Football Features

From Southgate’s Bielsa snub to Austria’s Swiss Army knife: 8 players deployed in different roles at international level

By Ben Green

Published: 18:01, 28 June 2021

It is not an uncommon phenomenon for a footballer’s role to differ between club and country, as international managers don’t have the luxury of recruiting specialised players.

At club level, Pep Guardiola’s high-octane brand thrives because he can recruit a surplus of swashbuckling full-backs; Jurgen Klopp’s press-and-possess works because he cherrypicked high-functioning midfielders; even the Cruyffian principles of Barcelona have lived on because they can continuously sign Frenkie de Jong types.

In short: there are no restrictions in the market. However, the same cannot be said at international level. The national pool dictates how a coach selects his squad, implements his system and assimilates his ideas. It is often why ‘pragmatic football’ reigns supreme at tournaments.

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Javier Mascherano famously kept the defensive midfield role that defined his formative years for Argentina throughout his 147 caps, despite transitioning to centre-back at Barcelona. And there are other prime examples of players being deployed in different roles at international level to how we see them regularly at club level.

Euro 2020 is no exception to this trend. As managers look for winning systems in a results-driven industry having had limited time to work with their playing squads, you will often get footballers taking up different roles to accommodate. Here are some such examples this summer…

David Alaba (Austria)

A renowned and world-class utility man for Bayern Munich, David Alaba is often deployed further up the pitch for Austria, usually in central midfield or left wing, and on the odd occasion, in the No. 10 role. However, this summer he has been utilised, almost as a libero in the first two games against North Macedonia and the Netherlands in a 3-1-4-2, before moving to left-back against Ukraine and Italy in a more traditional 4-2-3-1.

Despite his slightly deeper ‘position’ for Austria, his ‘role’ has been to express himself going forward, illustrated by his heat map at Euro 2020, where he has demonstrated a heavy presence in the final third. In fact, Alaba finished the group stages as the tournament’s most prolific playmaker, registering a Euro 2020-high nine chances created, which resulted in two assists. The Real Madrid-bound factotum is modern football’s ultimate Swiss Army knife.

Joshua Kimmich (Germany)

Now an established central midfielder, Joshua Kimmich has regularly gone back and forth between right-back and a deep-lying playmaker role throughout his career. He famously took on a No. 2 role in Bayern Munich’s Champions League win over PSG, but played just 99 minutes at full-back last season for the Bavarians in the Bundesliga.

For Germany, he has been ushered back out to the flank in Joachim Low’s 3-4-2-1, with Ilkay Gundogan and Toni Kroos his preferred central midfield pairing. At right wing-back he had the unenviable task of marking Kylian Mbappe in Germany’s first game, where he collected a booking, but improved against Portugal, teeing up Robin Gosens to put the gloss on a 4-2 win.

Oleksandr Zinchenko (Ukraine)

Having initially joined Man City as a versatile midfielder, Oleksandr Zinchenko has been conditioned and moulded into a left-back by Guardiola to remedy the injury issues that have plagued the position at the Etihad in recent years. However, for Ukraine Zinchenko’s technical qualities have been best served further up the pitch, with the occasional skipper utilised in central midfield as an all-action pace-setter.

Georginio Wijnaldum (Netherlands)

For the Netherlands, Georginio Wijnaldum is very much a goalscoring midfielder, netting 25 goals in 78 caps, which is three more than he has managed in 237 games for Liverpool. That’s not to say Wijnaldum has not produced in the final third at Anfield, let’s not forget his brace in the 4-0 win over Barcelona, but he very much has a different role under Klopp.

At Liverpool Wijnaldum mans the engine room, providing a dynamism and drive that underpins Klopp’s full-throttle, up-and-at-’em approach. Liverpool’s current system is largely built around creating chances by winning the ball back through counter-pressing, and few close down with such relish as Wijnaldum.

Kalvin Phillips (England)

Few managers would dare defy the esoteric teachings of Marcelo Bielsa, but Gareth Southgate has largely turned his back on the Argentine’s influence in West Yorkshire. Kalvin Phillips has been fastidiously conditioned to be Bielsa’s metronome at Leeds United, a luxurious axis who recycles possession and keeps play ticking over, hence the emergence of his nickname: ‘The Yorkshire Pirlo’.

However, for England, Phillips has taken on more of a No. 8 role or, to be technical, a mezzala role, in which he has driven up the pitch, exploited the half space, and left the mopping up to Declan Rice. It’s a more robust, forward-thinking approach to the one he has become accustomed to at Elland Road, but Phillips has impressed so far with his attack-minded exploits at Euro 2020.

Dani Olmo (Spain)

Julian Nagelsmann’s system at RB Leipzig largely rejected the traditional notion of ‘wingers’, instead placing a heavy emphasis on overlapping full-backs dominating the bylines. As such, Dani Olmo was predominantly utilised in an attacking midfield role in tandem with Emil Forsberg, as part of Nagelsmann’s 3-4-2-1 last term.

However, for Spain, Olmo has very much been deployed on the flank, taking up a role as a left-inside forward, with instructions to cut in and create space for Jordi Alba on the overlap. True to La Roja DNA, Luis Enrique has stuck to a 4-3-3, which has no place for a fixed No. 10, hence Olmo’s shuffle out wide.


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Serge Gnabry (Germany)

Something of a pressing forward for Germany, Serge Gnabry’s goalscoring record at international level speaks volumes for the role he takes on under Low. A return of 16 goals in 25 caps certainly justifies his selection as a moonlighting No. 9 ahead of Timo Werner at Euro 2020.

However, for Bayern, like many on this list, he has a different role. Gnabry is often deployed on the right flank as an inside forward, with his duty to cut in and wreak havoc, but he will occasionally play on the right as a traditional winger, looking to feed the goal-hungry Robert Lewandowski.

Scott McTominay (Scotland)

For Man Utd, Scott McTominay is very much a tenacious, tough-tackling central midfielder, even drawing comparisons with Darren Fletcher in the eyes of Sir Alex Ferguson. However, Steve Clarke has mainly used the towering midfielder in central defence as part of his back three, looking bring some technical verve and ball-playing competence to his rearguard. He certainly looked the part in the nation’s clean sheet stalemate against England. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer take note.