When Sir Alex Ferguson named his starting eleven in the 2008 Champions League final to face Chelsea, the midfield and forward line included four players – Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez and Hargreaves – who could play more than three roles on a football field. As a result, despite knowing what the Manchester United starting line up was going to be, Avram Grant would have had a hard time trying to guess what formation the opposition was going to employ.

Chelsea players were left stunned as United started the match with a 4-4-2 formation, rarely deployed by Sir Alex in big matches for the past few years. He paired Rooney and Tevez up front, with Hargreaves playing on the right but cutting infield to make up the numbers in central mid-field, and Ronaldo on the left with the intention to exploit Essien’s inexperience at the right back position. United played at a high tempo, and Chelsea couldn’t come to grips with the speed of the game. In the second half, as Chelsea took control of the game, United changed to a 4-5-1 to prevent getting overrun in the central midfield area.

A look at some of the greatest sides of the past few years, be it Manchester United 2008 or Barcelona 2006 and 2009, reveals that the feature conspicuous in all the teams was that they played fluid, free-flowing football and had several players who could play in more positions than one.

Playmaker, Winger, Centre Forward or Simply Genius?

Similarly, all the top players that emerged in the past decade can claim to be equally effective in various roles or positions. Take Messi, who started as a playmaker and can now play in any of the three forward positions; Ronaldo, who can play on either wing or up-front; and Rooney who can play alone upfront, in the hole behind the striker and has been used frequently on the left wing. Several other stars like Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Frank Ribery and Andreas Iniesta are all possible additions to the list.

The primary reason for the need for a player to be versatile is the pragmatic nature of modern football. The traditional 4-4-2 or formations with three defenders have seen a decline, and formations which have flat back fours along with two or even three defensive minded mid-fielders have risen into prominence, as seen in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, where three out of the four semi-finalists – Germany, Netherlands and Spain – deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation.

This has resulted in lesser space being available for the attacking players, as usually four players would be up against six opposition players. Space is at a premium, and the only way of creating some space to receive a pass is by running into a different position and interchanging positions with another attacker, which would leave the defender indecisive between following the player and leave his natural position, or switching to the other attacker. This has resulted in the players frequently finding themselves in positions which may not be natural to them, but they eventually adapt and become equally effective there.

In his new R(H)ole

Additionally, with many teams adopting the ‘Mourinho-way’ of defending deep in their own halves, the players are required to be excellent at counter attacking football. Yet again, the players find themselves in positions which would not have been their starting position in the match, but they get used to it.

As most teams use only one striker up front, he is required to be good at finishing, holding up the ball and in many cases even crossing, as making runs towards wide areas will help create space for midfield and wide runners into the box. So while a midfielder’s role has become more specific, a striker’s role is more ‘complete’, because of which he gets used to a variety of roles. Hence, the biggest reason for versatility now becoming major criteria for judging the quality of a player is because of the rise of the 4-2-3-1 and 4-5-1(or 4-3-3) formations.

A squad full of versatile players has several advantages. Apart from the obvious fact that it leaves the opposition manager puzzled about what formation the other team is going to play, it provides the manager greater flexibility while making his substitutions. With clubs like Manchester United and Manchester City boasting squads in which more than twenty players can probably stake a claim for the first team squad, squad rotation is vital. In such situations, versatile players provide the managers with more options with regards to adjusting his starting line up, to keep all the players happy.

As mentioned before, fluidity, interchange of positions and versatile players are the biggest attributes of some of the top teams in the second half of the decade. The example of Manchester United in the Champions League final has already been cited, but even after the departure of Ronaldo and Tevez and the prolonged absence of Hargreaves, United can claim to have plenty of versatile players in the squad like Park Ji- Sung, Nani and the evergreen Ryan Giggs. O’Shea is at the club perhaps solely because of his versatility. In the present season alone, Sir Alex has deployed a standard 4-4-2, a 4-2-3-1 with Rooney in the centre of the ‘3’, a 4-5-1/4-3-3 and 4-4-1-1(fairly similar to 4-2-3-1).

Barcelona is another prime example. Both the Champions League winning sides of 2006 and 2009 had forwards who could play in any of the front three positions. The 2006 side had Eto’o, Ronaldinho and Messi, while in 2009, Ronaldinho was replaced by Henry. The current side boasts a front three of Villa, Messi and Pedro, again all capable of interchanging positions. The relative failure of Ibrahimovich was perhaps because he could play only in the centre forward role, which not only reduced the team’s fluidity but also meant that Messi’s and Pedro’s versatility could not be exploited to the fullest.

One of the biggest sufferers of this phenomenon is undoubtedly England. The lack of technical coaching at the grassroots level has frequently been pointed out as the cause for their repeated failure at the international stage. Most of the players are comfortable only in a specific position in a rigid 4-4-2 formation, perhaps with the exception of Rooney, Milner and Young.

Ignored for many decades, the rise of players like Ronaldo and Messi has finally seen versatility being given its due credit as one of the most important attributes of a player, perhaps one that separates the good from the greats in modern football.

– Kumar Shivam