As recently as Euro 2004, England lined up with Sol Campbell at the heart of their defence and Michael Owen on the shoulder of the opposition defender. The Stopper and The Poacher. Six years on, both players are good examples of how specialisation could be on the way out in the 2010s.
In this year’s Champions League quarter-final, despite massive injury problems, Arsene Wenger showed an unwillingness to play Sol Campbell, a traditional centre-back, in either leg against Barcelona’s fluid system. With Messi operating as a ‘false nine’, and in the knowledge that heading away long balls would not be the order of the day, Wenger opted to go with the more mobile Mikael Silvestre, a player who had been ignored in favour of Campbell for several months in the Premiership. Of course, Campbell is past his prime, however this tacit admission from Wenger that the stopper was not the most appropriate selection for such a high level game can also be seen as part of a growing trend in the modern game.
Michael Owen, once central to England’s thoughts and even a European Player of the Year no less, has found himself increasingly marginalised in the modern game. With 4-5-1 ubiquitous, it is essential that the central forward be able to add other elements to his game with mere goals no longer the currency by which they are judged. Holding the ball up for midfield runners and, more generally, performing an integrated role in attacking play is now vital to the play of most top teams.
Valeriy Lobanovskyi, the late great coach of Dynamo Kiev, was among the first coaches to appreciate the importance of players being able to fulfil more than one role on the football pitch. His vision was ‘universality’:
”Lobanovskyi’s goal was what he termed ‘Universality’. He wanted his forwards to defend and his backs to attack, and saw no contradiction in the instruction because, to him, attacking and defending were relative, not to their position on the pitch, but possession.”
[Jonathan Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid]
Today, we are seeing the trend towards defenders who are capable of more than stopping the opposition playing with many now assuming responsibility for providing the platform for the attack. Meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch, it is increasingly common to see a Rodrigo Taddei or a Park Ji-Sung employed with a defensive brief in positions that had previously been reserved for creative players. Every indication is that the future of football will be rooted in Lobanovskyi’s ideas of universality.. with potentially damaging consequences for the would-be Campbells and Owens of the future.