A big buzzword often used when a new signing comes in to your club is the term ‘versatility’. It is often loosely banded around to herald a player’s ability to fit into a variety of positions with an adequate level of success, or in some cases, with a very good level of success.Most obvious examples of versatile players in the modern game would be Javier Zanetti, Daniele De Rossi, Michael Essien, Fábio Coentrão, Phill Neville, Yaya Toure, James Milner, Bastian Schweinsteiger etc. But how important really is it to have this attribute in the players in your squad? Do the benefits of having players able to cover numerous positions really outweigh the rewards of having a specialist in one?
The weekend before last in the Premier League saw an average per team of 2 (outright) defenders sitting on the bench at the start of each game. It goes without saying that on most occasions, managers select defenders to sit on the bench as insurance for an injury or red card. Against tougher opposition, it would perhaps be wise to stock your bench with more defenders than usual, in the case of nicking a goal and looking to defend it later on. The point being, its rare to see a defender on the bench with a role other than being there to defend. Obviously.
What is increasingly more common to see is players on the bench capable of covering 2 or more positions, as primary attackers/midfielders and secondary midfielders/defenders. This leads to the value of the versatile player.
Newcastle United in their last 5 games (in all competitions) have named 1,1,1,0,1 (outright) defenders in their substitutes list. That’s a total of 4 slots out of a possible 30 (discarding the goalkeeper’s slot) being used to occupy a defender on the bench.*
This is mostly due to a shortage of investment in defenders in the summer transfer window (despite being close to deals for a few) and subsequent lack of options at the back in the squad, but the availability of a number of highly versatile players in the squad has saved Newcastle from an imminent crisis at the back.
James Perch has had a lot of critics over his time in the North East but his ability to fill in in 4 different positions has been remarkably beneficial to a side that has had a terrible run of injuries to the defence since the start of the season. Perch can play right back or left back, fill in at centre back and do a decent job at a defensive midfield position. This has led to him accumulating the highest amount of playing minutes in the squad this season, the only player with 10 appearances so far (794 minutes under his belt).
Though he is not the only one in the Newcastle squad that displays versatility. Ryan Taylor is capable of playing either fullback position or either wing position. Shane Ferguson can fill in at left back or left midfield. Jonas Gutierrez likewise, as well as in defensive midfield or a no. 10 role. Demba Ba (willingness aside) can play in a wide left position, as a supporting striker or on his own up front. Vurnon Anita can play defensive midfield or right back. Gosling the same, as well as a more advanced role.
Everton’s modest finances has led to versatility playing a key role in their recruitment strategy. According to the very reliable transfermarkt.co.uk 5 of Everton’s most recent signings are all capapble of filling in in at least 3 different positions. Comments by Everton assistant manager Steve Round on the signing of Costa Rican, Bryan Oviedo back up this point:
Round: “In terms of him as a player he can fill in multiple positions for us, he will be a big asset. He can play left-back left midfield and left wing, all the way down the left, which will help us and give us good cover in the squad. I have seen him on a regular basis, I have been abroad and watched him, as have all the scouts and the manager.”
The numbers in Everton’s squad certainly don’t lead one to consider it a substantially strong one, however the options at Moyes’ disposal are expanded by numerous players capable of playing a number of different roles. Fellaini can play as a supporting striker or a holding midfielder. Pienaar can play on the left, right, attacking midfield or central midfield. Leon Osman, Phil Neville, John Heitinga and Seamus Coleman are all capable of fitting into numerous positions or roles. In a small squad, this characteristic is invaluable.
Moyes: “The way of looking at is because of the size of our squad we need players who can play in two or three positions because if we lost players to injuries we might be a little short. Obviously we have key players, so does everyone else, but we are not thinking that way. We are trying to cover as many bases as possible. We wanted players who are versatile and adaptable and I think we have got that with the players we have brought in.”
On Fellaini: “I think Felli can play in several positions and we won’t just use him where we played him the other night,” added the Everton boss. “We’ll drop him in front of the back four at times, we’ll play him deeper. I think he can do different roles. The role he played on Monday, most people probably saw him play for Belgium against England at the end of last season. I thought he was Belgium’s best player in that game so it should be no surprise for people to see him play a bit further up. We’re quite comfortable dropping him back a bit deeper and at other times, playing him a bit further up – whenever the time is right to move him around.”
But does this really matter for a coach/team? In small squads (in terms of quality first team options), a versatile player can have a drastic effect on the options or choice a coach faces, for his starting XI and for his substitutions. Out of the 7 Newcastle players mentioned above, 22 positions can be filled, including 4 defensive midfield options, 4 right backs and 4 left backs. This is just through these 7 alone, in a 28 man Newcastle squad this is only a quarter. This range of choice is immensely beneficial to coaches who are reactionary or prone to tinkering with shape and personnel to suit the opposition (coaches such as Alan Pardew or David Moyes).
What it means for substitutions is twofold. Firstly, a bench-warmer that is capable of filling in 4 different positions means the rest of the substitutes can be supplemented with more attacking options. Obviously if a substitute is capable of playing both right back and centre back, it reduces the need for cover in one of those positions in remaining substitutes slots. This means a coach can have the option from the bench of two different types of strikers for instance, one suited to a more direct style and one who’s quicker, and be able to make a more tactical decision later on in the game.
Secondly, it solves problems more easily. Instead of a straight swap to solve a red card/injury situation, numerous options are available due to a player’s versatility. It also means that it is much easier to get the combinations on the pitch that coach’s want without having to sacrifice players they don’t want off. Against Everton recently in the Premier League, Newcastle made a change at half time. Marveaux was playing poor and Pardew wanted to bring on Demba Ba but also leave the player playing closest to Ba’s position on – Yohan Cabaye. So Marveaux (RM) off, Hatem Ben Arfa (LM) to RM, Gutierrez (CM) to LM, Cabaye (AM) dropped to CM, and Demba Ba on. The versatility of the players on the pitch helped make a tactical shuffle that completely changed the match, without forcing a player off in Demba Ba’s position.
A different example would be Yaya Toure’s ability to push further forward into an advanced role or sit deep if the manager requires. Numerous times last season a holding midfielder (usually Nigel De Jong) would be substituted on late in the match and Toure would be pushed forward into a more attacking position, leading more than once to a late assist or goal.
The overuse of the term ‘versatile’ in a way detracts from the value this attribute lends to a club’s squad and first XI. For small squads, it increases tactical options and benefits those coaches with an inclination to adapt their formation/style. It has rightly become an equally important aspect in transfer policy of clubs that are limited to strict budgets (Vurnon Anita).
Mourinho: “We have decided to work with a relatively small squad, and therefore it was important to have a lot of multi-functional players, who can play in different positions, and give us the balance and stability that we need. With Modric we have seen this. He can play as a number 6, 8 or 10. He is a player with quality and a particular type of magic that great talents possess. That is why we wanted him.”
“Essien is a player I know very well. His experience can bring a certain balance we need in a defensive midfield position as well as all defensive positions, where he can play perfectly as well.”
*Shane Ferguson is categorized as a defender due to recent Pardew comments and lately being used mostly on the wing.