Such is football’s constant state of evolution; the number ten shirt is now as much of a responsibility as the number nine shirt in England – if not more so.
While the image of a true English centre forward is one that will always endure, the ‘number nine’ merely needs to put the ball in the net. Meanwhile, a ‘number ten’ is required to do this with at least 50% of the number nine’s regularity to really justify wearing the shirt number, while also leading the way for assists via set-pieces and open play, key passes and through balls.
With Eden Hazard and Willian departing Chelsea in successive summer transfer windows, Chelsea’s fabled number ten shirt is once again vacant.
The man occupying it will have a massive legacy to uphold – a legacy which goes back five decades, to the days of Bonetti, Harris and Osgood. The most recent occupant of that iconic number was Willian, who enjoyed his best goalscoring season for Chelsea in 2019/20, prior to his free transfer to Arsenal.
Right now, there are three realistic candidates for the shirt, all of whom can offer the attributes required to sufficiently honour it.
Ziyech had been a target for Europe’s top clubs ever since his breakthrough 2018/19 season with Ajax. His return of 16 goals proved that he was much more than just a playmaker, and he particularly flourished in that season’s Champions League campaign, leading in the assists chart going into the knockout phase.
While Ziyech will be primarily judged on his ability to get forward in a tougher league than the Eredivisie, he specialises in unlocking defences without necessarily needing to get in their face.
Last season, Ziyech averaged an assist every other game across all competitions, with close to four key passes per game. While he will do well to emulate such figures over the coming year, he also solves the issue of Lampard’s (partially forced) focus on Willian as the main channel in attack.
The assumption that Ziyech will mainly occupy the right side of midfield throws his entitlement to the number ten shirt into question. Even so, his ability to play across midfield makes him a worthy candidate, especially with number tens being burdened by an unmatched range of expectations.
While Pulisic does not operate in the traditional number ten position, his numbers certainly warrant candidacy for the shirt number. A haul of 11 competitive goals in his first season at Stamford Bridge – at the tender age of 21 – is not only impressive, but indicative of the potential for him to grow at a rate of knots and dictate play for years.
Such numbers have ensured that the latest soccer betting outrights ahead of next season reflect a lot of optimism surrounding Chelsea. The American scored exactly half (five) of his league goals in the post-lockdown era, and will be devastating if he can carry that momentum into a new season.
Pulisic has demonstrated the best of both a ‘traditional’ number ten playmaker and its ‘modern’ equivalent, which covers greater quantities of ground and scores with more regularity. As evidenced particularly by the contrasting nature of his first two goals in June, he is equally comfortable timing his runs to meet a ball at close range as he is making a solo run at pace.
Particularly notable is the relative consistency with which Pulisic contributes goals in relation to expectations. The new-fangled ‘Expected’ Goals (xG) and Assists (xA) metrics further boost his claim to the number ten jersey, with 2019/20 marking the first time in four seasons that his goals average exceeded his xG average – albeit by just 0.07 goals.
While Pulisic registered 0.30 fewer average assists than expected in 2019/20, he was operating within a beleaguered team that initially struggled to cope with the loss of Eden Hazard.
Giving Mount the number ten shirt would doubltess inspire him to improve his all-round game further, after a hugely encouraging 2019/20 campaign.
Mount has been a constant fixture in both of Frank Lampard’s prior seasons as a senior level head coach, and the sense of mutual growth and development has only strengthened their relationship. So too has it redoubled their sense of understanding, and what is expected of Mount in 2020/21.
With his preference for sitting further forward in the centre of a midfield five, Mount has a very real claim to the number ten shirt in a traditional sense. This is especially true when Lampard’s prior comparisons between himself and Mount are taken into consideration.
With the likes of N’Golo Kante sweeping up behind him in a 4-2-3-1 setup, he has every right to try and indulge in his penchant for some formidable key passes.
Compared to his first season under Lampard’s guidance, Mount’s game-reading ability is the most improved facet of his ‘number ten’ credentials. He continually adjusts his position and stance in a way that gives him an edge over his opposing zonal markers, enabling him to continually break through.
Mount’s off-the-ball play was also a standout factor in his best performances of last season, as he demonstrated the relentless workrate expected of a number ten.
Verdict: Who should get #10?
It is a close call. Few would be surprised if Ziyech got it, given that the other two men already have a squad number. However, with the expectation of him slotting in as a right-sided attacking midfielder, he might be more suited to the vacant #11 shirt if using the old-style 1-11 system.
From that same ‘traditionalist’ perspective, the number ten jersey is also one that has to be earned through service to Chelsea, or at least the endeavour to defy criticism surrounding weaknesses related to inexperience.
That makes Mount perhaps the most deserving of the above trio, especially with Pulisic already boasting something of a reputation on arrival from Borussia Dortmund. Mount, by contrast, had much more to prove. This time last year, few knew what Mount was capable of, but he has answered his doubters with aplomb.