It is an oft repeated story: James Milner spurned a new contract at Man City to join Liverpool in 2015 after manager Brendan Rodgers promised to play him in his preferred central midfield role. Of course, it’s no news that Rodgers was shortly on his way out of Liverpool, replaced by Jurgen Klopp two months into the season.
Nor is it news that Milner would spend the entire 2016/17 playing at left back for the German. Indeed, of Milner’s 70 Premier League appearances in Liverpool colours, it’s fair to say he has featured in central midfield in less than half of those games. Yet, his versatility – the very thing he sought to escape at City – has made him a valuable member of the Liverpool squad. Think about it: how big a part would Milner had played in Liverpool’s season had he been strictly a central midfielder?
It makes me wonder why versatility is often seen as a negative among players, pundits and fans. You’ve heard the questions: “what’s he really good at?”, “what is his real position?”, “is he just a jack of all trades and master of none?”. They followed Milner in his time at City and they’ve followed another recent Liverpool arrival – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – at Arsenal.
The young English international had also found himself played in various roles by Arsene Wenger – left wing back, right wing back, central midfield, left wing, right wing. Yet, rather than being a cause for concern, it’s one of the reasons Klopp sanctioned his 40m transfer this last summer.
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I would imagine most managers definitely see such versatility as a valuable quality in a player. Surely, if one player can solve problems in different roles, it makes them that much more valuable to have in a squad – think John O’Shea under Alex Ferguson – than if they could fill just the one role.
It is obviously more desirable in closed competitions, like the World Cup, where squad sizes are restricted over a few weeks, but there’s no reason why it can’t be a real asset over a league season as well.
It’s certainly easy to see the value of versatility if a manager can change shape or tactics without making a single substitution. Or achieve multiple positional changes with just one substitution. I like to believe it’s the pursuit of this kind of tactical flexibility that partly guided Klopp’s transfer decisions at Liverpool in the summer of 2016.
Out went Joe Allen, replaced by the more adaptable Gini Wijnaldum; stationary target man Christian Benteke was moved on to Crystal Palace, replaced by Sadio Mane, useful on either flank as well as centrally. The same can be said for this summer’s purchase of both Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mohammed Salah. Young Joe Gomez’s ability to cover at both right back and centre back cannot be overlooked.
There are examples at other clubs too: Tottenham’s Eric Dier is adept at both centre back and midfield; the brilliant Kevin De Bruyne can play in both central midfield or down either flank at Man City. Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta has proved one of the best defenders in the league at both full back and centre back positions. David Luiz and Victor Moses have also used their versatility to good effect at Chelsea, while the pair of Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, wingers reborn as full backs, have practically forged new careers at Manchester United.
Yet, it’s also easy to see why players would rather not wear the “utility man” tag. In some way, it denotes a player that’s not quite good enough at any one thing and not quite skilled enough to hold a firm position in a team. There’s an accepted thought – for young players at least – that versatility somehow stifles development of the particular set of skills required to become a fully formed player.
It seems a logical conclusion: if a striker spends a significant portion of his playing time in midfield for instance, it stands to reason that he would spend less time honing his striking skills. What professional player wants to be identified as “that guy”? It’s exactly this kind of thinking that has fuelled the notion that versatility is more of a burden than an asset.
I would argue that an ability to adapt to different roles is in itself a valuable skill, one that is increasingly more valued by managers at the highest level of the game as tactical schemes get increasingly complex.
The likes of De Bruyne, Azpilicueta, Dier, Moses and Milner have shown that, rather than being a negative, versatility could help a player become even more valuable to the cause of their teams, and earn them more playing time than they would otherwise get.
Take Milner again: since Klopp restored Alberto Moreno at left back, Milner, who started 36 Premier League games last season, has returned to a strictly central midfield brief – and has started just two Premier League games this season. I don’t know for sure, but I’d wager he’d rather be versatile and playing regularly, than a “specialist” riding the bench.
Versatility can prove a useful tool in building competitive squads – and playing careers – and as managers put more value on this attribute, so also should players, fans and pundits.
A “jack of all trades” could be just what that squad needs.