Joe Tweeds of Plains of Almeria examines the role of the multifunctional footballer…
Adroit footballers operating in several positions throughout their career is not a modern phenomenon. John Charles, arguably the finest dual-threat player ever, was both a world class centre forward and centre back; often during the same game. Likewise, players have historically operated across a back four, in midfield or attack in several defined roles. However, recent developments from both a technical and tactical perspective have seemingly taken this versatility one step further. Multifunctional players are determining European Cups and league titles and the trend looks set to continue.
Looking back at Claude Makélélé’s time with Chelsea provides the perfect juxtaposition to the modern holding midfielder. The man who is the only footballer to have an actual position named after him was the perfect defensive midfielder. Makélélé possessed a positional sense that few have ever matched, married with superlative defensive instincts. He was the battery in an expensive watch and naturally the ‘Makélélé Role’ was coined.
In a time where teams were still largely operating on a 4-4-2 basis Makélélé provided the platform for José Mourinho’s devastating counterattacking football. His role was simple and overlooked by those who ran Madrid. Their loss was undoubtedly Mourinho’s gain and Makélélé enabled Chelsea to dominate the Premier League for a two-year period. As the game evolved the requirements of the midfield anchor man deviated from those of a purely defensive failsafe. The birth of the regista (at least in the consciousness of mainstream football) gave prominence to artistic brilliance and the passing acumen of Andrea Pirlo. It even led to a domestic clamour for the conversion of David Beckham into a ‘quarterback’.
This evolution continued to form a dichotomy between those players regarded as defensive midfielders. Simplistically, there were destroyers and creators. Xabi Alonso versus Nigel de Jong in the 2010 World Cup Final was arguably the perfect example of this deviation from the classic holding player; a creative deep lying playmaker facing an aggressive destructive ball winner. Football had developed to a point whereby your midfield pivot was perfectly balanced with a creative and destructive influence. Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano at Liverpool still remain one of the most perfectly balanced pairings we have seen. Mascherano providing all the bite in midfield and Alonso using his sublime range of passing to dictate play.
Barcelona’s undeniable brilliance then took things a step further and amalgamated these two aspects to restore the natural advantages of a three man midfield. Mourinho’s take on the advantages of 2v3 in midfield are particularly worth reading. While it pains me to say it (particularly if Rob Brown reads this, as poking fun at Busquets is a great source of fun for me) the entrance of Sergio Busquets completed this particular cycle of holding player evolution. Histrionics aside, Busquets is equally comfortable in any third of the field and has both the technical and tactical brilliance to play as the perfect foil. He is probably the best singular holding player on the planet. It is his role and ability in particular that allows Barcelona to flourish. Combining the defensive aspects of his contemporaries with a comfort on the ball honed in La Masia, Busquets’ arrival released Andrés Iniesta and Xavi to the echelons of lavish praise.
Nevertheless, despite Barcelona finding the perfect winning formula, football does not stand still for long. The central midfield role grew once again and, in my opinion, went a stage further than what Busquets could deliver. The arrival of more athletic and attack minded players, equally capable of defensive brilliance came to the foreground. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba, Thiago Alcântara, İlkay Gündoğan, Yaya Touré and Lars Bender all embody this multidimensional direction midfield players are heading. Equally comfortable executing their defensive role as well as progressing play, they bring dynamism, power and ultimately attacking impetus to their teams. It is no longer good enough to have someone playing simple passes and someone being expansive, these players want to do it all.
Watching Arturo Vidal in particular is a look at the current epitome of midfield play. He is a tenacious tackler, athletic presser, exquisite passer, goal scorer and the heartbeat of Juventus. Covering ground at an exceptional rate both in and out of possession, he has taken elements from successful midfielders and added a domineering blitz of athleticism. When paired with another multifunctional midfielder as he is frequently in Paul Pogba the effect is devastating. Bayern Munich’s current midfield blend is testament to the power of imbuing a side with multiple all-encompassing threats. Others dominate in a different fashion to Vidal, be it slightly more skilful or a better creative eye, but the Chilean rarely loses a midfield battle against any opponent.
While central midfielders are certainly leading the way in this revolution, they are not unique in welcoming in a new dawn. Oscar usurping Juan Mata at Chelsea is a further sign of the wider implications of this tangible shift in deploying definitively pigeonholed players. Mata remains one of the best classic number tens in world football, but in a game characterised increasingly by defensive pressing, Mata is left behind. Oscar may not yet have Mata’s wonderful sense of timing or creative invention, but he conducts play majestically whilst also leading Chelsea’s defensive efforts. In fact, there are very few pure number tens left in football. This partly explains the ‘failure’ of Shinji Kagawa at Manchester United and Mesut Özil’s recent struggle at Arsenal. Teams seemingly can no longer afford to carry a creative influence.
