Versatility – a poisoned chalice?

Read Fulfilling Potential Part 2: Chasing glory – the grass ain’t always greener

Many elements can come together that allows a player to succeed at the highest level; fitness, mentality, ability, timing and perhaps more potent and mystical of all – luck.

At the same time, should these aspects not combine, then we see promising young stars neglect to live up to their early hype. But why? And which are the most important reasons a player falls the wrong side of the very fine line between success and failure?

Of course, ‘potential’ in itself is an intangible entity and in the eye of the beholder, but even so – when a young player displays special talent, very few will argue that eventually he needs to be plying his trade on the world stage.

In this first part of a new series, I intend to explore the pros and cons of possessing the ability to play in a number of different positions. Undoubtedly good for the squad, but can it hinder the player’s progress?

Versatility – a poisoned chalice?

It’s a fair argument that a player’s versatility and flexibility can be important to a squad and presents a promising young player with more opportunities to break into the first team. A good performance deputising in an alternative role may help catch the manager’s attention and get a foot in the door.

On the other hand, being unable to command one single position can hinder development without a sense of continuity, making it ever more improbable a player will become world-class. The idiom – jack of all trades, master of nothing – may appear apt, but hope need not be lost.

Some players have made a career and gained notoriety from becoming a club’s Mr Versatile, whereas the promise in others has simply faded through a lack of playing ‘identity’.

Rising stars such as Victor Moses, Chris Smalling, Wilfried Zaha, Callum McManaman and Phil Jones have all proved their flexibility and adaptability at an early stage in their careers, but will it pay off?

Example to follow: Gareth Bale
Example to avoid: Joe Cole

Part of the famed West Ham academy in the late 90’s alongside now household names such as Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick; Joe Cole was always destined for greatness. He featured in the West Ham side that romped to victory in the 1999 FA Youth Cup, and it wasn’t long before he was making impressions on the senior eleven.

A low centre of gravity, immense technical skill and an eye for a throughball helped propel him into the media spotlight as a teenager, the central attacking midfielder ensured his was the name on everyone’s lips.

Cole broke into the senior England first team in 2001, and was selected in the 2002 World Cup squad by Sven Goran Eriksson, making a substitute appearance at his first major tournament. He was touted as a ‘wildcard’ player – capable of producing a moment of magic that could win a game and very much in the Gazza mould.

After securing a move to a newly-rich Chelsea in 2003 following West Ham’s relegation, Cole went on to win three Premier League titles and two FA Cups. Not a bad haul, right? Except this article is exploring why he didn’t fulfil his own playing potential, trophies or not.

Granted, he did play an influential role in the Chelsea sides that landed the 2004/5 and 2005/6 league titles, playing as a versatile winger following injury setbacks to Damien Duff and Arjen Robben. He also scored a memorable goal against a strong Sweden team in the 2006 World Cup, starting in England’s most troubled position on the left wing.

Embed from Getty Images

We could argue that this was the period when he peaked; barely in his mid-twenties.

Falling out of favour and injuries lost him his place afterwards and he became a bit-part player until he was released on a free to Roy Hodgson’s Liverpool in the summer of 2010. He always felt like a square peg in a round hole at Anfield and was loaned out to Lille for a year before returning to his boyhood club West Ham on a permanent deal in 2013.

It is only testament to Cole’s unmatched early promise that I consider his career an underachievement with regards to his potential.

He should have been a player to build your side around, playing in a free role ‘in the hole’. Instead, he became a victim of his own versatility playing right across the midfield during his peak years. If there was a void in the team, Cole could fill it.

The problem stunted continuity and decreased his chances of making one position his own. At West Ham he made his name playing through the middle, although he often played on either wing at Stamford Bridge or Anfield.

Joe Cole’s underwhelming England career was epitomised by him being the ‘best fit’ to England’s left wing problem, but he was unable to make the impact he was undoubtedly capable of out by the touchline. His trickery made him a competent winger, but nothing more. Unable to influence games for club or country out wide, his career faded quickly after the 2005/06 season.

A player who has turned his versatility to his advantage quite significantly is current Player of the Year Gareth Bale.

Another talent nurtured through a productive youth system, this time at Southampton, the young Welsh left back started turning heads in 2006 when he became Southampton’s second youngest player ever at the age of 16 years and 275 days (behind Theo Walcott). He began playing regularly in the 2006/7 campaign and became somewhat of a free kick specialist, displaying exquisite technique.

