He drops in between the oppositions midfield and defence to pick the ball up. An excellent first touch sees him turn and attack the defenders. An exact through-ball to put his striker through on goal might come next. He might drive further himself and finish; most likely by chipping the helpless goalkeeper. Whatever will happen, we know it will be something genius as the man wearing the number 10 shirt is always capable of producing a jaw-dropping moment of magic.
That description can be used to describe Francesco Totti. Or Alessandro Del Piero. Or Roberto Baggio. Or Zinedine Zidane. These are players with exceptional talent, both in terms of skill and intelligence. These players are prime examples of the trequartista. The role is almost mythical, and is a great testament to football in the 1990s and the early 2000s.
The role is hard to describe. In terms of positioning on the pitch, the trequartista thrives in the space between the oppositions defence and midfield. He is positioned behind one or two strikers and is responsible for supplying them with passes which they can convert. The trequartista is the team’s main creative source, and contributes with both assists and goals. And he is wearing the number 10 shirt.
Just like a lot of tactical innovation in football, the trequartista has its roots in Italy. In his Master Thesis at the professional coach certification at Coverciano, Roberto Mancini described the trequartista as a player with the following characteristics:
- sublime unmarking qualities;
- great basic technical skills and good applied technique quality;
- ability to serve the strikers with ease in various ways;
- predisposition to dribble and individual play;
- poor attitude to the defensive phase.
Mancini’s Master Thesis is an incredibly detailed description of what a trequartista truly is, and can be found in full here. As Mancini shows in the thesis, written in 2001, most Italian teams utilised a trequartista. It was the most important role in the Serie A and helped players such as Roberto Baggio, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Mancini himself, Zinedine Zidane, Alvaro Recoba, Rui Costa, Stefano Fiore, Gianfranco Zola and many more thrive in Italy and become some of the best players in Europe. Not only in Italy was the trequartista popular; Juan Román Riquelme was one of the standout players in Europe during his time at Villarreal, playing a classic trequartista role and the aforementioned Zola played in similar fashion for Chelsea in the Premier League.
The magic of the number 10 comes from the trequartista‘s feet, the player of inventiveness, the one who is capable of wrong-footing “everyone with a piece of skill perhaps he is not even fully aware of.”
As Mancini says, the trequartista was hardly involved in the defensive phase, apart from picking up loose balls, and was instead instructed to solely focus on the attacking phase. However, with football ever evolving, the role has sadly lost its popularity in much of Europe. The emergence of coaches such as Jose Mourinho, Rafa Benitez and Jürgen Klopp who place a large emphasis on defensive solidity and counter-attacking and therefore demand a much greater defensive contribution from their number 10’s. The rise of pressing, heavily influenced by Pep Guardiola’s brilliant Barcelona team and the successful German clubs such as Bayern and Dortmund, also means the role has become more defensively important. The importance of being a complete player and being able to perform in attacking, defensive and transitional phases has meant that teams can no longer carry a ‘luxury player’ such as Totti or Riquelme. Totti and Del Piero for example started playing up front in the latter years of their careers in order to ease the burden of their defensive responsibility, and the trequartista was replaced by a third, more mobile central midfielder.
The trequartista isn’t dead however. In Italy (of course) the role has lived on, and the fact systems like 3-4-1-2 and 4-3-1-2 are very popular in Italy means there has still been some extremely talented trequartisti coming through. Andrea Cossu was magic for Cagliari for a decade, Marek Hamsik was a key player for Napoli under Walter Mazzarri as the trequartista and Antonio Cassano linked up with Giampaolo Pazzini to great effect at Sampdoria by supporting the goalscorer from a trequartista position. Even Mourinho used Wesley Sneijder as a trequartista in his most successful team, the Inter treble winners of 2010, though Sneijder had more defensive responsibility than, for example, Cassano.
Today, the trequartista is very much alive in the Serie A. While there have been some slight modifications to the role, specifically more defensive work, it is very prominent in many teams. Fiorentina use Borja Valero and Josip Ilicic as doppio trequartisti and Franco Vazquez has been one of the stars of Serie A over the last couple of years for Palermo. At Empoli, Riccardo Saponara is staking a claim for an international call-up, and Franco Brienza is turning back the clock at Bologna.
In other parts of Europe though, players that would have been terrific trequartisti 15 years ago like Juan Mata or Mesut Özil often see themselves shunted to a wing as their managers struggle to incorporate them in a number 10 role for their clubs. Both Mata and Özil could have been potential Ballon d’Or winners back then, while they now are a long way off that standing. It goes to show that football is ever evolving and that players can unfortunately be born in the wrong eras. This is not to say Mata or Özil are bad players as they are regulars for two of the best clubs in England, but they could have been even more.
Personally, the trequartista will always be my favourite role on the football pitch. Every kid wanted to wear number 10 and be the new Totti, Del Piero or Baggio and I was no different (although I had a period when I was destined, in my own mind, to replace David Beckham on Manchester United’s right wing). There was something special about watching these players pull the strings and excite their fans with technical ability to marvel at and football intelligence out of this world. These are the players rightly called geniuses, the players that were unpredictable and could produce magical moments whenever they got the ball. Like a through-ball to their striker. Or by chipping the goalkeeper. The trequartista might not be as prominent as it once was, and the role might have changed, but it will always hold a special place in the hearts of Italian football lovers. The memories will live on and with most of these greats appearing in videos all over the internet, the trequartista will never die.