Football Features

Javier Mascherano: One of many modern stars who made a career playing out of position

By Squawka News

Published: 20:15, 6 June 2021

‘What’s your best position?’


‘Can you play right-back?’

We’ve all been there. It’s tempting to swoop for the role of your dreams when quizzed about our football ability. But sometimes your feet can’t keep up with your ambition. The outcome? A swift relocation.

When it comes to professional footballers, their wealth of talent often means they are comfortable playing anywhere on the pitch. It is, therefore, a manager’s job to identify where they would make the strongest impact. Often this isn’t the easiest of tasks. Many players have started their careers in a position deemed to be their most proficient, only to be relocated later down the line.

And sometimes everything turns out for the best. Just look at these guys.

1. Bastian Schweinsteiger

Current club: Retired
Started out at: Attacking midfield/winger
Ended up: Defensive-midfield

The crowning moment in the career of Bastian Schweinsteiger was the 2014 World Cup final. As Germany beat Argentina 1-0, Schweinsteiger made more tackles than any midfielder on the pitch and played the second-most passes of any player.

These are not numbers you associate with an attacker, the role in which Schweinsteiger actually started his career at Bayern Munich. There, during the early days, he was often used as a winger.

It wasn’t until he was placed into the centre of the park permanently in 2009/10 when he truly found his home and became the midfield enforcer we all know and love. The 2013 Champions League winner made around 200 appearances on the flanks before his conversion into a more defensive-minded player.

After ending a 15-year spell at Bayern, he signed for the Red Devils in 2017 and was widely expected to solve their centre midfield vulnerabilities. It’s unlikely the German will be judged by his years at Old Trafford but during his time there, and with Chicago Fire, he was primarily used as a defensive midfielder – though his final season in MLS did see Schweinsteiger deputise in central defence.

2. Branislav Ivanovic 

Current club: West Bromwich Albion
Started out at: Centre-back
Ended up: Right-back

A strong, aggressive and physically imposing defender, when Branislav Ivanovic signed for Chelsea in 2008 he looked like he was born to play at the heart of the Blues defence. A slightly rocky start under then-boss Avram Grant (who didn’t think the player was fit enough) meant the Serbian didn’t feature during the 2007/08 season.

Used as a centre back at Lokomotiv Moscow and for the Serbian national team, it came as a surprise to see him deployed at right-back for Chelsea when he made his debut eight months after signing. Ivanovic went on to play 377 games for the Blues, with most seeing him start on the right-hand side of the defence; his powerful frame, passing and finishing ability making him a real threat going forward.

Ivanovic moved to Zenit Saint Petersburg in 2017 as age finally started to catch up with him where he returned to centre-back, a role he has continued with West Brom but he’s set to leave The Hawthorns on July 1, 2021.

3. Owen Hargreaves 

Club: Retired
Started out at: Winger
Ended up: Defensive midfielder

It’s hard to imagine Owen Hargreaves bombing forward isn’t it? Being deployed as a winger for Bayern Munich during his younger years, the England international made 218 appearances in total for the German club and 43 of those were spent on the right wing.

Due to his supreme passing and dogged, pressing mentality, he was repositioned as a holding anchorman and when he moved to Manchester United in 2007, he carried on performing as a deep-lying playmaker rather than higher up the pitch. A total of 13 goals throughout his entire career could have been another reason behind the move…

4. Dirk Kuyt

Club: Retired
Started out at: Striker
Ended up: Winger

Perhaps not as surprising as a few of the others due to Dirk Kuyt’s amazing ability to play in almost every single position on a football pitch but the Dutchman was predominantly signed by Liverpool as a striker.

After an impressive run of goals for Feyenoord that saw him score 95 times in 144 games he made the move to Anfield and impressed with a good scoring record playing as a central forward.

Following the arrival of Fernando Torres in 2007, Kuyt started to play more as a right-winger and worked well with the Spaniard as well as successfully maintaining his place in the first team due to his impressive suitability to his new role. He would continue to act as a versatile midfielder and became a cult hero due to his exceptional workmanship and industrious endeavour.

