In a squad of 25 players, every manager may look to have ideally two players in each position to cope with fatigue and injuries as the season goes by. Yet given the physicality (especially the EPL), the frequency of fixtures of various competitions and the need to adapt to different formations against different opponents, managers do not only have to deal with players’ availability, but also the formations’ flexibility. To overcome the size limitation of the registered squad, versatility of the players is the answer.
The Italian Serie A was amongst the first cradles of versatile players in recent years, especially Juventus, where Alessandro Birindelli, Gianluca Pessotto and Cristian Panucci were all capable of playing comfortably and convincingly in at least two positions in the back four and they all represented Italian National Team.
Wingers are also trained to play on both flanks to provide options for managers, as well as confusions to opponents. Chelsea famously started both Damien Duff and Arjen Robben in the 4-3-3 formation. Both have now adapted, or even excelled, to play on their weaker foot side. Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and N’Zogbia are some more examples of wingers whose preferred positions are not their stronger foot side flanks now.
Nowadays the versatility has extended from different sides to different roles of the pitch. A versatile player is now expected to be able to fulfill in different roles, such as a centreback capable of playing as a full back or a defensive midfield may need to deputize in a central defender role. To name a few, John O’Shea and Phil Neville should come to one’s mind when talking about versatile defenders. O’Shea could play anywhere in the back four and Phil Neville could easily fit in as an attacking full back and wide midfielder on both sides as well as a defensive midfielder. Kieran Richardson is also a quite versatile player having regularly played at different positions including full back, left wing and attacking midfielder in his time at Man Utd and now Sunderland.
Have you noticed the 3 players mentioned were all once Man Utd players? It is perhaps more a systematic training more than coincidence. Once having a coveted squad with Beckham and Giggs flanking the Dutch goal machine Van Nistelrooy, Giggs’ injury forced Sir Alex to start Scholes on the left side of the midfield ahead of their reserve left wingers. They have since produced or brought in more versatile players in their attacking front, viz Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani, Rooney, Ji-Sung Park. On the other end, Carrick, Fletcher and Valencia are all emergent defenders since the defenders crisis last season.
Man Utd is now topping the league table in spite of the absence of key members Vidic, Fletcher as well as Anderson, Cleverley, Nani and so on. The result could definitely be attributed to, in addition to their team morale, the versatility of the squad players to cope with so many injuries. Their 7-men bench can also offer Sir Alex handful of choices to inject tactical surprise in the middle of the game.
In today’s physical modern football and inflating transfer markets, mid or low-table teams would treasure versatile players more, which allow themselves to maintain adequate manpower with limited budget. West Brom enjoys the service of Scharner and Steven Reid in either defender or midfielder position, while Heltinga, Jagielka, Osman and Fellaini have all played in at least two positions for Everton.
Versatility brings about the potential for changes which produces unpredictability and surprises. As the old Chinese saying in the Art of War says, if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win 100 battles without a single loss. Versatility could thus be hard for your opponents to get hold of and your team will be more likely to win.
Seldom are these versatile players starring individuals in their respective preferred position, but they are the truly valuable building stones to a team’s success. They might not have the 50M label on their backs, but they work their socks off to expand their comfort zones on the pitch. When Mancini complains about their lack of squad depth (What?) and Kenny Dalglish moans about the congested fixtures, please start to appreciate these versatile role players before splashing cash in the market. We should not let money over-shadow the real spirit of football.
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