Versatility is heralded in the world of sport. Footballers that can defend as well as attack are seen as the heart and soul of a team. They are supposed to embody what every player should strive to be, well rounded and hard working.
A versatile player should have a much greater chance than his counterparts for a starting role because of the number of positions that they can occupy. After all, who would not want to be adept in multiple areas as opposed to just one?
Contrary to what many may believe, versatility can be a hidden drawback rather than a blessing. In fact, managers often take advantage of their player’s wide skill set. By analysing the careers of two English talents, we can fully understand that versatility comes with not only pros, but cons as well.
Aston Villa fan’s view of James Milner polarize the views that the rest of the world has of the England international. The majority of fans following the Premier League think of Milner as being a hard working, gritty sort of player. One that can do a job for you whether he plays right back, left midfield, or central midfield. At Manchester City, Milner was a pure workhorse. He filled in at forward when Agüero was injured, he filled in central midfield when the central midfielders were injured, and he filled in out wide when an outside back was injured. However, Milner was not always characterized like this.
In his Aston Villa days, the hard working midfielder was nominated for PFA Young Player of the Year award. Now, he wasn’t selected based on the distance he covered during a game, or his hard working mentality. He was nominated for his attacking prowess and talent going forward. Milner occupied a central midfield position where he would drive at opposing defences and create opportunities for others.
After arriving at Manchester City, his imagination going forward dried up, but why? The simple answer was his versatility. Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, both managers at City during Milner’s stay at the Etihad, recognized his versatility. When injuries came their way, who was the man who had to sacrifice his normal position for the sake of the team? Milner. The two managers morphed Milner from a robust central midfielder to a useful utility man. After rotating between multiple positions, Milner has lost his drive and spark in central midfield. Versatility brought him a level down from what he was.
The second English talent we can look at is Wayne Rooney. Now many would agree that Rooney is far superior in terms of raw talent than Milner. However, even he, a player that is world class on his day, has been shunted around his team. In fact, Rooney has had to deal with this for almost his entire career.
Think back to the early 2000’s, when a young Rooney had just recently arrived from Everton. Ronaldo’s arrival, and Ryan Giggs place in the squad meant he was shunted between out and out forward, second striker, and left midfield roles. His best position comes at second striker, however, he has rarely been given an entire season to play that role.
In the 2007-2009 seasons, Ronaldo was played in Rooney’ favoured position through the middle. In addition, Tevez was in the mix meaning Rooney was played in either the wide right or wide left positions. Once again, versatility allowed Ferguson to sacrifice Rooney’s role for the team. Rooney had only two seasons playing in his best position at forward. Both seasons he scored 34 goals. However after these two seasons, he has been shifted back into central midfield, right midfield, and even holding midfield. Versatility has not allowed Rooney to showcase his best form. Sir Alex Ferguson was able to sacrifice his role as opposed to others because of his broad skill set.
Versatility in a player is a wonderful asset for the manager and the team as a whole. This allows for sufficient cover for multiple positions. However, versatility hurts players individually when they are not allowed to settle into their best position. Rooney and Milner are prime examples of versatility negatively effecting individuals. Managers of versatile players should recognize that by using a highly skilled player as a utility man, they are doing more harm than good to a player’s career.