Wide areas in particular have undergone a huge transformation over recent years. From traditional wingers to defensive wingers and now an extension of the carillero role often found in a midfield diamond. The use of Ángel Di María and Willian as hyper-athletic shuttlers seems to be the latest tactical nuance emerging from European football. Their deployment allows a team to both press with intensity and counterattack furiously. There is little distinction in their defined purpose: they are key in both defensive shape and attacking situations. Retaining the innate ability with the ball that keeps them capable of both scoring and assisting with a developed defensive capability is crucial to modern shape. While Ronaldo and Hazard both do their fair share of defensive work, having a selfless bookend removes some of this burden. This naturally allows Ronaldo and Hazard to position themselves effectively for any quick transitions, explaining their devastating ability to counterattack.
The position of striker is perhaps where the greatest level of deviation has occurred. From Messi’s revolutionary deployment as a false nine, to traditional target men being phased out of the game, times have certainly changed. The game is still ultimately about scoring goals, but strikers are now expected to be able to link play like a classic ten, drop into pockets and allow others to run beyond them. Pure finishers are few and far between and even those deemed so, like Radamel Falcao, are heavily involved in their sides overall attacking shape.
A chasm between elite teams and the rest has largely dictated this change in striker profile. The depth a back four sits drastically alters depending on the level of opposition. Two mid-table teams are likely to attack one another and afford space behind their back four more readily than if they were to play the league leaders with a world class striker. Therefore, having Sergio Agüero or Luis Suárez lead your line is likely to yield more goals than a powerful option (Didier Drogba, aside). This in part explains why Mourinho is reticent to entrust Romelu Lukaku with the number one striker berth at Chelsea. Lukaku has not developed the intricacies in his play that allowed Drogba to be effective against all levels of opposition. These intricacies allow teams to find a way around any proverbial buses.
The reality being that Messi or Agüero can both drop deep into midfield to create, slash into wide areas, play on the shoulder and simply act as a decoy pulling defenders entirely out of position. This range of skills comes from operating in several areas across their career, but are a clear step away from strikers in the Alan Shearer mould. With the evolution of wide players, number tens and midfielders a team needs a striker capable of interlinking and finishing the puzzle. Robert Lewandowksi’s acquisition by Bayern Munich is essentially their coup de grâce – the perfect striker for their system.
With football transitioning into an era of changing positional parameters, defenders are also following the convention. Full-backs are expected to provide both an element of defensive stability and consistent overloads to advance play. You cannot simply be a good defender anymore. Centre backs are now encouraged to step into midfield and instigate attacking phases of play (something we still frown upon in England). Even goalkeepers are now asked to act as a genuine sweeper, allowing their defence in theory to adopt a high block and drastically squeeze play.
This transformation that is slowly happening in world football may, to some extent, remove some of the aesthetic beauty from the game. In the world of using heat maps and kilometres run as metrics to judge a performance, the lack of ability to quantify an exquisite pass or piece of skill fades into the background. Do “completed take ons” really do justice to a devastatingly beautiful piece of dribbling filled with balance and trickery? Is a failed attempted through ball to remain as a detrimental impact on a passing percentage? Or do we applaud the esoteric vision to even see the pass in the first place?
Football will continue to become quicker, more physical and players more technically accomplished. Tactics and deployments will likely continue to twist and turn and perhaps a hugely successful team will return to playing an explicitly creative player with little to no defensive burden. While I doubt this happens any time soon, it is interesting to note that many English academies have already begun coaching players along this road of being multifunctional.
Chelsea, in particular, make sure every central midfielder frequently plays in the 6-8-10 roles defined by the club. The six being a deeper midfielder, the eight being a box-to-box and the ten being self-evident: there is an emphasis on learning, playing and developing in each rotational position. Centre backs are expected to either step into midfield or wide as a full-back. Strikers play as wingers and vice-versa. It is no longer a unique skill that enables a player like Vidal to look so dominant in any phase of play, youngsters are being coached to become Swiss army knives.
The destination of this season’s Champions League will likely tell you everything about the future direction of football. Will Bayern Munich’s multifunctional assortment of stars triumph over Barcelona’s philosophical rigidity again? I personally know who I would back in that exchange, but who knows what impact a fully fit Messi could have in a one-off final? The future of football is not so much about defined roles, but filling a team with excellent all-round players. There should always be a place for the exceptionally talented defined role player, but those days appear to be fading quite quickly.