James Milner, Hugh Grant, and versatility
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At the weekend, I asked a question on Twitter. Who — outside of James Milner, who would surely be the obvious choice of my largely-Premier League-focused followers — is the most positionally versatile player out there at the moment?
Then my notifications exploded
Say no more https://t.co/3aYbTv9Znl pic.twitter.com/mCdLy96uo0— Aymeric Laporte (@Laporte) August 9, 2020
The player who really inspired the question, though, (via Kim McCauley on the Shirtless Plantain Show podcast) was Crystal Dunn. For her country, the American plays as a starting left-back; for her clubs, she’s an indispensable central midfielder or forward.
It’s a slightly different type of versatility to Milner. A few of the (many) responses to my tweet reckoned that Milner was jack of all trades, master of none. Whether that’s a fair opinion is for you to decide, but it has an air of truth about it (a kinder way of putting it might be that he’s second or third choice everywhere on the pitch). What’s for sure is that the same certainly can’t be said for Dunn.
As the responses rolled in, other kinds of versatile players were mentioned. There were ones like Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba, who’ve settled into playing in pretty consistent positions but who it’s widely agreed could play anywhere.
There were others, more in the Milner mould…
Sergi Roberto, the Catalan James Milner.— Grace Robertson 🏳️⚧️ (@GraceOnFootball) August 9, 2020
I think of this category as ‘X plus a lot of Ys’. They’re people who predominantly play in one position (for Milner, central midfield; for Sergi Roberto, right-back), but are surprisingly adequate at filling in elsewhere.
The line between these and another category — the John O’Sheas of the world — is pretty thin. They get appearances because they’re versatile which they wouldn’t if they weren’t, but if O’Shea had spent his career lower down the league than Manchester United then he’d have probably secured a consistent position for himself. For some, maybe ‘versatility’ is a sign of (useful) substitute status.
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Young players are tantalising for this reason. Both Bukayo Saka and Ainsley Maitland-Niles were mentioned very frequently — two players who’ve played a variety of positions for Arsenal in their short careers, mostly on the flanks but with the variety of roles that means it’s not as simple as ‘a winger playing further back’.
But the players who interested me most were the ones like Crystal Dunn: Cardiff City’s Callum Paterson, Wigan’s Kal Naismith, and West Ham’s Michail Antonio. All three are players who, like Dunn, have been regular starters at full-back and then, with a different manager or different team, switched to playing a completely different position (centre-forward for Paterson and Antonio, attacking midfield for Naismith).
With most ‘versatile’ players, there’s some kind of pattern to their versatility. Although James Milner, for example, can play in a lot of positions, there’s a certain inescapable Milnerness to his performances. They’ll be positionally disciplined and fairly dependable, with strong hints of defensive solidity. Others players, despite moving around the pitch, are very much ‘wingers who defend’ or ‘centre-mids who can play wide’.
None are quite as fun as ‘full-back who also plays striker’, and it also leaves me wondering to what extent it makes sense to summarise the concept of versatility using positions at all.
Kyle Walker (hello Aymeric) has played as a ‘centre-back’ almost as much as ‘right-back’ for England in the past several years. There’s no doubting the football intelligence it takes to do this, but his centre-back role is quite full-back-y. One could argue that his developing versatility between inverted right-back and bombing-down-the-wing right-back is at least as impressive, if not moreso.
In a similar vein, I remember someone responding to my tweet that Kevin de Bruyne could probably play anywhere. I’m firmly in the ‘After Messi, KDB Is The Best In The World’ camp partly because of this: not only could the Belgian play in a bunch of different positions, but I think that he’d be able to fill very different roles within those positions too.
De Bruyne has the playmaking ability of a traditional number 10 (whose skillsets, as David Silva’s career progression has shown, can be moved around the midfield area); he has the delivery of a sweeping ball-progressor, whether that be in the style of Trent Alexander-Arnold or Paul Pogba; he has the pressing intelligence and energy (although this has dropped a little from its peak) of a more defensive-minded player.
Maybe this is it: maybe the mark of true versatility isn’t how many positions you could play, but how many different types of player you can emulate. It’s like acting: Hugh Grant is more or less Hugh Grant in any role he’s in. And then you have, like, [googles ‘actors with range’] Charlize Theron.
James Milner is like a slightly more versatile Hugh Grant. He can play left-back, or right-wing, but he’s always still James Milner. The Kal Naismiths, Callum Pattersons, Michail Antonios are more like Charlize Theron or [more googling] Ralph Fiennes: they can be in one role one day and a completely different one the next.
And the Kevin de Bruynes and Crystal Dunns are like Meryl Streep: incredible range, Oscar-worthy winning performances, and the first name you’d put on the poster whatever role they’re in.
Shout-out to Parth Athale for just casually putting a webapp together to identify statistically similar players.
So I've resorted to Colab, here's the link: https://t.co/Qw7n47SSfk— Parth (@pathaleee) August 6, 2020
You just need a Google account for this, and run the three cells to run the app, it's pretty easy - you can do it on your phone as well.
Really wanted non-coding people to access it easily, hope this does it :) https://t.co/nAAekJQnr3
Also, to Will Thomson, for just up and making a sophisticated algorithm, like, a ton faster than some pros have it:
This appears to be a genuinely huge contribution to the soccer analytics community. My fastest implementation is ~80x slower. https://t.co/PbKqLQp0Xl— Devin Pleuler (@devinpleuler) August 5, 2020
On a different subject, this past week The Athletic wrote an article about Robinho that was… flawed. [CW mention of sexual assault below]
In 2017, the Brazilian was sentenced in Italy to nine years in jail for rape; he’s been out of the country and appealing the verdict since, so hasn’t served any time so far. Still, the article from TA was written in a way completely absent of the sensitivity one would expect when writing about a person convicted of such a crime. No surprise as (one of) the writer(s) admitted to not having remembered the incident:
At least he owned upp to not doing his research. pic.twitter.com/ZFVe4oWYWs— Wiebe (@WieWout) August 10, 2020
I wrote a thread of elements in the article that, in my view, should’ve been edited better, but the crux is:
Anyway, the actual shout-out here comes because I would have a far less well-developed sense and sensitivity of the problems in the article were it not for things like the Burn It All Down podcast. It’s currently on a summer break, but I highly recommend subscribing for when it comes back, and checking out past episodes.
This week’s charity is Refugee Action, please consider helping them.
You can donate to Refugee Action here