By Mark Docherty
Football has changed in a multitude of ways in recent times, with different aspects of the game becoming more prominent at certain times, but one of the changes which often goes under the radar is the increasing importance of versatile players in modern football. While every good team needs a talismanic player – often a number ten – to grab the headlines and score the important goals, what people often don’t realise is that every team also needs workhorses who can do a job for their side and cover the ground that the flair players often neglect.
Unlike previous decades, professional teams now find themselves playing upwards of forty or fifty matches every season which – all would agree – is far too many for anybody to play, regardless of how much they train and the level of nutrition available to them. This inevitably means other, less well known, players will need to come into the side and apply themselves so that their team can achieve success. It is not only cup games in which these backup players must take part: they often feature from the bench in important matches and must always be ready to take their place in the starting eleven to cover for injuries. Therefore, it is hugely beneficial for the second string players to be able to do a job in multiple positions, especially since the introduction of Financial Fair Play means that teams cannot have excessive squad sizes.
For years, the perfect example of one of these versatile backup players was John O’Shea at Manchester United. He played second fiddle to Gary Neville in his primary position, right-back, for much of his time at Old Trafford, but he also made many appearances as both a central defender and holding midfielder to help his side deal with the fixture congestion. The demands of domestic cup matches and European football make players like O’Shea absolutely vital, and it is testament to the importance of versatile players like the Irishman that Sir Alex Ferguson carried on picking him despite the fact that he was somewhat less talented than many other players in United’s star-studded squad. Although O’Shea was a deputy throughout his time at Manchester United, he actually ended up playing some very important matches, including the full 90 minutes in the 2009 Champions League final where United went down to Barcelona. This is evidence of the importance of having versatile backup players as, eventually, they could always get a chance in big matches.
It is not only backup players who need to be versatile these days: starting elevens around the country are made up of versatile players who fill gaps in positions such as holding midfield and full-back. They may not be the best-known players in the team, but without them their side would not function. A prime example of this is somebody like Michael Carrick, who seems dwarfed in the United midfield when playing alongside Paul Pogba, but one only needs to look at their results playing with him in the starting eleven compared to those when he isn’t playing to see his value to the side. As of December 2016, last season United had a win percentage of 80% when Carrick started, as opposed to 31% when he was not among the starting eleven, proving (in my view) beyond all doubt that players such as Carrick are just as important to a successful team as a big name headline grabbing signing who may or may not be the most expensive player in the world. Now, I grant you that Carrick is not versatile in the same way as John O’Shea as he cannot play multiple positions across the pitch, but he is versatile in the different roles he can perform in a side. He is very good both as a defensive midfielder who absorbs the pressure of the opposition and distributes the ball simply to more creative teammates, as well as being able to play as a deep-lying playmaker, setting up attacks in a more direct manner. In short: it is the ability to adapt to every situation which make players like Carrick so vital to their team, and is criminally undervalued.
The last – and slightly cynical – reason why it is so important to have versatile players in any successful side is that better known, more skilful players are sometimes liable to neglect their defensive duties. This means that, if a team is to be successful, versatile workhorses are needed to come into the team and cover the ground which should be occupied by the lazier members of the team. A classic example of this is James Milner, who has an inexhaustible engine and now finds himself playing as left-back for Liverpool in order to make up for the reluctance of his teammates to get involved in the defensive side of the game. He is someone who has played pretty much everywhere on the pitch in the past, including as a striker for Manchester City at times, and has one of the best attitudes in professional football when it comes to work rate.
Another example of this (although you’ve probably forgotten he exists) is Manchester City’s Fabian Delph, who finds himself taking minutes in whatever position he can get them. Rather than for his exceptional footballing ability (and the value of having English players registered), he was signed by City for his endurance and willingness to run as he is able to come off the bench in the later stages of matches and make up for the apathy of players such as Yaya Touré who struggle to find the motivation to cover as much ground as they perhaps should. Although when pundits look to attribute the success of a team to a specific player they always look to the Coutinhos and the Yaya Tourés, it is the workhorses who deserve the real credit. Think about how many goals would be shipped on the counter attack late in games if teams didn’t have a Delph or a Milner doing other people’s running. That is the real value of versatility in modern football.
Every now and then a versatile player does get the credit he deserves, in the form of a Kanté or a Makélélé, and everybody thinks that they are a unique example of a player doing important work away from the headlines to benefit his side, but in truth it has always been happening. When you look at the list of players who have won the ultimate personal honour in the game: the Ballon d’Or, none of them have been the kind of versatile player that I have mentioned. Sady, they are criminally overlooked for such awards. How many Ballon d’Ors will John O’Shea win? Where was James Milner in the PFA Team of the Year? Where is Fabian Delph’s knighthood? Okay, I’m exaggerating, but my point still stands. The Empire State Building could not have got nearly as high if it wasn’t for the foundations it was built on.