Are positions a thing of the past?
This question came to me as I sat, contemplating how many different roles Daley Blind is likely to play for Manchester United next season. Left back? For sure. For Shaw. Centre-back in a back three? Seems likely at some point. Defensive midfield? Definitely. Wing back in a 3-5-2? I wouldn’t bet against it.
Blind isn’t the only one who can no longer point to a position and call it their own. While versatile players and utility men have always existed, and while ‘total football’ has always encouraged 100% positional dexterity, players now seem to need far more flexibility than in the recent past. Indeed, in some cases, the amount of appearances they make is in direct correlation with how many positions they can play. In other words, how many injuries or suspensions can one player cover for?
Players like Phil Neville and Giovanni van Bronckhorst were prime examples of this. Did they have quality? Certainly, and especially in the case of van Bronckhorst. But, would they have made 505 and 422 career appearances respectively without their ability to cover multiple positions? A different question entirely.
Across the board, players are being required to be comfortable in an increasing amount of roles. When playing out from the back recently became popular again – perhaps due to Pep’s Barcelona – centre-backs needed to be better on the ball. Lo and behold, defensive midfielders were asked to transition. Mascherano is now as much a centre-back as he is a midfielder. Carrick has spent time in defense for Manchester United. Javi Martinez is, or sadly was before his injury problems, an uncategorizable defensive behemoth, and Xabi Alonso has recently made playing in a back-three look as easy as eating a sandwich.
Speaking of Munich, full-backs have become midfielders. Yes, David Alaba has always – in his short career – been poly-positional, but Phillip Lahm was a full-back nearly his whole life. The last few seasons? One of the best holding midfielders around. Indeed, in some games Guardiola has used his full-backs in two positions at once. In possession, they’d move into the central midfield area as the midfielders pushed up, or wide. Without possession, they’d become full-backs again. How’s that for tactical and positional flexibility?
So if full-backs are becoming midfielders, who are the new full-backs? Wingers, of course. Attacking wide players have been converted to full/wing backs for years. Ashley Cole was a striker originally. Danny Rose was a winger. However, those transformations tended to come early in the player’s career, before they were first team regulars. Last season saw Louis Van Gaal use Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia – two veteran wingers – as wing-backs. Neither blinded the world with their defensive work but their performances were adequate, and they got the team through tough periods.
Let’s move up the pitch. While some wingers have been forced backwards into defensive roles, some have been moved inside and given more creative responsibility. The resurgence of the 4-4-2 diamond over the last two seasons saw Brendan Rogers get the best out of Raheem Sterling in 2013/14 by playing him at #10, and utilizing his pace to make space for the strikers. Sam Allardyce saw this success and followed suit with Stewart Downing, employing him centrally behind Sakho and Valencia last season. It led to an absolute renaissance for the former England midfielder, to the extent that people actually really wanted him in their fantasy league teams. It was a bizarre time for us all, especially considering that Downing seems now to be about to complete a voluntary move back to Championship side Middlesbrough.
So that’s from out to in. What about the inverse? At Arsenal, Arsene Wenger’s deployment of both Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere as right-sided attacking midfielders worked well last season, especially in big games. Ramsey especially offered an all-round role, protecting Bellerin behind him, joining in the central midfield carousel and taking up goal-scoring positions darting inside from the right. Santi Cazorla meanwhile made the transition from attacking midfielder to deep-lying playmaker. From this deeper role, the diminutive Spaniard made tackles, dictated the play, used his quick feet to retain possession and generally bossed games. It was one of the most successful pieces of evolution since opposable thumbs.
At the sharp end of the pitch, the false nine has slipped in and out of fashion, but even prolific goal-scorers are now being asked to be able to play-make. Under Mancini, Sergio Aguero often played in the hole behind another striker. Wayne Rooney has always dropped deep to get involved in the play, but last season he was used as a central midfielder until it was clear that Van Persie and Falcao wouldn’t be able to score in an opium den.
At Barcelona and Real Madrid, the role of the central striker has more to do with getting the best out of the wide forwards than scoring goals. Suarez and Benzema still finished last season with excellent records, but their main remit was to create space for Neymar, Messi, Ronaldo and Bale. In the mid-90s had you told Romario that his primary function was to serve as a snow-blower for Gheorghe Hagi, he’d have probably knocked you out or died laughing. These days, the game’s poachers or “fox-in-the-box” types like Chicharito, Defoe and Soldado are staggering around in a daze, wondering what happened to the football they knew, and whether they’ll get a flick on from a target man ever again.
The game has once more moved toward the collective. Yes, in Messi and Ronaldo we are witnessing two of the world’s greatest individual talents, but in general, teams are moving away from over-reliance on any one player. They defend from the front, and build attacks from the back. Even goalkeepers need to be better with their feet than they did in the past. As managers look for new ways to break down a 10-man defenses or stifle an opposition’s midfield, they are changing their systems more frequently than ever. In order to do so, they need players who can play a variety of roles.
As this process continues, we see ever-fewer single-role players. Instead, player development focuses on producing technical machines with an arsenal of attributes that can be used anywhere on the field. It may be why when looking at the transfer market, there are countless young, brilliant midfielders, but very few strikers of exceptional quality. For better or worse, the specialist is perhaps a dying breed, being replaced by the consummate all-rounder. For a while, we thought ‘total football’ had been consigned to history. The truth is, it’s been creeping up on us, and the modern game might just be as close to the revered philosophy as it has ever been.