In every season there is a point where clubs have long injury lists and have to rely on players within their squad who can play in more than one position to plug the gap. The question is, does this really work? Or do they suffer from being a jack of all trades and master of none?
At a first glance it appears an ideal solution, with Premier League sides looking to constantly change formations within a game, having players who can play almost anywhere. It should be a trump card.
However, it has to be questioned whether players can fill each role they are required to, to an acceptable standard. There certainly have been players who can play several positions with a large degree of success, such as Phil Neville or John O’Shea, but then you have the issue of players who can play somewhere as a temporary solution, and this is made more permanent.
For example despite having the ability to play at left back I am sure both Fulham and Aston Villa fans would not be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of seeing either Damien Duff or Charles N’zogbia filling the left back void, should their first choice full back be injured.
A key question to ask is whether the player you want to use as a versatility player could become ineffective to the team if moved out of their normal position, whereas on the other hand, they could be a real asset in their natural position so there would be no point trying to utilise their flexibility. In the case of Theo Walcott it appears he can play as a winger or a striker. Whether he would be happy to play both is another issue, but he has played for several seasons on the wing and seems more than apt to fulfil the striker’s role, as he has proven in recent times, that he possesses a goalscoring pedigree. However, if we were to play Wayne Rooney on the left wing it appears to be a waste of the striker’s talent and skill, despite the player having the range of passing and ability to play anywhere along a front four.
However, going out to sign a player who is known for their versatility is a slightly different matter. When the manager purchases such a type of player there is recognition that there is no certainty over what the player’s best position is. At Everton, David Moyes can use this to his advantage as Marouane Fellaini is capable of playing in central midfield or he can be used as a second striker to cause headaches for opposition defences. The reason why Moyes can switch Fellaini positionally is because he is aware that the player is known for his strength and ability to unsettle opposition players in wherever he plays, so despite him being versatile, his true capabilities are not lost.
On the flip side of the coin you can find footballers who are tagged as versatile claiming to be able to fulfil several squad positions but actually having the ability to fulfil none to a satisfactory level. Newcastle United appear in the last transfer window to have been caught out with a red herring guilty of this tag in Vurnon Anita. The club hoped the player would be able to fill in for either Cabaye or Tiote when injured or unavailable or to cover at full back when the same applied to Davide Santon or Danny Simpson. What has occurred is a player who looks like he can’t fulfil either position accurately, as he does not yet have the confidence in his play to assert himself in the midfield or the range of passing, nor the tackling ability to play at full back. Newcastle thought that they were being shrewd by trying to sign a utility player, but it has so far backfired.
However, in James Perch they appear to have a utility player who can fill in, but despite him being valued, there is an acceptance around St. James’ Park that he is never as good as the person he is filling in for, but he always does an adequate job. Again I would argue that it was a stroke of luck that even “Perchinho” as Newcastle fans affectionately now call him, has managed to get his chance at Newcastle after a couple of very indifferent first few seasons on Tyneside. Most clubs don’t have a this long to wait for a player on their books to suddenly start showing their true potential.
This seems to lead me to believe that versatility is definitely something that is useful if a player has it. Despite this, the player must be talented and suitable for the club outside of this, with his flexible nature being seen as a bonus feature.
Because if a club seeks out a versatile player they end up paying for someone who has no certain position, and always remains a periphery player within the squad.
Managers in the next transfer window will be tempted to sign players who can supposedly fulfil several positions, but if it appears too good to be true, it usually is, and there should be wariness about looking to sign these stop gap solutions, despite the temptation to do so.