Positional changes are not uncommon in football. In fact, for some, they can be the catalyst for a player to unlock his true potential.
From Thierry Henry to Gareth Bale, countless world-class players have switched it up to find their true calling, and in doing so have gone on to reach some of the greatest heights the game has to offer.
Of course, the game hasn’t changed all that much and whether by necessity or for tactical purposes, players still switch it up to this day.
So, we decided to take a look at four players who’ve changed position this season, and analysed just how they’ve performed in their new roles.
Hit or miss? Let’s find out.
- Club: Bayern Munich
- Was playing: Left-wing
- Now playing: Left-back
Signed for an initial £9.84m, with performance-related bonuses that could bring the total up to £16.66m — a then-record received fee for an MLS club — Alphonso Davies was never going to be a bench warmer for Bayern Munich. The question was, with the likes of Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman, Ivan Perisic and Thomas Muller all able to operate out wide in a front three, where were they going to fit him in?
The answer, it turned out was quite simple: start him as a left-back as he does for Canada, but allow him to maraud forward and join the attack at every opportunity.
Yes, Davies’ defensive actions per 90 minutes — such as blocks and tackles — are up in the Bundesliga this season compared to the 2018 MLS campaign, his final with Vancouver Whitecaps, but he’s still very much there to contribute in attack for this dominant Bayern Munich side.
The 19-year-old still commits opposition defenders in the final third, dribbling past them to reach the byline before delivering devastating crosses for the likes of Robert Lewandowski. And his average position is still way in advance of the halfway line.
The only real difference in his play now, compared to with the Whitecaps, is that he must occasionally rely on that blistering recovery pace to make sure he’s back in position to stop Bayern being hurt in transition. Plus he’s now performing in a stricter wide role, supporting those further forward rather than being allowed to drift centrally or to the opposite flank.
- Club: Manchester City
- Was playing: Defensive midfield
- Now playing: Centre-back
The failure to replace Vincent Kompany and Aymeric Laporte’s injury issues have placed great stress on Pep Guardiola’s defence this season — undoubtedly the deciding factor in Manchester City lying 25 points behind Liverpool in the Premier League table.
John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi have been underwhelming both together and separately at times, meaning Guardiola has had to rely on once-midfield lynchpin Fernandinho — and even Rodri on occasion — filling in at centre-back. In fact, 31 of the Brazilian’s 34 club career appearances at centre-back have come this season.
As a result, he’s seen completed clearances per 90 minutes rise to 3.20 compared to 2.61 last season, while he’s won possession in the defensive third at a rate of 3.51 times per 90 minutes in 2019/20, compared to just 1.55 times per 90 in 2018/19 — an obvious side effect from playing further back.
Fernandinho has acquitted himself admirably during a real time of need for Guardiola, and to lay the blame on him for City’s failings would be unfair and, well, inaccurate. However, he’s simply not a natural centre-back. He doesn’t have the innate positional awareness for that role, nor the pace to deal with lightning fast forwards — especially at 34 years old.
“I think the centre-back situation needs sorting, because I keep mentioning, in my opinion, Fernandinho isn’t a centre-back; he’s better in midfield. We miss him in midfield,” former City defender Micah Richards told Sky Sports in March.
It’s a change made out of necessity, and one Fernandinho has performed without complaint. However, it isn’t one we expect to see too regularly moving forward.
- Club: Juventus
- Was playing: Right-wing
- Now playing: Right-back
Another winger converted into a full-back, Juan Cuadrado has seen his playing time increase this season largely thanks to the summer departure of Joao Cancelo to Manchester City. Yes, he has played there before, but very sporadically — just 10 times throughout his career before 2019/20. That said, he’s hardly been a downgrade for Juventus at right-back and just like Davies, has gone on to become one of the most consistent performers in Europe in his position this season.
There are a great many similarities you can place between Davies and Cuadrado in terms of playing style, too. Yes, they both line-up further back, but both are given freedom to — in fact, encouraged to — roam forward and support their league’s most dominant side in attack.
Cuadrado has created 1.57 chances per 90 minutes in Serie A this season, has seen his final third entries per 90 rise from 5.07 — in 2018/19 — to 7.73 and even with the positional switch, the Colombian has matched his one goal and two assists from last season. Such is Maurizio Sarri’s reliance on full-backs offering his sides width. This has been a priceless transition.
Furthermore, the 31-year-old has called upon his vast experience to help adjust in the defensive third, making 46 tackles — the 14th-highest in Serie A this season — and 6.17 ball recoveries per 90 minutes.
“Cuadrado is defending and attacking in the right way, he never left us unbalanced,” Sarri told Sky Italia back in October. “The only area where he can improve in this role is in one-on-one situations, as he goes to ground too easily and gets booked with unnecessary tackles. I am sure that working with Andrea Barzagli, he’ll improve on that too.”
Cuadrado hasn’t just been a makeweight replacement for Cancelo, he’s been something of an upgrade, offering a similar offensive output and an increased defensive solidity — a quality Sarri has needed, given the increased challenge from the likes of Inter and Lazio this season.
- Club: Barcelona
- Was playing: Centre-forward
- Now playing: Left-wing
Okay, so this change isn’t technically something new for Antoine Griezmann — the France international rose to prominence on the left flank with Real Sociedad between 2009 and 2014. However, during his five-year stay at Atletico Madrid, the 29-year-old had to learn how to become a true centre-forward in Diego Simeone’s robust 4-4-2 formation. His task there was to be the first line of defence as Atleti soaked up pressure. He showed immense positional discipline and intelligence, and was his side’s catalyst once the ball had been won back.
Of course, Griezmann departed for Barcelona last summer and in doing so, was forced back out onto the left thanks to the Blaugrana having Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi at their disposal. So, how has he coped with reverting back to the left as a wide forward?
Well, critics have been quick to voice their discontent toward the 2018 World Cup winner. Griezmann has scored just eight La Liga goals so far, compounding that lack of raw, numeric output with just four assists.
“His first season is reminding me of Coutinho’s,” Brazil and Barca legend Rivaldo said of Griezmann in March. “Both were playing great football when they arrived at the club but didn’t manage to replicate it at Barcelona.
“I think he needs to dedicate himself a little bit more to truly produce his best football and become a decisive member of Quique Setien’s team.”
Thus far, Griezmann has failed to strike up the connection with Messi many had hoped he would and while Barca remain top of La Liga, Real Madrid are pushing them hard.
However, his commitment to a team ethic — firmly tattooed upon his footballing brain from his time with Simeone — has finally started to pay dividends at the Camp Nou, especially since Setien arrived to replace Ernesto Valverde.
More than a third (10 of 29) of Griezmann’s tackles in La Liga this season have come in the eight games since Setien took charge, while during that time, he’s won possession in the final third five times, having only done so nine times in 18 games beforehand.
Griezmann has created 11 chances for his teammates under Setien, too — only Messi (22) has more. Given that he’s only created 26 chances in La Liga all season, the green shoots of recovery are there for all to see.
To say Griezmann has been a hit back on the left with Barca would be an overstatement. However, he seems brilliantly suited to the intense, high-energy gameplan employed by Setien, largely thanks to his time working under the disciplinarian Simeone. If this upward trend continues, expect the Barca faithful to take to him sooner rather than later.
Verdict: Miss, but the jury is still out