The art of reinvention
At its simplest, football is a gloriously rudimentary sport. You leave the big guys at the back, stick the guys that can run out wide, add a couple of tough tacklers in the middle and a speed merchant or two up front. It's good, clean, brainless fun – and you can see similar tactical set-ups everywhere from the local park to the Parc des Princes.
But there's a reason coaches like Cruyff, Bielsa and Guardiola are admired and revered the world over, and that players like Beckenbauer, Yashin and Gullit have left an indelible mark on the game. The very best minds in football don't see the sport like you or I. They don't see 11 players in 11 rigid roles – they see space to exploit, angles to attack, and positions to reinterpret. These visionaries glanced at the football rule book, and tore it up – inventing a host of new positions in the process.
(Yashin, Lloris, Neuer)
Even the very best goalkeepers in the world are often little more than shot stoppers. They're content to stay on their line, twiddle their thumbs for 90 minutes, then spring into action only if and when they're called to do so. But then there are those players – and the coaches who encouraged them – who see the game differently. They see the goalkeeper as an eleventh outfield player, and an opportunity to influence the outcome of a match from the back. The legendary Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin was arguably the first to wear the sweeper-keeper mantle, while Tottenham Hotspur's Hugo Lloris and Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer are perhaps the finest contemporary exponents. These are players with the speed of foot and thought to read the game before it reaches them, and stray beyond their penalty area to intercept onrushing forwards when out of possession. When in possession, they're adept passers who can spray the ball long or play coolly out from the back – whichever is required.
In English they're known as sweepers, but the Italian is more elegant. 'Libero' means free – that is, free from man-marking duties, free to mop up their teammates' mistakes, and free to stride forward with the ball when the mood takes them. Franz Beckenbauer was undoubtedly the greatest Libero of all time, and the man who defined the position. He had the uncommon game intelligence to crop up wherever he was needed, and the composure on the ball to act as an effective weapon in attack. With three and five-man defensive formations in vogue once more, the libero has made a reappearance in the modern game. While David Luiz's impetuousness has earned criticism in the past, he's undoubtedly a fine example of a modern-day libero.
The Ball-Playing Centre-Back
(Rijkaard, Alderwiereld, Bonucci)
Not to be confused with the sweeper, these players are invaluable assets in an era when the high press is routinely used to unsettle defences. Tactical innovators such as Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino have often used the accurate long ball ability of their best centre-backs as a means of turning the high press into an opponent's greatest weakness. When Leonardo Bonucci played a 60-yard assist for Emanuelle Giaccherini in Euro 2016, jaws hit the floor across Italy and the world. The same year, Tony Alderwiereld could be seen doing a similar thing on a regular basis at Tottenham, picking out Dele Alli with raking diagonal passes from deep inside his own half. Having a playmaker in your back three is a considerable string to any team's bow in the age of the high press, but the playmaking centre-back has been around for decades – Frank Rijkaard was doing the same thing for Ajax and Milan in the '90s.
The Inside Full-Back
Pep Guardiola is arguably the modern game's most innovative figure. The Catalan is forever seeking to reinterpret the game, re-shuffling his deck in the hopes of getting the most from his cadre of ultra-talented players. His stint at Bayern Munich saw Guardiola implement his most unlikely tactical tweak yet. Pep took David Alaba and Philip Lahm – two supremely talented full-backs – and brought them inside, playing them as auxiliary central midfielders. Pep's logic was that these world-class full-backs, with their blend of pace, stamina, tackling and passing ability, could act as an effective screen in midfield while offering a natural proclivity to drift wide and stretch the game on the flanks if necessary. At Bayern, this tactic was devastatingly effective. At Manchester City, not so much. Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy were soon shipped out following Pep's first season at the Etihad, having failed to adapt to his tactical ideals.
The Regista/Withdrawn Playmaker
The role of the playmaker is clear: provide the strikers with the ammunition they need to score. Ergo, the playmaker should play in front of the midfield, as close as possible to the forwards. But some have sought to reinterpret even this pivotal role. Sometimes, they reason, the playmaker is better deployed further back in midfield – where an ability to run with the ball or spray accurate long passes can be better utilised. As such, the Regista often plays behind the rest of the midfield. Antonio Conte, that great innovator, deployed Andrea Pirlo in such a role with Juventus, with two screening midfielders deployed ahead of the elegant Italian granting him the time and space to pick out runs further forwards. In Jose Mourinho's Manchester United squad, Paul Pogba plays a similar – though distinct – role as a withdrawn playmaker. Pogba is Utd's most creative midfielder, but doesn't play as a number 10. Instead, he sits alongside Nemanja Matic and behind the attacking quartet in Mourinho's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Here, Pogba can utilise his skill and power on the ball to burst forwards into space, slide through-balls into his teammates or shoot powerfully from distance. If Pirlo's was a traditional, Italian interpretation of the regista role, Pogba's is very much a contemporary take.
The Inverted Winger/Inside-Forward
For generations, wingers and wide midfielders were encouraged to play on whichever flank matched their strongest foot. It made sense, too – a right-footer playing on the right could deliver accurate crosses into the box with his favoured foot, and was less likely be beaten on the outside by an opponent. But the inverted winger role deploys a left-footed player on the right, and vice-versa – allowing them to cut inside and attack more centrally, striking at goal with their favoured foot. It might seem an obvious innovation, but it took a long time for players featuring on the 'wrong' wing to become commonplace. Today, Arsene Wenger is a fan – with Arsenal's left-sided attackers numbering the predominantly right-footed Robert Pires, Andriy Arshavin and Alexis Sanchez in their tanks in recent years. Arjen Robben has of course built a career out of cutting inside to drive at goal – just because you know what he's going to do doesn't mean you can stop him doing it.
The Shadow Striker/False Nine
In the era of 4-4-2, the big man/small man combination was so successful it became a cliché. That 'small man' – the player who supported his more physical strike partner with darting runs, intelligent movement and incisive passing – was the second striker. But as football tactics have evolved, this role has evolved too. Under Luciano Spaletti, the great Francesco Totti played as the nominal spearhead in Roma's revolutionary 4-6-0 formation. Totti used the attributes that made him a Roma legend to play as a rotating cog in a machine of variegated attacks. Totti could lead the line himself, or drop back and feed willing runners like a number 10. It was an intelligent, flexible approach to attacking football that spawned countless imitators. Pep Guardiola's Barcelona was one of them. Lionel Messi has played in practically every position across the Barcelona frontline, but it was as a shadow striker or false that he was arguably at his most destructive. In the modern game, players with the skillset to be a playmaker and a striker rolled into one are among the most coveted in the world.
With innovators like Guardiola, Pochettino, Conte and Klopp in the Premier League, expect this age of experimentation to continue apace.