The British obsession with a player’s position is perhaps one of the least debated reasons why all the national teams suffer so much from a lack of quality in certain areas. The position a player plays in is looked upon as a key aspect to what he contributes to the team however, when we take a look at how football has developed in the modern era, a player’s position only holds relevance to depict his starting position on the field for defensive purposes.
From an early age, kids are taught to play a certain position in Britain, mainly based of physical attributes they possess, and this leads to “cookie-cutter” players who are able to only perform one role. If a 12 year old is athletic and well built, he will immediately be pigeon-holed into the usual positions of central defence or target man. The small but nippy 12 year old who has good feet often gets told to play out wide whilst the kid who seems to be able to run forever is made a fullback.
Whilst there are sound, logical reasons for these decisions, it also leaves these players at a disadvantage at an early age as they miss out on key training that could help their all-round game. The approach taken by the Spanish, and before them the Dutch, is something that I think could be very beneficial to the teams in Britain in order to maximise the talent pool available. In Spain, a small 12 year old who is quick is not just shunted out wide but taught how to play; they are first taught how to become a footballer before they are taught how to play a position.
Versatility is an underrated aspect of football in this country; players who are versatile are often looked upon as a “jack of all trades master of none”, where as in Spain, the are valued for their ability to be moved around and still perform to the same level. This can be illustrated when we look at two of the worlds best midfielders, Steven Gerrard and Andres Iniesta, and the way their respective careers have panned out so far. Steven Gerrard began as a tough tackling central midfield player at Liverpool before being eventually moved forward to play as an attacking midfielder. For a season, he played on the right-hand side for the club and has also featured on the left for both club and country. There is a never ending debate about Gerrard’s “best position” with every man and his dog keen to express their views on how to get the best out of one of England’s most talented players.
Andres Iniesta, in much the same way, started off as a central midfield player at Barcelona but can now be seen more regularly filling positions further forward. For Barca and for Spain he has played on the left and right hand side of a front three whilst for Barca he has even filled in behind a main striker when needed to. Whilst the national press and pundits a like constantly debate Gerrard’s best position, nothing is said of Iniesta and where he plays best in Spain as he seamlessly moves into each position he is asked to play and still provides quality performances.
The key reason why Iniesta is able to perform in many roles whilst Gerrard only really shines when placed centrally goes back to coaching; whilst Gerrard was coached as a central midfielder from an early age and modelled his game on players like Souness and Robson, Iniesta was first taught to be a complete footballer and is comfortable wherever he is on the field of play.
By modernising coaching and changing the approach to how kids are taught to play the game, British teams could in the future also have modern players; players who can play right across the midfield and feel comfortable in each position, players who’s lack of “position” would be an asset rather than a deficiency. Just imagine an England team with no debate about who plays down the left because three or four could go there? Or a Scotland team with defenders who are able to play right across the backline? Versatility is increasingly becoming one of the most important parts of football and is a key way to maximise the pool of talent available in a country. When the coaching in this country finally catches up to that in Spain, maybe players like Joe Cole will no longer be forced to play as “wingers” for most of their careers but nurtured and used to their attacking potential.