accommodate a talented but raw player who needed consistent development, Canales lasted just one season before being shipped out on loan, never to return.

Canales’ difficulties in securing minutes on the pitch at the Bernabeu was also partly down to Mesut Ozil, who arrived, initially, with a view to playing back-up to Kaka after his wonderful World Cup performances of 2010. With the Brazilian suffering on the sidelines more often than not, the mercurial German started his Madrid career brightly and cemented his place in the team; albeit playing a variety of attacking roles.

Despite appearing to flourish in Spain – he ended his first season as the player with the most assists across Europe’s top leagues and finished his third year with the most assists in La Liga – Ozil became subdued by life under Jose Mourinho (Real Madrid’s coach at the time), for whom completing a full 90 minutes for became a rarity. Indeed, one stat had the German down as the most substituted player in La Liga for a period of time.

Even securing the Number 10 shirt, becoming a fan-favourite and Cristiano Ronaldo’s preferred supply line wasn’t enough to stop the German from being cast aside as Madrid broke the world transfer record (again) for Gareth Bale. With it was widely anticipated that Argentine winger Angel Di Maria would be the one to make way for Bale, surprisingly, the pacier player was kept and his positional role altered, at the expense of the silky Ozil. And while it would be wrong to suggest that Ozil was a failure at Madrid, his time was tinged with disappointment – especially in the way he was so readily discarded.

And then there is Isco – the most recent test case. Having starred for Spain in last summer’s U-21 European Championships, Real swooped to snatch the 2013 Bravo award winner after the player looked likely to follow Manuel Pellegrini to Manchester City, having risen to prominence with Malaga.

playmaker Spain

Following in similar fashion to the Number 10s before him, the boyhood Barcelona fan struggled to gain favour and impose himself in the team’s formation. It was to Isco’s credit that he was more than willing to adjust tactically to try and force his way into Ancelotti’s starting XI, as Di Maria did, but he has made far less of an impact.

The choice to retain and tweak Di Maria’s role by Real’s coach Carlo Ancelotti was seen as a master stroke, proving once again that the Italian tactician had learned from previous mistakes made early on in his managerial career. Relevant to specifically using a Number 10 role in his team – where Rodriguez has just flourished in the World Cup – Ancelotti once famously chose not to sign Roberto Baggio because of the player’s positional preference.

Looking back on it now, I was crazy,” said Ancelotti.

How can you give up on someone like Baggio? I said [to him] ‘No, you have to play [as a] striker.’ He went to another club and scored 22 goals. I lost 22 goals! Big mistake.

Lesson learnt? Yes; but, there’s a huge difference between altering a team’s system to suit a player rather than altering a player’s role to suit the system. The latter instance worked for Di Maria, a ‘winger’, but not so much for the ‘Number 10’, Isco.

Rodriguez signs off the back of a fantastic World Cup when he thrived in a more central role as an authentic Number 10 – a position he’d long been earmarked for but until recently, was untrusted to consistently produce the goods from there. All that changed in Brazil, be it by original design, or by the spaces and influence vacated after the loss of Colombia’s star striker, Radamel Falcao.

Now, in signing for Madrid, he arrives at a team that simply does not employ a system that accommodates that position, as the illustrious names already mentioned have found to their detriment. It’s a huge gamble for a player whose stock is presently at its highest – will the Madrid model enable him to succeed and reach even greater heights, achieving his full potential as a fantasista?

Number 10

Of course, Rodriguez could still thrive at Madrid; and not necessarily playing in the Number 10 role either (although, not being given the chance to shine there will be a great shame considering what the world witnessed in Brazil). The Colombian only need look a little further back in the club’s history to find Zinedine Zidane as the finest example to follow.

Although even the great French maestro had to perform his wondrous talents from a wider area of the pitch more often than not, for even he wasn’t afforded the luxury of playing as a classic 10 in the Spanish capital.

Whatever role Rodriguez ends up playing, at £63m cost he will get little time to settle and adapt to the system, despite what his new manager says in public.

Asked whether Real really needed their new Number 10, Ancelotti said:

Madrid’s history will tell you that they always want to have the best players and ones with a future.

We have signed one of the World Cup’s stars. You need these kinds of players for the future, not just for the present, too.

Despite the club’s recent history with Number 10s suggesting otherwise, James Rodriguez now joins Isco in trying desperately to prove the coach correct.

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