In an era where people still clamour for specialists, it’s the multifunctional who remain among the most exciting talents in the game.
Over the years football has been witness to some exceptionally multifaceted talent, players who had more strings to their bow than Brian Clough had one-liners. But, we’re not talking about a jack of all trades, master of none type of footballer. No, here we pay tribute to players who are world class in not one, but multiple positions.
It takes a rare breed of versatility to move across the turf but still operate at a world-class level. The likes of Philipp Lahm, Lothar Matthaus, Marcel Desailly, Javier Mascherano and Matthias Sammer all flourished in midfield and defence, while players of Lilian Thuram and Eric Abidal’s ilk became grandmasters of the backline, able to shine at full-back and centre-back.
Those legends of the game laid the foundations for the world class, multifunctional players we know today. Indeed there are a number of current superstars who have shuttled across the pitch but proven equally as devastating in a variety of roles. And we’re not talking about forwards who are simply able to play across the frontline.
We are talking about serious positional changes that require more than just a brush up on tactics, but rather, a unique and diverse skillset to thrive in uncharted territory, as these players below have all experienced…
Positions played: Left-Back, Central Midfield, Centre-Back
At the same time he was emerging as a left-back for Bayern Munich, he was emerging as a central midfielder for Austria. Then he just kept getting better in both and is now world class in both. Under Guardiola he even became a world-class centre-back, and following the rapid rise of Alphonso Davies and Lucas Hernandez, the Austrian who had already won a Treble as a left-back won one as a centre-back. He joined Real Madrid expecting to play midfield, but has emerged into their new leader at centre-back because that’s what the team needed.
The visual below should help illustrate the positional adjustment of Alaba and how he has had to adapt his game across these past two seasons. In 2018/19 he was almost exclusively a left-back, and this campaign, he has formed a centre-back partnership with Eder Militao.
On both occasions a domestic double has been brought home, but great credit should be heaped on the individuality of Alaba. He is attempting more passes per 90 minutes this campaign but attempting less take-ons, as would be expected of a centre-back in Real Madrid’s ball-playing system. A versatile godsend.
Positions played: Winger, False Nine, Number 10
The greatest player of all-time is also a multifunctional master. He began his career as a flying winger, both inverted and orthodox, before Pep Guardiola converted him to a false nine and from there, he wrought havoc on the world. The Argentine has now evolved into a more natural No. 10, but he still plays out wide and up-front, depending on the the opposition, and manager in the dugout.
Either way, in each position he has won more trophies than a Football Manager simulation and has rightfully earned his stripes in the pantheon of all-time legends. Age is slowing him down now but for years he was simultaneously the best player in the world at three positions, and you can’t be more multifunctional than that!
Positions played: Right-Back, Centre-Back
Now an accomplished and decorated centre-back, Sergio Ramos is a leader for both Real Madrid and Spain. His displays in winning La Decima and then that ridiculous threepeat of Champions League wins have been so good that his achievements at international level are sometimes understated. Ramos has racked up more caps for Spain than anyone and has won the Euros twice and the 2010 World Cup.
But cast your minds back to nearly a decade ago and this hard-hitting, yet somehow elegant centre-back was gaining a worldwide reputation as an elite full-back — he even earned a position at left-back in the 2011 FIFA FIFPro World XI. He was that good they shoehorned him in on the opposite flank. Ramos had an entire career as a world-class right-back, winning La Liga multiple times, Euro 2008 and even the World Cup! His subsequent world-class career at centre-back only cements him as a multifunctional master.
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Positions played: Winger, False Nine, Central Midfield
When Bernardo Silva joined Manchester City it was primarily to play right-wing as he had done at Monaco, and so when he barely played in his first season people were confused. And what made it more confusing was that when he did break through in 2018/19, it was as a central midfielder in one of Guardiola’s classic “Free 8” roles.
Bernardo has since gone on to become an established presence in big games for City, even being deployed at false nine when Guardiola desires maximum control from a game. Below you can see Bernardo’s performances across both Premier League wins over Chelsea this season mapped via heatmap and passes made, where he dominated the right and centre of the field, as you’d expect.
