It was Carlos Bilardo whom probably exudes the best definition of universality among football players. The 1986 World Cup winning Argentine manager gave this definition while conducting a coaching seminar. What he told the managers has been captured brilliantly in Chris Taylor’s wonderful book, The Beautiful Game: A Journey through Latin America Football, in which Bilardo says:
“For me, football will get better and better. But I also know that it will make more and more demands. I even believe that the difference between defenders and attackers will disappear. I see the teams of the twenty first century made up of a goalkeeper and ten players. Without fixed positions. Without specialists. Each one of them knowing everything.”
The famous Ajax academy seems to have been producing such players for some time now. Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen are just few examples, who for all their great defensive capabilities can also fill in at central midfield areas.
Likewise, although not to the same extent are the two Dutchmen Urby Emanuelson and Vurnon Anita. While Emmanuelson can fulfil full back and wing positions, Anita was developed as a left back for Ajax who then became their number six — their holding midfielder.
It very much relates to the Lahm ideal — a full back becoming a holding midfielder. At the same time, Ajax are currently developing Daley Blind into that same role. Last season’s most improved player in the Eredivisie has seen himself transformed into a holder this season.
It will be interesting to see what their national team managers do at the World Cup. Lahm had secured his role as first choice right back for Joachim Loew while Blind has worked his way into becoming Louis Van Gaal’s first choice left back. Will their prosperity in their new roles give their managers a headache?
Probably not, for it is club football that has driven the tactical debate for years ahead of international football. Without the time to practice elaborate tactical nuances, international football becomes more about generating good spirit and allowing players to express themselves.
Expression on that front is of course different from what happens at club level. And so while universality takes its course in the club game, international football will take a while to do so.
Through various factors, it is not only Lahm and Blind who find themselves becoming defenders who can also play in midfield. Injuries have meant that Jordi Amat at Swansea City and Martin Demichelis at Manchester City move forward from center back to perform midfield roles. At Manchester United, the need for energy has seen Phil Jones play at the heart of midfield rather than his usual heart of defence role.
In the 2010-2011 season, Massimiliano Allegri similarly did the same with Thiago Silva. And carrying on from what Rafa Benitez began, Jose Mourinho has been playing David Luiz in midfield. It was also a surprise when in this season’s La Liga clasico at the Camp Nou, Carlo Ancelotti went with Sergio Ramos in the middle of a midfield three.
The same tactic it seems is appearing in different places for different reasons. For those however who are doing it deliberately, it is pushing the tactical debate to further horizons.
It could be that by playing defenders in midfield, the search for universality is taking a different trend. For long, it used to be midfielders filling in at the back. Martinez, Medel, De Rossi, Sergio Busquets, Javier Mascherano, Michael Carrick, Yaya Toure, Alex Song and Ki Seung Yeung have all at times played at the back.
Similarly, Fabregas and Javi Martinez have filled in at forward positions, while in other circumstances, so too has Kevin Nolan at West Ham United. With the defenders now starting to fill in midfield positions, the debate for universality is well and truly on course.
The tactical minefield is now being stretched so wide that its original dimensions are slowly losing its shape. It could be that in a few years, we may never regain them and positions will be meaningless, with roles reigning supreme.