He continued to play on the right-hand-side during his time at Fenerbahce and Feyenoord, scoring 38 goals in 77 appearances during his second spell at the latter, between 2015 and 2017, and helping them lift a first Dutch Eredivisie since 1999. Kuyt retired shortly after.

5. Moussa Sissoko

Club: Tottenham Hotspur
Former position: Defensive-midfield
Ended up: Winger

When Newcastle signed Moussa Sissoko many Newcastle fans believed they had found their new David Batty, a hard-working, tackling machine. After more than 200 appearances with Toulouse and the French national side he was widely renowned for his defensive capabilities and had played almost all of his football in the middle of the pitch.

Then-Magpies boss Alan Pardew had praised the Frenchman’s physical ability and almost instantly started to deploy him as a winger at St James’ Park. Sissoko racked up 133 games for Newcastle and played all of his football on the right wing during the 2015/16 season.

Since moving to Tottenham in 2016, the 31-year-old has been shifted around the midfield, truly showing his versatility.

6. Jan Vertonghen 

Club: Benfica
Started out at: Defensive midfielder/left-back
Ended up: Centre-back

Starting off as a defensive midfielder during his time in Belgium and playing as a deep-lying midfielder and left back at Ajax, Jan Vertonghen developed into one of the finest centre-backs in Europe after signing for Tottenham Hotspur.

The Belgian claims that his favourite position was playing in the centre of the midfield during his early years but during his 292 appearances for Spurs, he has started the vast majority of them at centre back and is only used as a full back if the squad has suffered from a number of injuries. His performances alongside Toby Alderweireld (who also enjoys a little roam forward) were spectacular, and will be fondly remembered following his departure to Benfica.

7. Gareth Bale

Club: Tottenham (on loan from Real Madrid)
Started out at: Left-back
Ended up: Winger/inside forward

Probably the most dramatic positional shift in the football history, Gareth Bale suddenly morphed from a competent full-back into an athletic attacking monster. During his time at Southampton, he established himself as a very capable and promising young defender but after moving to Tottenham in 2007, he started to enforce himself as a much bigger threat when used higher up the pitch.

His majestic performances against Inter Milan in 2010, when managed by Harry Redknapp, got him noticed on the world stage and he ended his Spurs career with 56 goals. Since signing for Real Madrid in 2013, he has gone on to become one of the most frightening attacking talents in world football and made one third of the lethal Los Blancos trio, alongside Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, that helped the club win four Champions League titles in five years. He’s returned to Tottenham, ultimately scoring 16 goals across 34 matches in all competitions.

8. Robin van Persie

Club: Retired
Started out at: Winger
Ended up: Striker

It’s hard to think of Robin van Persie as anything other than a deadly striker but during his early years at Feyenoord he was deployed as a winger.

It wasn’t until Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger noticed the player’s speed, pace and dribbling skills and started to play the forward in a more central attacking role that he established himself as one of the world’s best strikers.

After scoring 21 goals in 76 games for Feyenoord he went on to net 131 times for Arsenal and was a huge part of Manchester United’s title-winning campaign in 2012/13 league triumph. Van Persie retired in the summer after a homecoming at Feyenoord.

9. Javier Mascherano 

Club: Retired
Started out at: Centre midfield
Ended up: Centre-back

A bit of a different feel to the other players as Javier Mascherano was a brilliant defensive midfielder and proved to be an outstanding part of Liverpool’s midfield. But, since he moved to Barcelona in 2010 and was subsequently repositioned by Pep Guardiola to play as his central defender alongside Gerard Pique he quickly turned into one of the most talented modern day centre backs in world football.

His sublime passing and tackling skills helped Barca play their possession-based philosophy and he went on to win 19 trophies in Catalonia. He since reverted to defensive midfield in China with Hebei Fortune and then Argentine club Estudiantes, before announcing his retirement in November 2020.