Mikkel Damsgaard is Evidence That the 'Number 10' Isn't Dead - The Position Has Simply Evolved

Talented playmakers still get to live between the lines - they just have to playmake on defense as well.

Is there any football fan that hasn’t heard about the death of the ‘number 10’ position by now? If you live under a rock, a quick google search yields hundreds of articles on this very topic, bemoaning the end of an age where grace, technique, and skill has given way to tactical rigidity, physicality, and machine-like passing patterns.

It’s one of those narratives that has been repeated so often and contested so little that it’s taken as obvious fact. And, on face value, I can see why. If we define the ‘number 10’ in its vaguest, most subjective sense — a creative hook free of any positional restraints and unburdened by defensive duties — it’s easy to accept that we’ve well and truly moved on from this anachronistic attacker.

But are those things truly what makes a 10?

For my money, creative centrality and positional freedom are not and have never been exclusive to the attacking midfielder. Instead, receiving between the lines is what has always grounded this romantic role to the tangible.

The frequency with which one splits lines with positioning is what separates a Mesut Özil from a Luka Modrić — both of whom have enjoyed great freedom of movement and creative responsibility over their storied careers.

It is that difference that drives all the stylistic qualities necessary to be a 10: ability on the half-turn, close control, lightning-quick decision-making, high-end balance, and the pitch-mapping to maintain awareness while playing back-to-goal.

None of those things have disappeared in modern players. However, it does feel like something has changed. We have never really seen a Juan Román Riquelme since.

That’s because there has been a shift driven by modernity. The number 10 position isn’t the same as before, although it has evolved instead of fading into irrelevance. If anything, the capacity to receive in tight pockets, turn past pressure, and fashion goal-creating plays have become more valuable than ever, considering that defenses compress space in the 21st century like the garbage compactor from A New Hope.

Teams still need line-breaking receivers — they just demand them to do other things, such as defend and share territory. Thus, what’s changed is usage rate and an emphasis on work-rate.

Assigning an entire swath of lateral space to a lone player is easier to neutralize. It also doesn’t fit the positional play frameworks that emphasize balanced occupation in numerous vertical zones, similar to how a lack of ethic against the ball doesn’t jive with modern football’s desire for collective defending.

Modern 10’s can roam, but the gaps they vacate need to be filled in by another — some of whom may share the same horizontal platform.

Modern 10’s can live between the lines and create, so long as they recover the ball once they lose it.

Modern 10’s look a lot like Denmark’s Mikkel Damsgaard.

Though the 21-year-old has been regularly situated on the left-hand side of Sampdoria’s 4-4-2 and Kasper Hjulmand’s 3-4-3 on lineup graphics, he has also logged a healthy amount of minutes in all attacking slots. Damsgaard’s versatility is enabled by the fact that he operates similarly regardless of his nominal position — that is, he frequently roams inwards and looks to make a difference inside the heart of opposition blocks.

Damsgaard is scrawny but tough, absorbing contact from behind by crouching his body to lower his center of gravity and better his balance. He has a resilient first touch under pressure and possesses the quick feet to evade challenges while turning to combine.

Though his final pass could use some refinement, his comfort receiving in and escaping out of congested space has made him one of the brightest attackers of the EUROs and one of the most important players on his national team.

The fact that Damsgaard roams in from the wing isn’t something associated with the traditional trequartista, but it is his activity and skill as a defender that truly makes him the next-gen attacking midfielder.

Funnily enough, the above graph undersells the amount of effort Damsgaard exerts when the opponent has possession. Various factors, such a small sample and game-state, have suppressed his numbers on the Y-axis.

When we look at data on his entire 20/21 Serie A campaign, we can see a dramatic jump in his pressures p90 and only a slight decrease in tackles+interceptions p90.

This combination of work-rate and ball-winning skill puts him in rarified air for an offensive player and might be what is most promising about Damsgaard as a prospect.

His pressing is textbook; he effortlessly flows into different angles to cut off passing options and force ball carriers into uncomfortable situations. However, it’s the purposefulness and intensity of his execution that stands out. Damsgaard doesn’t just run hard and fast with solid fundamentals — he applies himself with an artfulness and focus that technicians normally reserve for their offensive actions.

His agility isn’t solely for dribbling — it’s also useful to track down dribblers; his pitch-mapping isn’t restricted to aiding retention and passing — it can be used to organically shut down emerging outlets, too.

Damsgaard leverages the qualities that make him a good (modern) 10 to excel on defense.

It’s that constantly revving motor and commitment to playmaking without the the ball that forces teams into coughing up possession in more dynamic, un-planned sequences.

Even if you don’t watch a single second more, please view the first clip in the above video. The speed at which he processes information and acts on it are only slightly more astonishing than the fact that he tracks back from the halfway line and is already anticipating something well before the descriptive text appears on the screen.

Damsgaard’s utility in these contexts has been crucial for Hjulmand’s game plans, allowing Denmark to employ a proactive, high-pressing style without compromising on the silky traits necessary to ensure the viability of a vertical, block-splitting offense.

Specialists are going extinct because they would force a coach like Hjulmand into making a trade-off, putting a cap on his side’s full potential. There isn’t room anymore for those who can’t defend.

But football will always have a place for those who can receive in the tightest of areas, spin by a tackle, and thread a killer pass. The modern game hasn’t killed that or the 10. What it has extinguished are number 10’s who can’t be arsed to do anything else.


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