Football Features

Roles reinvented: Seven players who have undergone a tactical readjustment this season

By Ben Green

Published: 18:30, 14 December 2020

Johan Cruyff was obsessed with versatility. The essence of Total Football after all was that every player on the pitch must be able to function in any role, hence the consistent positional changes. Your left-back could end up up front, and vice versa.

Of course, this was an extreme case, but such was Cruyff’s idiosyncratic way of thinking that to him football was fluid, not mechanical, players could adapt in-game and play anywhere across the pitch. And that school of thought remains prominent today.

Managers are constantly finding ways to get the best out of their players, and that can often mean positional adjustments, with even the smallest of tweaks reaping huge rewards, just look at Harry Kane’s transition from traditional centre-forward, to a sort of hybrid No. 9 or false 9.

Jose Mourinho’s gambit has paid dividends, but the Portuguese is not alone in tweaking his tactics to find new roles for his players and open up their untapped potential. So, here are seven players who have undergone a tactical readjustment this season.

Harry Kane (Tottenham)

Role change: Centre-forward to deep-lying forward

A throwback No. 9 in every sense. Kane is a goalscoring fiend, an instinctive finisher who knows the back of the net like a commentator knows a football cliche. We get it, it was a game of two halves. But, this season he has taken a back seat from the goals (well, not quite) and gone full Kevin De Bruyne.

The England international is still pretty nifty in the penalty area, with nine Premier League goals to his name, but it is his passing range and creativity that has us all in awe. With 10 assists to his name already, Kane is on course to match Thierry Henry and De Bruyne’s shared record of 20 assists for a single Premier League season.

Kane is now showcasing a false 9 aspect to his game, dropping deep and creating gaps in the opposition backline as the defenders instinctively follow the Spurs striker, before Son Heung-min and Steven Bergwijn make darting runs in behind, with the former the biggest beneficiary of Mourinho’s tactical masterstroke.

Aaron Cresswell (West Ham)

Role change: Left-back to left-sided centre-back

David Moyes has revolutionised the Hammers, turning the club from a perennial state of stasis to one making headways in the Premier League’s upper slopes. The Scot has instilled a more ruthless mentality at the club, but more impressively, his tactical management has been exemplary.

West Ham came unstuck against Newcastle on matchday one, with a performance that was, for want of a better word, rancid; Mark Noble in the No. 10 was not his finest hour, nor will that be making this list. But, since then he has pragmatically found a solution to the left-back quandary which is, at its core: just deploying two left-backs. But, it’s worked a treat.

Aaron Cresswell, a left-back by trade, has moved inside to operate as the left-sided centre-back in West Ham’s back-three when out of possession, but doubling up on the flank with Arthur Masuaku in attacking transitions, registering a league-high four assists for defenders in the process.


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Eric Dier (Tottenham)

Role change: Rotational DM to out-and-out centre-back

Last season Eric Dier appeared only 13 times at centre-back, with his predominant function being that of a defensive midfielder, featuring in the role on 17 occasions. However, this time around he is yet to venture up the pitch in Mourinho’s midfield, playing all 15 of his matches this season in defence.

The transition has seen a player who was quite uncertain of his role in Tottenham’s first team plans to proving a competent successor to Jan Vertonghen as Toby Alderweireld’s primary partner, with the duo helping Spurs to first in the table, and with the best defensive record so far, conceding just 10 goals.

Timo Werner (Chelsea)

Timo Werner’s Football Index stats

Role change: Centre-forward to inside forward

Inside forwards are all the rage at the minute. Just cast your eyes over to Anfield, they have a pretty nifty pair don’t they? Frank Lampard has looked to follow suit, acquiring one of Europe’s deadliest centre-forwards and putting him on the flank, with Werner boasting eight goals already.

The former RB Leipzig marksman netted a quite ridiculous 34 goals across all competitions last season, so there is a strong case for him to lead the line for Chelsea, but when they have been on song this season, the Blues are a menacing force, and Werner’s movement on the flank to cut in has been the keystone of that success.

Fabinho (Liverpool)

Role change: Defensive midfield to centre-back

By virtue of Liverpool’s injury crisis, with Virgil van Dijk sidelined indefinitely and both Joe Gomez and Joel Matip making regular trips to the physio room, Fabinho has been used almost exclusively as a centre-back this season, though he did initially make a name for himself as a right-back at Monaco. 

The Brazilian has proven an astute acquisition by Jurgen Klopp in terms of his footballing ability, but his versatility has actually proven one of his best qualities, with the 27-year-old able to slot in at centre-back this season and meanly tighten up the backline as his German coach tangles with an extensive casualty list.

Kai Havertz (Chelsea)

Kai Havertz’s Football Index stats

Role change: No. 10 to No. 8

The German phenom has played just about everywhere since moving to Stamford Bridge as Lampard has tried to find his best position in which to thrive in his system. But more recently he has been playing the advanced playmaker role in Lampard’s three-man midfield alongside Mason Mount and N’Golo Kante.

Havertz played as a false 9 in the 2-0 defeat to Liverpool, right midfield in the win over Brighton and has flicked between right wing, attacking midfield and central midfield, but it is the latter where the German seems most at ease at Chelsea, with the recent win over Leeds a fine example of the system in full swing.

Alex Iwobi (Everton)

Role change: Winger to wing-back

Another like Fabinho where a role change has been facilitated by injury troubles. With Carlo Ancelotti losing Lucas Digne and Seamus Coleman at various stages during this season, the Italian has turned to Iwobi to slot in as a wing-back, even playing him on the left in the 1-0 loss to Leeds last month.

The Nigerian also functioned as a wing-back in the 3-2 win over Fulham and 1-1 draw against Burnley. He did return to his habitual position further up the field in victory to Chelsea at the weekend, but it will be interesting to see if he reverts back to defence when James Rodriguez returns from injury.