Four players who benefited from a switch of positions, feat. United and ex-Spurs star

There is a certain accepted wisdom bounded around by pundits that a great player can play anywhere, however footballing history is littered with examples to the contrary. For some players, their early years are a struggle to find their place on the pitch. Below is an example of those who’s careers escalated following their switch to their best position.

1. Bastian Schweinsteiger

There was some surprise when Louis Van Gaal managed to capture Bastian Schweinsteiger from Bayern Munich this summer. Afterall Manchester United were still very much a team in transition on the pitch and indeed off it, with many questioning the club and specifically Chief Executive Ed Woodward’s ability to attract top stars to Old Trafford. Although he has now entered into his 30’s, the signing of a bonafide Bayern legend and World Cup winning midfielder not only shows the return of Manchester United as a lucrative option but also reflects the trust Schweinsteiger has in Van Gaal, the man largely responsible for his success.

When Van Gaal took over the helm at the Bavarian giants in 2009, Schweinsteiger had played almost exclusively as a left sided midfielder, and while there were explosive flashes of talent and dynamism, Schweinsteiger’s performances could be best described as inconsistent. It was Van Gaal’s keen eye that saw the potential of playing him in a deeper midfield role.

Immediately the switch appeared a masterstroke. “Now, I’m always close to the ball,” Schweinsteiger said. “I missed that when playing wide”. Bayern and Germany also missed it, Schweinsteiger brought a discipline and calmness to the middle of the park few observers would have anticipated he had. Indeed one wonders whether or not Bayern’s treble in 2013, or Germany’s world cup win the following summer could have been possible without the dynamism and control Schweinsteiger provides to his team. While injuries have plagued Schweinsteiger recently, Manchester United fans would be happy with even a glimpse of the huge influence he brings.

2. Gareth Bale

It’s a strange statistic that has resurfaced quite frequently in recent years but one that is worth bringing back up, not only to show the personal progression of the man but one that perfectly displays the dangers of putting square pegs into that which is round. When Gareth Bale arrived at Spurs from Southampton for £7m in the summer of 2007, he was seen as a left back with huge potential. However, the Welshman struggled to live up to the expectations, not only did Bale find it difficult to acquire a first team place but when he did play, he went a record 24 league matches without ever being involved in a win for his club.

And now he is the most expensive player of all time. It may be a little facetious to put Bale’s meteoric progression down to moving his starting position 10 yards up the pitch, doubtless there was a lot of work both physical and mental put in by Bale to improve himself, but it seems unlikely Real Madrid would have spent the best part of £80m for a struggling Spurs left back.

Whatever the accusations leveled against Harry Redknapp’s tactical ability, his decision to move Bale up the pitch, and critically to relieve him of much of his defensive responsibility, must be applauded. Bale’s hat trick at the San Siro against Inter Milan showed the benefits of removing his shackles. Under Andre Villas Boas, Gareth Bale became the talisman of the Spurs team before helping Real Madrid to their 10th Champions League title in 2014 with a goal in the final. And to think how different it could have been…

3. Thierry Henry

It seems almost unbelievable that a manager as successful and celebrated as Carlo Ancelotti could make such an oversight, in words almost dripping with regret, contained in Philippe Auclair’s book Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top. the 3 time Champions League winning manager says, “I didn’t think I could play Henry in the middle…he never told me he could.” He could.

After a difficult spell in Italy with Juventus, Henry himself questioned whether or not he had the ability to move up front. Although he won the World Cup in his home country in 1998 as a winger, few could have imagined he would go on to become one of the greatest players the Premier League has ever seen. This all changed with his move to Arsenal.

Wenger told Henry that he was “wasting his time” on the wing and immediately set about moulding him into the world class striker he would soon become. Blessed with natural pace and sensational technique, it was Henry’s ruthlessness in front of goal that truly set him apart, a one on one situation for the Frenchman was almost as good as a goal – something severely lacking from Theo Walcott, a player many argue should have taken the same transition as Henry.

Theirry Henry would soon become Arsenal’s all time top goal scorer scoring 228 goals before moving to Barcelona and winning a Champions League. Something Juventus must to this day regret.

4. Lionel Messi

Granted, Lionel Messi could probably play goalkeeper and still bag 20 goals a season, but perhaps the best performances ever seen from a footballer came from a seemingly small change in position. What’s different about Messi from the rest of the list is that his switch didn’t transform a struggling player into a world-class talent, but rather took Messi from a superstar to an all-time great.

Perhaps the greatest moment of ingenuity (and there have been a few) in Pep Guardiola’s still young management career was the decision to play Messi in the middle, a move that led to the development of the false 9 position as well as playing a big role in Barcelona winning their first ever treble in 2009.

As well as bringing huge success to his team, Messi’s switch to striker saw him break a host of individual records. He was awarded 3 Ballon d’Or awards in a row from 2010 until 2012 – the year that saw Messi break Gerd Muller’s record of most goals scored in a calendar year with a staggering 91 for Barcelona and Argentina.

Although Messi has found his top form again with a move back to the right wing, there is no denying the significance of his change of roles. Many teams have tried to replicate Barcelona’s success in using primarily attacking midfielders up front, allowing them to drop deep and create space around them. Spain fielded Cesc Fabregas as their own false 9 and won Euro 2012, Germany have utilised both Mario Gotze and Thomas Muller in the role. However few can match the mastery of that certain Argentinian magician.

Featured image: some rights reserved by Ronnie McDonald.

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