Bayer Leverkusen's Florian Wirtz was in sublime form in 2023/24 and is giving the iconic number 10 a modern twist. - © Alexander Scheuber/Bundesliga
Bayer Leverkusen's Florian Wirtz was in sublime form in 2023/24 and is giving the iconic number 10 a modern twist. - © Alexander Scheuber/Bundesliga

How Bayer Leverkusen's Florian Wirtz is reinventing the No.10 role


Florian Wirtz was a stand-out performer in Bayer Leverkusen's historic unbeaten Bundesliga season in the mercurial number 10 role. Here, details how he is revolutionising the position for Xabi Alonso's side.

Shortly before the start of Leverkusen’s 2023/24 season, a rather innocuous announcement regarding star man Florian Wirtz was published on the club’s website:

“Bayer 04 player Florian Wirtz now has a different squad number. The 20-year-old will wear the number 10 shirt at his own request following Kerem Demirbay’s move to Galatasaray. Wirtz, at Leverkusen since 2020, always wanted to wear the number 10 shirt.”

That number is a historic one in the world of football, with Pelé, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi just three of the game’s legends who made it their own. A certain creative brilliance is expected from whoever wears it, but the extra pressure has not fazed Wirtz.

On top of a key role in Die Werkself’s procession to the Bundesliga title, he netted Germany’s quickest ever goal versus France during the last international break after just seven seconds, although that wasn’t his own personal record – he once found the back of the net within five for Cologne’s U19s.

The modern game often does not facilitate a No.10, but Wirtz has terrorised defences both domestically and internationally as he keeps the iconic position alive.

Having recovered from a career-threatening ACL injury in 2021, the 21-year-old has since lit up stadiums across Germany. But just how has he done it?

World-class technique

Since making his debut in 2020, it has become clear that one of Wirtz’s most lethal weapons is his technique. He has an immaculate first touch that buys him time to assess his options and give opposing defenders a dilemma – either stay on your feet and allow the youngster to progress unchallenged or jump in quickly and risk being embarrassed.

Additionally, Wirtz is a pass master and is remarkably accurate and tidy for a No.10. As of 17 April 2024, he placed 11th in Europe’s big five leagues for completed 5-15 metres passes (89 percent success rate), which ranks alongside the likes of Granit Xhaka, Rodri, and William Saliba – players who are not required to make risky, searching or backline-splitting passes for high ball-retention outfits.

In the Bundesliga alone, he had completed a league-leading 41 one-twos, while only Martin Ødegaard has managed a higher number of successful passes into the penalty area across Europe’s top five divisions by this point of the season. Volume, efficiency and impact – Wirtz has it all.

Watch: The best passes from Wizard Wirtz

Tactical intelligence

Wirtz has long displayed a tactical understanding beyond his years. That much was clear while playing U17 football as a 14-year-old and, besides four matches, bypassing the U19s to make his Bundesliga bow. His ability to wriggle out of tight areas makes him difficult to mark, and he can beat anyone in a one-on-one duel anywhere on the pitch.

As such, he is particularly adept at analysing in offensive positions, whether that be pinning and drawing in the full-back in a back four or creating two-versus-one openings against a back five. Leverkusen often look to find Wirtz between the lines to progress up the field quickly – he ranked in the top 10 in terms of progressive receptions in Europe’s top five divisions by mid-April.

Also, he quickly recognises when to come deep and offer an outlet against a high press, as well as the right time to go for the kill or take the pace out of the encounter.

Wirtz is tactically adept and can quickly work out the best option in attacking situations. - IMAGO/Joris Verwijst

End product

Again, Wirtz features highly amongst those with the most shot-creating actions in Europe’s top five leagues, but he is out on his own when it comes to goal-creating actions. While his finishing ability has never been in question – his first-ever Bundesliga goal came against none other than Manuel Neuer – he was previously perhaps guilty of being too unselfish.

In 2023/24, though, as the creative talisman in Alonso’s set-up, he took aim himself far more frequently (2.59 shots per 90 minutes by 17 April compared to 1.75 across his career) and accurately (1.43 shots on target per 90 compared to 0.73).

He has proven reliable in front of goal, too, converting six of his 10 big chances by mid-April for a ratio of 60 percent, which ranked favourably against the more prolific players in the top flight such as Loïs Openda (11/24 for 45.5 percent) and Deniz Undav (10/18 for 55.5 percent).

Watch: Every Wirtz goal and assist in the Bundesliga this season

Work rate

The game’s great No.10s all have the first three characteristics in their armoury, but Wirtz’s work off the ball is an extra skill he possesses, and it often goes unnoticed. He has a clear willingness to contribute even without the ball – he is in the Bundesliga’s top 10 this season for duels won and interceptions. Wirtz is eager to press and is therefore an extremely valuable attacker for Alonso’s philosophy.

Maradona and Messi, to name but two, were free-spirited artists who were allowed to concentrate on the best parts of their game at the expense of their defensive duties. According to those who know Wirtz best, though, he is an incredibly consistent and competitive trainer.

For a player with his skillset, he also offers tireless running – his average of 7.6 miles (12.3 kilometres) covered and 33 sprints per outing put him in the Bundesliga’s top five in both categories by the time of Leverkusen's title win. And, behind the cheeky grin is a battler eager to do the dirty work. For example, only Heidenheim’s Tim Kleindienst and Bochum’s Bernardo had contested more duels, while Wirtz was on top of the pile in terms of ground duels won. Unsurprisingly, he is often targeted by the opposition, but he is capable of riding tackles and is not one to go down easily.

The Bayer Leverkusen ace is also no afraid to get involved defensively. - IMAGO/Michael Taeger

Like all leading No.10s, Wirtz has a knack for seizing the moment, having done so on numerous occasions to produce the divine. We have seen it so often in a Leverkusen shirt - his hat-trick off the bench to secure the title just the headline act of recent months - and his strike against France was surely the first of many for his country, too.

In Jamal Musiala, Wirtz has significant competition for the role in Julian Nagelsmann’s Euro 2024 side, but the head coach was able to tease the duo working in tandem against Les Bleus and the Netherlands in the March international break. That, in itself, made for a mouth-watering prospect for Germany supporters, and a nightmarish one for followers of other teams in the European championship.