With managers nowadays more open to attempting to find new solutions to problems on the pitch by tinkering with line-ups and formations, versatility is increasingly becoming a key trait to have in the modern game. However, if you take a straw poll of football fans from around the country the vast majority would argue that players should be played in their 'natural' positions.
With this in mind, WhoScored has attempted to find the Premier League players whose styles and statistics suggest that they may be suited to a role other than the one in which they are currently deployed. We looked at the WhoScored rating system, which can be split into a player's individual defensive and offensive rating, to ascertain the defenders who do most of their best work when attacking and the attackers who do most of their best work when defending.
The findings led us to two conclusions, of which the fans of both Chelsea and Aston Villa may tend to agree. Of centre-backs to have played over 10 league games this season, Chelsea's most regular pairing of David Luiz and John Terry rank first and second respectively for offensive rating. In turn, somewhat unbelievably, 3 of the 4 attacking midfielders' whose WhoScored defensive rating trumps their attacking one are playing for Aston Villa, and if Alex McLeish judges Emile Heskey to be an attacking midfielder than so will we!
Chelsea's Ambitious Back Four
One of the immediate gripes of pundits and fans alike of Chelsea's new style of play under Andre Villas-Boas was the high defensive line that the young Portuguese boss had adopted. While full-backs in the 'better' sides in the league tend to do as much attacking as defending, the one whose offensive rating most outweighs their defensive rating according to WhoScored's statistical calculations is Ashley Cole.
Cole's attacking figures are boosted largely by a league high for defenders of 6 assists, however, the left-back’s key passes (0.9) and crosses per game (0.6) figures are both down on those of Bosingwa on the opposite flank (1 and 0.9), proving that both like to bomb on and support attacks, occasionally leaving their centre-backs exposed.
John Terry's attacking rating is another that has been greatly affected by his goal contribution (4 goals, 1 assists), while his superb pass accuracy of over 91% can also be credited. The former England captain's most regular partner at centre-back has been David Luiz, whose playing style led Gary Neville to claim that he played football like a kid on a games console. The former Man United right-back can be forgiven for such assertions by the fact that Luiz has completed 1.4 dribbles per game (18 total) from the back - the second highest at Chelsea behind fellow Brazilian Ramires and ahead of the likes of Mata and Sturridge.
In comparison to Terry's tally of just 1 successful dribble all season, it is clear that Luiz is less concerned about losing the ball in dangerous positions, highlighted by the fact that he has been dispossessed 1.2 times per game compared to Terry's 0.2. His ability to intercept opponent's passes is perhaps his only real discernible defensive quality, with an average of 3 per game representing the best at the club. However, this could perhaps be explained by his willingness to try to snatch possession in front of his opponent rather than attempt to win the ball off of them, averaging fewer tackles per game than any other Blues defender.
The opinion that David Luiz may be more suited to a role in an advanced position is perhaps best indicated by his WhoScored Character, with his passing highlighted as a strength, aerial duels and discipline regarded as weaknesses, and the fact that he likes to dribble and commits fouls often included in his playing style.
Villa's Unambitious 'Attacking' Midfield
Alex McLeish has tinkered with his formation on various occasions this season with variations of 4-4-2s and 4-2-3-1s tending to lead to a near identical playing style either way. While the latter system is best deployed as a fluid, attacking tactic, Villa's interpretation of it has been far from it at times, with the inclusion of Emile Heskey as an advanced wide man or trequartista irritating fans at Villa Park. The word advanced should be used lightly in the previous sentence, with the veteran forward mainly used as an aerial outlet for the defence's fairly consistent long balls.
Early on in the season McLeish laughably touted Heskey as Villa's version of Franz Beckenbauer, able to play anywhere on the pitch and even at centre-back, and if the 33-year-old were to make the move to the back-line he would not be the first former target man to do so. Only 4 Premier League players win more aerial duels per match than Heskey (3.5) unsurprisingly making this a key strength to his game, along with headed efforts, in his WhoScored Characteristics. The same characters show that he is weak when it comes to passing and discipline, he is a threat from indirect set-pieces and he commits fouls often. Sadly, Heskey's potential switch to centre-back may be hindered by the fact that Villa's current pairing of Collins and Dunne have very similar traits!
The more surprising inclusions in the list of attacking midfielders whose defensive stats outweigh their attacking ones are Stephen Ireland and Charles N'Zogbia. The duo have excelled in their short careers in the past when afforded the freedom to attack, which isn't something that McLeish seems to encourage too much.
Both have had recent and numerous disagreements with the manager, whose defensive outlook at times has stunted the players' attacking intent. Ireland has made 2.2 tackles and 1.8 interceptions per game in comparison to just 0.7 shots and 0.6 key passes a match, leading to a goal contribution of just 1 goal and 2 assists. Meanwhile new signing N'Zogbia, who only completed fewer dribbles across Europe's top 5 leagues than Lionel Messi last season (110), has managed to win as many tackles as he has beaten opponents this term (32). While one wouldn't suggest deploying the pair in deeper roles just yet, it may be advisable for McLeish to go at teams more often this season and allow his flair players to be just that.