In times gone by, multi-functional players may have been viewed less glamorously. No-one would wax lyrical about the right back who was able to play right-wing and centre-back. They were the utility squad members who were adept at slotting into a number of positions – be it fullback, centre back, or even centre midfield. They were far from indispensable and would only likely feature if there were injuries or a need to rotate the squad.
This is, however, a view which has become outdated. At the very pinnacle of European football, we now see players who can function in numerous areas of the pitch. David Alaba, Thomas Müller, Phillip Lahm to name a few. These players are members of Europe’s elite, and players that can be considered capable of performing confidently in more than one position – an idea synonymous with the notion of total football.
One of the romantic ideas often associated with the notion of multi-functional players is that, even if they are found out of position on the pitch, they will be able to deal with the situation to due knowledge of how to carry out the role. This obviously works within reason – a right back cannot be expected to be a centre-forward just because he finds himself up top. However, if a centre-back finds himself defending out wide, then prior knowledge will serve to help them marshal the situation better.
Too add to this, by having players capable of functioning in a number of positions, the squad is able to have more adequate injury cover without having to necessarily increase the size of the squad. For example, if Bayern Munich suffered an ‘injury crisis’, to borrow a term from the lexicon of the footballing world, then they would arguably still have cover in the form of David Alaba who became schooled in various positions due to his multi-functional nature.
In terms of producing a cohesive term who are fluid on the pitch, having multi-functional players can be extremely beneficial. Take, for example, Manchester United’s fledgling attack. Whilst it it is still in its embryonic stages and still very raw, the players on show can arguably perform in a number of roles – Martial (LW, RW, ST), Lingard (CAM, RW), Mata (CAM, RW), Rashford (ST, RW), Memphis (ST, LW).
The disadvantage with playing players in several positions is that it can hinder the development of the individual. A prime example of this can be seen in the development of Chris Smalling. Often played at right back, Smalling appeared to be a player that wasn’t up to the standard of Manchester United. However, when he was moved centrally he looked far more natural, and eventually, the England centre-back found his feet and developed his game.
Another danger is that by using a player in a number of positions, the player may be subject to an information overload about positioning and general instructions about how to play the position. Expecting players to understand the requirements of several positions is tasking and requires a strong desire to learn, something not all players will obviously agree to.
On a similar tangent, players that almost have their positions cemented are unlikely to want to be moved about the pitch. It is therefore important to know what players you’re handling before attempting to get a player to understand an alternative position.
Multi-functional players are undoubtedly becoming a larger part of the modern game. Born out of the idea of total football, players are becoming schooled in more positions allowing for more fluidity in the way game is played, and also in the use of personnel.