Bale’s reward for his fine performances in the Championship was a transfer worth a potential £10m to Tottenham in the summer of 2007.

The youngster, however, found it difficult breaking into Spurs’ first team for the next couple of seasons thanks to the exceptional form of Cameroonian Benoit Assou-Ekoto.

Indeed, Bale held an unwanted record as he never finished on the winning side during his first 24 games for Tottenham. And, after two months out with a knee injury at the beginning of the 2009/10 season, rumours of a loan move to Alex McCleish’s Birmingham a division below may well have materialised had Assou-Ekoto not been struck down by his own injury difficulties.

2010 brought better fortune for the Welshman, as he enjoyed more starts and even demonstrated his eye for goal. Once Assou-Ekoto returned from his spell on the sidelines, Harry Redknapp pushed Bale further forward onto the wing to form a potent and rapid left flank which helped Spurs finish fourth that year,

The young Welshman was then able to take his burgeoning talents onto the continental stage in the Champions League the following season.

Not many games are remembered for the efforts of the losing team, but on 20 October 2013 Bale scored his first senior hat-trick at none other than the San Siro against reigning champions Internazionale, coming from 4-0 down to finish an exhilarating 4-3. He had announced his presence on the European stage quite outrageously.

A fine season followed, scoring twelve goals in all competitions. But the best was yet to come.

Bale’s attacking influence on the side was growing and, after the departure of playmaker Luka Modric to Real Madrid, an opportunity arose to push him further forward still and not just confined to the left wing.

Andre Villas Boas endured a tricky start to his managerial career at Tottenham, however his attacking brand of technical football soon started reaping results. This flowing style suited Bale’s pace and creativity and there was a sense the Portuguese manager had given him somewhat of a free role within the team.

Bale flourished, scoring not only 21 league goals, but many match-winning goals that saw Spurs almost pip arch-rivals Arsenal to the final Champions League spot. It was an incredible personal campaign that put to bed any doubts about his talent. With comparisons being made to Cristiano Ronaldo’s influence and role during his last two seasons with Manchester United perhaps being slightly generous, there is no doubt Real Madrid’s interest in Bale this summer is more than sincere.

Bale turned a possible career cul-de-sac at left back understudy into becoming the club’s top goalscorer and the most influential player in the team within only a few seasons. His versatility allowed him the freedom to express his talents further up the pitch, to the point many people may have forgotten his defensive roots altogether.

Embed from Getty Images

He has also scored 11 goals in 41 appearances for Wales, taking his achievements to the international stage, and is the current holder of three Player of the Year awards – accolades he would have never realised at left back, even if he had cemented a first team place there.

The main reason for Bale fulfilling his potential in this instance, is that he has realised his best position while his best years are still ahead of him – there is no question of him reverting back to defence. And after realising his best position, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands and excelled with an overachieving campaign, in many respects.

As discussed before, being able to play many positions can give young players in particular an entry into regular senior football, however the danger is that a player will float about as a loose jigsaw piece with no true home.

It can always be an advantage to possess the ability to play in many roles, however young players such as Jones and McManaman will also need to become specialists in one single position if they are to reach the pinnacle of their potential.

And when these raw talents finally discover and get an opportunity to play consistently in their favoured position, lets hope they grab it with both hands like Gareth did.

Follow Adam on twitter.

Read Fulfilling Potential Part 2: Chasing glory – the grass ain’t always greener


  1. stetrasonic says:

    So, if it wasnt for Redknapp pushing him on to the left wing Bale would not be the player he is today?

    I know you hate the guy so interesting that you credit him with bales success.

    • You’re right, I don’t like Redknapp, but it would be narrow-minded of me not to credit him simply because of that.

      Redknapp may have provided a platform, but I credit Bale with Bale’s success.

  2. Wales were giving Bale license to attack ages before Redknapp even realised he was at Spurs. The Harry Redknapp myth is a complete joke.

    • Redknapp was still the person responsible for playing him further forward for Spurs, that’s just fact.

      I’m not suggesting it was his idea! Just that he was the manager who pushed him further forward at club level.


  1. […] and he as shown glimpses of world class talent since emerging in Arsenal’s first team. However, injuries have blighted his progress over the last two years and he desperately needs an inj…At his best – he is quite simply sensational and can play an integral part in the futures of […]

  2. […] Read Fulfilling Potential Part 1: Versatility – a poisoned chalice? […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: