How the 2000s changed tactics #9: Versatile attacking players

January 21, 2010

Lionel Messi - trequartista / winger / forward

The great attacking players of the late 1990s were easy to pin down to specific positions. Gabriel Batistuta, George Weah and Ronaldo were central forwards; Zinedine Zidane and Manuel Rui Costa were central playmakers; Luis Figo, Ryan Giggs and Marc Overmars were wingers.Today, even established great players seem to face arguments about what their best position is. Cristiano Ronaldo is traditionally a winger but increasingly plays upfront, Lionel Messi started as a classic Argentine No 10 in a central playmaking position, then became established as a wide forward, now occasionally plays up top. No-one seems decided on Wayne Rooney’s best position – ‘in the hole’ behind a striker, upfront himself, or as a wide player helping to track back? There are exceptions, of course – Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Fernando Torres remain undeniably strikers, but it doesn’t negate the argument that many top players simply don’t have a ‘favoured position’ these days.

There are five reasons why this has occurred:

First, the dominant system has changed across Europe from 4-4-2, to 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 / 4-3-3. This has meant the decline of the old-fashioned wide midfielder in the David Beckham mould, and the advance of the winger who plays higher up the pitch – therefore more likely to be pacey, direct and a decent finisher. In the meantime, the desire for the central striker to be both fast and good on the ball has led to an inevitable similarity between the players who occupy wide and central forward positions. (Hence, a Thierry Henry or an Andriy Arshavin can comfortably fill either the central striking position or the wide forward role, but neither would be effective in a wide role in a 4-4-2.) There is the more simple argument, of course, that with the pitch increasingly being broken into four sections (4-2-3-1) rather than three (4-4-2), it’s simply a smaller distance away from a forward’s comfort zone to play wide in a 4-2-3-1 compared to a 4-4-2.

Cristiano Ronaldo - winger / striker

Second, the rise of the squad game. This will be covered in greater deal later on in this mini-series, but there is little doubt that the depth and quality of the squads of top teams has increased hugely in the past ten years. Squad rotation is no longer a questionable concept, it is a must. So, simple mathematics dictates that if you have four forwards competing for three forward positions, you’re going to need at least one (probably more) to be able to fill more than role effectively, or else you’ll be forced to exclude one player from the rotation system and play him every game, to the detriment of his ability to play well each game. Therefore a player like Cristiano Ronaldo, who can play multiple roles, becomes a necessity more than a luxury.

Third, the importance placed upon movement in the modern game. Again, this will be covered in greater depth at a later date, but good, intelligent movement has become the key to unlocking opposition defences. This means both that (a) Players will often end up finishing an attacking move in a different position to which they started it, and then remain there and (b) As this continues to happen over a sustained period of time, the player will adapt to the different role and become comfortable there.

Wayne Rooney - striker / in the hole / winger

Fourth, there is an argument that playing attacking players in different roles effectively ‘is’ modern football tactics. Almost every top European side sets up with four defenders and (at least) two central midfield players. There is little sign of a three-man defence, for example. Therefore formations boils down to managers playing attacking players in different roles each week to outwit opponents.

Lastly, youth development of a player’s tactical roles has become more advanced, particularly abroad. It is players from Spain, Portugal and Holland who are amongst the most comfortable in 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 systems. Whilst English football has traditionally trained players to be comfortable in 4-4-2 and 4-4-2 alone, foreign clubs have been much more adept as developing players as versatile. As Jose Mourinho says, ‘I can’t believe that in England they don’t teach young players to be multi-functional. To them it’s just about knowing one position and playing that position. For me, a striker is not a striker. He is somebody who has to move, who has to cross, and who has to do this in a 4-4-2 or in a 3-5-2, each of which is different.’

The concept of an attacking player being versatile is not a new invention, of course – Bobby Charlton, for one, played numerous roles throughout his career. But today, being versatile is crucial. In the 1990s it was not unusual to look upon a player comfortable in different roles as a bit of a pain, especially at international level: players like Paul Merson or Enrico Chiesa were probably ten years before their time.

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