The esteemed Ukrainian manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi once said the future of football will come “when 11 universal players will be on the pitch”, or in other words when each footballer is able to do everything – score, attack, defend – including the goalkeeper who will occasionally join the attack.
We aren’t there yet, and that day may never come, but it’s clear for all to see the beautiful game is currently full of multifunctional individuals. These players are comfortable in multiple positions and roles. The majority are found in the attacking third: strikers that can play on the wing or as a deep-lying forward or wingers that can deputise leading the line.
However, of course, there’s more to football than scoring goals even if it is the most important art form. It might not be the most glamorous job, with full-backs particularly chastised as failed wingers, but defenders, oft-overlooked (when it comes to handing out the individual prizes), are increasing proving their worth especially those who are capable of playing in more than one discipline.
Following some eye-catching performances of late we’ve decided to give a shout out to the best versatile defenders in world football right now. But everyone’s different. Some can play across the defensive line, others can do that while stepping into the middle of the pitch or further.
Across the line
Traditionally a versatile defender is one that can play in the centre of defence (as either centre-back or sweeper) and at full-back. Jan Vertonghen, who came through at Dutch giants Ajax where universalism is preached, stands out as a notable example. Now representing Tottenham Hotspur he’s brought that flexibility which manager Mauricio Pochettino has used to great effect.
Vertonghen, affectionately known as ‘Super Jan’, has recently been fielded at centre-back and left-back. He was immense as a wing-back against Borussia Dortmund, the Belgian created Spurs opener and scored their second as they ran out 3-0 winners.
Others in England who can similarly be categorised are Aymeric Laporte (Manchester City), Joe Gomez (Liverpool) and Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea), though the latter two are more comfortable at right-back. Of the trio Laporte is yet to be capped at international level. Eligible to play for France and Spain, he’s opted for the former. A potential future teammate is Lucas Hernández (Atlético Madrid) who was Les Bleus’ first choice left-back at last summer’s successful World Cup campaign.
Across the Spanish capital is Nacho (Real Madrid) who is comfortable on either flank as he is at centre-back. Not always on the teamsheet, he’s shown the value of being versatile.
Subscribe to Squawka’s Youtube channel: sqwk.at/Squawka-Sub
Through the middle
The influence Johan Cruyff had on Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola is well-documented. The great Dutch thinker continually stressed a good centre-back needs to have the “best ball handling skills”. Guardiola explained why by stating: “they bring you out of trouble and set up the forwards”.
Aside from playing a crucial role in the build-up play, central defenders are normally the best readers, which is why so many of them could easily play as the deepest midfielder. Someone from the Amsterdam school, which the aforementioned coaches prescribe to, who continues this lineage is Daley Blind (Ajax) – not a world beater, the 28-year-old has played centre-back and defensive midfield (or number six role) for his club whilst he is Holland’s left-back.
Guardiola, whilst managing Bayern Munich, converted right-back Philipp Lahm into a defensive midfielder who excelled in that role in a similar way to left-back David Alaba, who can also, if needs be, fill in at centre-back. Benjamin Pavard (VfB Stuttgart), set to join the Bavarian behemoths this summer, is another example.
Pavard was subsequently linked with Paris Saint-Germain following the pivotal role he played in France’s World Cup triumph last summer, but the Ligue 1 outfit have their very own central defender-cum-midfielder in Marquinhos, who put on a masterclass – alongside deep-lying playmaker Marco Verratti – in PSG’s recent 2-0 Champions League win over Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Up and down, side to side
As mentioned earlier, full-backs have often been ridiculed as failed wingers. Frank de Boer, now in charge of MLS champions Atlanta United, is a historical example. However, that hasn’t always been the case, and even so modern full-backs are essentially auxiliary wingers.
Take someone like João Cancelo (Juventus). For many observers he’s the pre-eminent right-back today. His willingness and effectiveness going forward essentially makes him an extra attacker. Although he could easily play as a right winger, Massimiliano Allegri has seldom used him there; instead the furthest he’s started has been at left-wing back.
His predecessor Dani Alves (Paris Saint-Germain), though, hasn’t been restricted. He recently became the first player to play in every position for PSG (including keeping goal). More recently, in their Champions League round of 16 first-leg win away to Manchester United, the veteran Brazilian international operated on the right wing and did so credibly.
He’s a role model to many including Nélson Semedo (Barcelona), who can play either full-back role. The 25-year-old Portuguese footballer has settled at the Camp Nou after a tentative start. A future Clásico rival is Achraf Hakimi (Borussia Dortmund), who Real Madrid are surely going to recall once his loan is over. Since moving to the Westfalenstadion, the 20-year-old has grown in stature – scoring two goals and four assists in 16 Bundesliga outings this season – and is certainly now Marcelo’s successor.