Angel Di Maria
Positions played: Winger, Central Midfield, Central Defensive Midfield
Di Maria was a relentless winger, unstoppable off either flank. He won Olympic Gold for Argentina in 2008 there. But for Benfica and Real Madrid (in 2013/14) he played central midfield and thrived; being the driving force behind Madrid’s fabled La Decima. He moved on to Man Utd and inherited the famous No. 7 shirt, which unfortunately proved a poisoned chalice, but in Paris he has rediscovered his former glow.
Upon the appointment of idiosyncratic tactician Thomas Tuchel in the PSG dugout, “Fideo” had even been tasked with performing in a defensive midfield role, such is the repertoire of skills the Argentine boasts in his armoury. Nowadays he’s back to being a winger, but one senses Mauricio Pochettino would only have to ask and Di Maria would happy play defensive midfield again.
Positions played: Right-Back, Central Midfield
The modern Philipp Lahm. If ever football fans needed an example of just how good Kimmich is, then look no further than the humiliating 8-2 humbling of Barcelona. A centre-midfielder by trade, Kimmich enjoyed a meteoric rise to prominence in defence, but his technical qualities and range of passing meant that he was always going to excel back in central midfield.
England fans have often broached the possibility of Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield, and Kimmich is the prime example of that transition. Having made his name as a right-back, he is now an architect in the middle of the park, a metronomic figure who can surge forward and attack, while also breaking up play and protecting the backline. He does this for club and country with absurd ease.
Positions played: Right-Back, Centre-Back, Left-Back
What a signing the Spaniard has been for Chelsea, and not just because of his commitment to the club and willingness to get his knees muddy when on the pitch, but also because of his versatility. Azpilicueta is a utility man, leader and world-class operator rolled into one.
Brought in as an adventurous right-back from Marseille to much fanfare, but more because no-one in west London seemed to be able to pronounce his name, and he was endearingly bestowed the moniker “Dave”. The Pamplona-born defender first won the Premier League title in 2014/15 under Jose Mourinho as a defensive left-back and later won it again under Antonio Conte at right centre-back in the Italian’s famed three-man defence, with overlapping wing-backs the key to success.
Nowadays he fills in wherever necessary. Frank Lampard has utilised him at right-back, centre-back and left-back in an otherwise chaotic backline during 2019/20, as the club captain has remained a pillar of consistency amid that sea of positional changes.
The comparative touch map below should give you some idea of just how much Azpilicueta has moved around in 2019/20 to his more established role as a right wing-back this season under Thomas Tuchel.
Kevin De Bruyne
Positions played: Central Midfield, Winger, Number 10
De Bruyne can pretty much play anywhere in the attacking third, in whatever role he has to. When he first joined City from Wolfsburg for that eye-watering sum in 2015, which now looks a pittance given what he has gone on to achieve, Manuel Pellegrini deployed him in numerous roles, from false nine to left midfielder.
And of course his season as Bundesliga player of the year came when playing right-wing. Now under Pep Guardiola the brilliant Belgian has shifted his position from time to time. An established attacking midfielder, it would seem almost wrong to move De Bruyne from the middle, but he is a generational talent and would undoubtedly shine anywhere. You’d probably even fancy him in defence. That’s how good he is.
Positions played: Winger, False Nine, Number 10
Bursting onto the scene as a precocious, Puskas Award-winning phenom at Santos, Neymar was one of the most coveted teenagers on the planet. He translated those mesmeric highlight reels to tangible success in Catalonia, winning the Champions League in that famous ‘MSN’ trident at Barcelona.
At PSG he has performed similar heroics from the flanks, but has matured into the kind of all-pitch attacking playmaker that his idol Leo Messi is. Neymar’s transformation is such that, in 2020/21 his minutes were almost perfectly split across different positions. With his natural talents, the transition has been seamless and he has brought a new dimension to the Parisian attack.