Jose Mourinho had his perfect 10. “He is unique,” he said. “There is no copy of him, not even a bad copy. He is the best No. 10 in the world.” But he was speaking in 2013, long before he became Manchester United manager. The object of his admiration was not one of his current charges, but an opponent on Saturday. He was discussing Mesut Ozil.
These comments have a renewed pertinence, and not just because the fixture list brings a reunion this weekend. There is speculation that Mourinho would like to bring Ozil to Old Trafford. While Arsenal may have Mourinho’s ideal player behind the striker, United possess a variety of imperfect No. 10s. Or, to be fairer, they have a group of players who can operate in the pivotal creative position but who have not yet made a cast-iron case to occupy the role.
Man United have a disparate, different group offering a range of attributes. There are power and touch players: some who are essentially midfielders, others who are really forwards. Some seem the opposite of the diminutive, delicate and flighty Ozil in their size and force. Mourinho has named starting XIs with four of them in his team at the same time: The question always revolves around which are accommodated as well as who gets the honour of being the No.10, with the implicit idea the team is being built around them.
Mourinho’s original plan was both unsuccessful and unsustainable. He began with Wayne Rooney, who offered neither creativity nor goals in sufficient measures. The manager has since tried Juan Mata; with his terrific Old Trafford displays against Leicester, Burnley and Fenerbahce, he has seemed the most compelling choice. Mourinho has also experimented with Paul Pogba, partly in a defensive measure to permit him to field two other central midfielders, though the world’s most expensive player scored and starred as a No. 10 at Swansea.
Yet Mourinho has still not used the bemusingly marginalised Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who seems United’s closest comparison to Ozil in the central role behind a striker, a role that may suit the Armenian best. Nor has Mourinho adopted the suggestion of some and played Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who operated for Sweden as a No. 10) behind Marcus Rashford so the teenager can stretch the game with his pace.
Perhaps thankfully, Mourinho has not borrowed former United manager Louis van Gaal’s most direct tactic of deploying Marouane Fellaini in an advanced position. The current United manager could yet copy Gareth Southgate, who deployed Jesse Lingard as a No. 10 for much of England’s 2-2 draw with Spain on Tuesday night. Mourinho has options aplenty, but each involves an element of compromise, given that he must omit some others and play some more out of position. The job-share thus far has felt unsatisfactory.
In contrast, at Arsenal, that great example of continuity, Ozil’s primacy has been apparent since his 2013 arrival. He joined a club with many an alternative No. 10. But Tomas Rosicky has been released, Jack Wilshere was loaned out, and Santi Cazorla was converted into a deep-lying playmaker. The competition has disappeared. Only Aaron Ramsey really covets the No. 10 spot, though he would play there in a very different way. The Welshman is more of a classic British goal-scoring midfielder, while Ozil is an enigmatic talent.
Ozil is also defiantly different. He was scouted by United in 2010 and persuaded to join Real Madrid by Mourinho via a phone call. He was the Portuguese’s third and last great No. 10, following Deco and Wesley Sneijder. Mourinho’s second Chelsea side had Oscar, preferred as the No. 10 to Mata and Kevin de Bruyne for his combative qualities, but the Brazilian does not belong in their bracket. He contributed too few goals and assists. Mourinho’s first Chelsea team, playing 4-3-3, did not have a No. 10, which freed up space for Frank Lampard to be prolific.
Ozil can seem to be a fleeting aesthete, but Mourinho values productivity above all. In that No. 10 role, stylist Ozil actually offers substance. In three seasons in La Liga, he chalked up 60 assists in La Liga and the Champions League. It is little wonder that he formed a mutual admiration society with the finisher supreme, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Mourinho values efficiency. He usually plays the numbers game, although as Mata can testify, not always. The Spaniard recorded 20 goals and 25 assists in 2012-13, the year before the manager returned to Stamford Bridge, but his lack of pace seemed to be held against him. Perhaps it is telling that even after their rapprochement, and even though the Spaniard occasionally stands in as captain, Mourinho trusts him to play as a No. 10 only at home. Perhaps he heeded history more by starting the season with Rooney, who scored 34 times as a No. 10 in 2011-12, yet not noticing his decline. But it is true that the Englishman’s best season, in 2009-10, came when he led the line.
It means United are a rarity: They have rarely had a top-class No. 10 in recent seasons. They have not had one this year partly due to inconsistency in selection from a manager who has historically been noted for clarity of thought.
And so perhaps the answer is to end the contest, abandon the search for their Ozil and instead use Pogba in his Juventus role on the left of a midfield trio in a 4-3-3; it was Lampard’s position in Mourinho’s best Chelsea team. Yet this seems a season defined by attacking midfielders: Ozil, Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Adam Lallana have excelled as No. 10s for their rivals while United remain unsure of their equivalent.
No manager has more candidates for the role, but Mourinho’s eventual decision will drive the direction of his United team, shaping their pattern of play, determining if they are attacking or counterattacking, physical or technical. That choice needs to made sooner rather than later.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.