The title of the blog is one of a handful of popular fan cries when their team or preferred player doesn’t play well or they disagree with a manager’s tactical deployment of certain players. It’s a thought I’ve recently spent a lot of time contemplating what does a “natural position” actually mean? And if a player is being played “out of position” is that the same as being ineffective?
Being played “out of position” is a cry I hear a lot for sure in the fanbase of the club I support, Arsenal, about German playmaker Mesut Özil. “He’s a number 10! He should play centrally! He’s wasted played out left!,” are all things said about Herr Özil. While true to an extent does that mean a player of his ilk or type should play in the same position all of the time? Can not a player of his ability and quality be effective in other areas of the pitch because of differing tactical set-ups and formations even if his form suffers or drops of a bit? Is it the same as playing poorly? Obviously there are certain things we have to simplify for the sake of this post but positions and formations are just starting points.
While given that Özil’s performances to now this season have been markedly better whilst playing in his preferred number ten position, this is not the same as always playing worse when in wide areas (or indeed other areas as well). Also, despite worse performances playing wide left so far for Arsenal this season, this doesn’t exclude possible good performances there in the future as he has been effective there for Germany, a fact Monsieur Wenger has pointed out in press conferences.
In USMNT circles, the likes of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey were often played “out of position.” Both players generally preferred to ply their trade in more central locations in their career but with the USMNT the stars were regularly deployed on the left and right flanks in their national team time. DaMarcus Beasley has even been turned into a left back under Jürgen Klinsmann with arguable degrees of success after playing most of his career as a winger. There are other examples of successes and failures to varying degrees.
While I acknowledge some players obviously are more effective and prefer to play in certain positions, I would just like people to contemplate that if players are never played out of position, then how do tactics and formations evolve? How are different playing positions such as everybody’s new favorite, the false nine, created? How are players fit into differing formations and systems when they move clubs?
So, one of the questions is what leads to success or failure of players being played “out of position?” Is it a failed tactical idea from a coach or player? A lack of application and desire from the player to make it work because he isn’t comfortable there? A bit of both? This along with how to change up tactical plans for particular opponents are the questions coaches and managers face- is there something in player A I can use in a position that isn’t normal for him? But can he be effective there?
What’s also funny about some in the Arsenal fanbase decrying players being played “out of position” is the history Arsène Wenger has of recreating players by playing them “out of position.” Thierry Henry was more of a winger before he became arguably the deadliest striker the EPL has ever seen. Cameroonian, Lauren, was a workhorse type of central midfielder before he was turned into a stout right back. Kolo Toure came to Arsenal as a wide player before he was turned into one of the best center backs in the league over a two year stretch.
Playing players out of position isn’t a guarantee of success by any means and like a lot of plans in sports, they don’t always work. But I have to chuckle at at the idea that it can’t work simply because a player isn’t playing in his “natural” position. That is until the day someone comes out of a womb with a tactics board pointing where he/she wants to play.