In Italy, they refer to him as the trequartista. In Argentina, he's the enganche. In England … we don't really have a name for him.
English football terminology has never quite come up with a definitive word for the player who occupies space between the opposition lines of defence and midfield – not quite a forward, not quite a midfielder. He's "the man in the hole," perhaps, but it's not an appropriately glamorous term for the side's star creator. Sometimes he's even referred to as playing "the Teddy Sheringham role" -- so unaccustomed we were to players who looked for space rather than basing their game around an individual battle with an opponent.
England isn't a specialist at producing top-quality players in this mould. Wayne Rooney might be the closest we've had in recent years, but even his best position is up for question. He was often fielded on the flank during Manchester United's successful European Cup run in 2008, then his best individual season was probably in 2009-10 as an out-and-out striker. Joe Cole became a winger, while attacking midfielders like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and even Jack Wilshere were just that – attacking midfielders, number eights rather than number tens.
In formation terms, too, English football hasn't suited this kind of player. England was largely a 4-4-2 nation until recently, and this gave way to 4-3-3, inspired by Jose Mourinho's success with Chelsea. Neither formation suited a number ten. There's never been a 4-3-1-2 craze in English football, unlike in Italy or South America, never a romantic fixation with the archetypal playmaker.
All of which makes this summer's new arrivals particularly intriguing. Four top clubs – Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham – all splashed out on new number tens – even if none actually wear that shirt number. Santi Cazorla, Shinji Kagawa, Oscar and Gylfi Sigurdsson all represent a significant change in footballing philosophy. Arsenal didn't have a central creator like Cazorla last season, Manchester United have arguably never had a player in the Kagawa mould. Oscar wouldn't have suited Andre Villas-Boas' 4-3-3, while Gylfi Sigurdsson isn't quite the same as Rafael van der Vaart. Some have adapted quicker than others.
It's worth considering quite why there's been a sudden influx of these central creators. Certainly, there appears to be a shift towards a 4-2-3-1 formation this season – which wasn't exactly unknown in the Premier League in recent seasons, but was less prevalent than in Spain or Germany.
While it's dangerous to talk about systems as a whole, the 4-2-3-1 is a good bet for modern football. It offers width yet provides three central midfielders; it means a side isn't vulnerable to space between the lines yet can feature solid partnerships across the side, which is one of the few strengths of the 4-4-2. It allows one holding midfielder to track an opponent while the other covers space in front of the back four. And, perhaps most positively, it allows a defined number ten to play in an unrestricted central position.
Each new signing has their nuances and has settled in different ways. Of the aforementioned players, it is Oscar who is the most unique. He's not a stereotypical Brazilian number ten – he's quicker and more efficient with his movements; he's a busy player who scurries across the pitch frantically.
Sigurdsson's a slightly different case in that he's experienced English football before. He's a more direct, forceful player than the others – maybe more focused upon his goal-scoring threat than his creative threat. He's played a couple of good passes in a Tottenham shirt – most notably an excellent through-ball for Aaron Lennon that led to Jermain Defoe's opener against Reading – but overall his creative ability has been minimal, and he's been dropped for Tottenham's past couple of league games, with Clint Dempsey starting against Manchester United and Aston Villa, picking up a goal and an assist.
It's Cazorla and Kagawa who offer the most intriguing creative threats, but so far the former has outperformed the latter considerably. They are inherently different players, but Cazorla appears to suit Arsenal much more than Kagawa suits United at this early stage. The Spaniard may offer Arsenal something different in terms of position, but he's a typical Arsenal player. He's about short, neat passing, and his influence upon the side so far is undoubted. Scheming between the lines, his performance against West Ham on Saturday was remarkable -- yet what we've come to expect. We're becoming used to Spanish playmakers settling in well in English football. It's been David Silva and Juan Mata in the previous two seasons, but the difference about Cazorla is that he's thriving at the heart of the Arsenal team rather than drifting in from the flank.
It was in stark contrast to Kagawa's performance for Manchester United the next day – as Sir Alex Ferguson continued with a diamond formation, the Japanese playmaker was shunted out to the right of a narrow midfield. United won the game at a canter, but it was Rooney roaming between the lines in the position Kagawa expected to make his own. The former Dortmund player was somewhat peripheral in the match, and then when United came under heavy pressure late on and Ferguson needed defensive cover from wide on the right, Kagawa was the obvious choice to make way for Antonio Valencia.
Kagawa's problem is that United aren't playing the ball to him in the right fashion; Cazorla is a player who wants the ball played into feet, while Kagawa wants the ball on the run. Dortmund were a transition-based side that played the ball forward quickly, and United are yet to get into that mindset. They traditionally retain possession, put pressure upon the opposition and combine diagonal balls to the flanks with crosses into the box. So we shouldn't be surprised that Kagawa is yet to sparkle.
The experiences of Cazorla and Kagawa so far demonstrate both the benefit and the difficulty of integrating a new number ten into the side. When it works, they're the key player, dictate the tempo of the game and provide goal-scoring chances for teammates. When it doesn't, it's hard for a manager to persist with a misfiring player at the heart of his side, as everything falls down around him.
In the long run, however, when given the chance to integrate fully into the side, this new breed of creators will become among the most important players in the league – the Premier League is a better place because of their arrival.