The utility man: the life of a versatile footballer

“James Milner” by Mafue is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


James Milner, Philipp Lahm, Callum Paterson, Michael Antonio, Daniel Wass, Ashley Young. The list goes on, and while these players are of varying quality, there’s one word that springs to mind when they’re mentioned.


“Versatile”


While this is true, it’s always raised a number of questions for me. Players who can play in many different positions across the pitch are my favourite kind of player, but does the category undermine their individual quality? Are all players in some way adaptable, but simply want to play in their preferred position? Are their “primary position” instincts a detriment to them when they fill in elsewhere?

The most common Shapeshifter

Most players that spring to mind when versatility is brought up are central midfielders/ full backs. While different, the full back and the central midfielder have much the same boxes to tick to be good at their jobs (some more important than others).


● Stamina


● Good going forward and at defending


● Have a wide passing range (crossing more so for the full back)


● Often good at set pieces


The two positions require much the same traits, so does that mean a midfielder could consistently play full back effectively and vice versa? I don’t think so. Of course, it heavily depends on the tactical setup of the team, but there are certain habits that players of both positions pick up. For example, a natural full back will tend to drift wide from a midfield position, unnecessarily being dragged into the oppositions’ play on the wing and leaving space open as a result. In the case of midfielders, they may look for more penetrative passes into the box rather than crossing it, perhaps giving the opponent a quicker counter attack if they intercept on the ground rather than in the air. The opposite of the full back, they’ll wander narrow into the middle of the pitch. I could list many more, but the bottom line is I believe being a good versatile player involves killing the habits other positions bring.

This is one way in which the utility player is underrated, while all footballers could probably play a number of positions, the mental adaptability to leave behind the habits of other roles when playing in a certain area isn’t very common, and that’s a huge part of the reason why these players such as Milner don’t look out of place. While simply appearing once in a different position will attract plaudits for being versatile, I believe the cracks will begin to show over a longer period of time for most players.

Despite being at one of the world’s biggest clubs, Sergi Roberto of Barcelona is a perfect example of this. The La Masia graduate started off as a midfielder, and was molded also into a right back by ex-Barça manager Luis Enrique. Initially lauded for his flexibility, Roberto has drawn frustration from the Barcelona faithful. He did well enough to still be at the club today but barely changed his habits from his midfield time- average passing, a strong work ethic and a tendency to be shaky in his defensive duties. That last area in his game is what cemented him as a rotation player and nothing more.

Roberto’s lack of adaptability to cover this defensive weakness caused La Liga teams to target his side of the pitch when attacking Barcelona. His midfield habits saw the Blaugrana buy in other right backs- Nelson Semedo, and now Sergiño Dest.
Of course, habits can be moulded into working a treat. The tactic of playing full backs that join the midfield in possession is a way, largely fashioned by Pep Guardiola, to have more passing options. Maybe naming central midfielders at full back will become the norm for teams playing possession football? I’m excited to see how this develops. Guardiola took this innovation from Bayern Munich to Manchester City, and it’s worked admirably (in domestic competition, anyway).

Overlooked

On the left, right, and through the middle, I don’t feel that players that can attack effectively on both wings and up front get enough credit.
Bar being very comfortable with both feet, the two wings are very different. Your pure winger will likely do a lot more sprinting as beating their man for pace means a free cross or shot on their stronger foot, while your “inverted winger” must be more technical to create space in the central areas of the pitch if they want to avoid depending on their weaker one in wide areas. The inverted winger is much more likely to shoot than cross as cutting inside will put them in central shooting positions.

They’re two different roles with much the same requirements for a player to be good at them, but the above differences show that it may be more difficult for wingers to adapt than it might seem on paper.

Don’t even get me started on strikers.


The biggest dilemma for those that lead the line is often whether to shoot themselves, or pass to somebody in a better position. Strikers that feel the burden of their job to score goals often make the wrong decision. This increases tenfold with players that can play on one or both wings. Striking the wrong balance when changing between these positions could lead to becoming a striker who passes too much and loses their cutting edge when finishing, or a winger who goes for the headlines from tight shooting angles. Of course, strikers who are wingers on the starting lineup sheet are likely there to get into shooting positions regardless, but even then, the adaptability to play off the player named as striker, rather than trying to be the focal point, is crucial.

Playing strikers on the wing is often seen as “shoehorning” as an attempt to get the most skilful players in as opposed to fielding the best team, but I have the utmost respect for strikers that can play seamlessly out wide. A mixture of unselfishness and good decision making helps these players thrive, and it must be a dream for managers that have these types of players that are dangerous wherever across the front they play.

Conversely, I also salute wingers that can play up top and score goals consistently. Inconsistency and lack of end product are traits common in wingers, right from grassroots football up to world level, so players like Kylian Mbappe and Marcus Rashford that can come inside and maintain productive in their goal contributions are somewhat of a rarity and deserve all the respect that they get, and should get more as they continue to grow.


Here, there, everywhere!

I can talk about attributes that suit the versatile player all I want, but there are certain players that can/ could play in so many different positions all you can do is watch and applaud. Wayne Rooney played from anywhere across the front to lying deep in midfield. Lee McCulloch could play as far forward or back as he was told to as long as it was in the centre of the park, though I’m told by Rangers fans he wasn’t the best at any of these positions. Callum Paterson, despite drawing criticism from the Scotland support, has played every place on the pitch bar centre half. Michail Antonio is mainly a striker now, but he used to be a right back. Bastian Schweinsteiger started his career mainly on the flanks, spent his prime in central midfield and retired as a centre back in MLS. For Ross County, my club, we have Charlie Lakin on loan from Birmingham. He’s played in central midfield, at left back, and on both wings!

The Future

As the game continues to evolve, I believe that versatile players will thrive even more. With the emphasis on tactical systems rather than personnel, players that can do a job without being outstanding in many positions will look like world beaters in a well thought out setup.

Even under average coaching though, the utility player will continue to be a huge part of the game, easing the minds of managers dealing with suspension and injury woes in squads worldwide.

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