We hear so much about players playing ‘out of position’ and the relative merits of placing them in their preferred or best slots (the two are not always the same). But just how restricted are players to one area of the field?
Arsene Wenger, along with being renowned as a developer of talent, is not afraid to change a player’s position if he feels him better suited to an area other than that he declares as his own.
Take Lauren, a right-sided midfielder who became a right back, Eboue, who looks like going the other way, Toure, a utility midfielder who used to play centre back and was reverted there, Henry, the winger who moved inside, etc etc.
The latest is Hleb, who was excellent in the Emirates Cup in a support striker role, but will probably find himself back out on the wing for much of this season.
But why is this a problem? Hleb is skilful, with the eye for the impossible pass (without quite having Bergkamp’s ability to execute it), and he has a surprising turn of pace. Why does he feel he cannot use these attributes out on the wing? Why, in fact, has he not succeeded out there?
I am convinced it is as much a mental adjustment as anything. Players get used to positioning themselves in a role, they know what areas of the pitch they should cover at certain times, but this is simply experience. With enough time in a complementary position to their ‘best’ (i.e. not being shifted from centre back to the wing) they should be adapt to the new role.
So why do we constantly hear players moaning about being played out of position? A manager decides that on a given day, a given player will give him the highest contribution in a given position. The players are footballers, not designers, not tacticians even – they are asked to play in a certain position which the manager has decided they are capable of doing and should thrive in. It is not up to them to agree or disagree. It is up to them to use their ability.
Alex Hleb is a gifted footballer, and as such should be able to influence the game from a variety of positions. If it does not accommodate the team for him to play the support striker role he prefers, so be it. He will have to adapt.
A true footballer is a footballer first. Same basics, same ideas, no matter where on the pitch you are.