There is nothing that fascinates me more about tactical team construction than how managers change the job titles of certain players to achieve certain results. That may be to combat a strength of an opposition, to bring out a strength in their own team set-up, to bring the best out of a player at their disposal, or even simply to fill a hole. I created an entire series around this premise called ‘Game of Numbers’, analyzing the various roles that individual players take up to help their teams achieve success. But even despite creating that series, there have been many outstanding role changes (even positional changes!) that have gone under the radar this campaign…even taken for granted! With that, I highlight some of the best positional tweaks this campaign, detailing how managers were able to get the best out of each player.
CRITERIAEmbed from Getty Images
With innovations coming left, right and centre for the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp, it is easy to forget that it’s quite rare for a player to change roles from one season to the next without moving clubs. Joelinton‘s switch from centre-forward to central midfield was one of the hallmarks to Eddie Howe’s success last campaign, but was a relative anomaly. And while Guardiola loves to chop and change player roles, deeper-lying positional changes rarely last the entire campaign.Embed from Getty Images
So with this search, we’re outlining those that fulfilled a consistent role over the course of an entire campaign, in stark contrast to the role they previously held at the club. We’re giving bonus points to the level of innovation and intelligence behind the switch, especially when it comes to getting the most out of a player’s ability.
We’ve also decided to limit our scope to the Premier League, but a few names deserve honourable mentions from leagues elsewhere. Jules Koundé‘s switch from a centre-back at Sevilla to a right-back for Barcelona has not been completely unfamiliar territory, but he performed well for both France and the La Liga victors in the role throughout 2022-23. Sheraldo Becker‘s switch to a ‘Channel Running’ centre-forward also deserves some mention, although he split time between forward and central midfield last season in the Bundesliga.Embed from Getty Images
So outside the Prem, the best of all has probably been Carlo Ancelotti’s latest use of Eduardo Camavinga as an ‘Inverted Fullback’. The Frenchman has still fulfilled more minutes at central midfield this campaign, but is nicely able to use his adventurism from that slot up and down the wing.Embed from Getty Images
With those honourable mentions out of the way, we’re now looking for moves that became a player’s primary role, whether they moved positions, or just changed how they operated. With that, here are the top role switches across the 2022-23 Premier League campaign.
6. LEANDRO TROSSARD – CREATIVE LINKEmbed from Getty Images
Leandro Trossard started the season in stunning form, fulfilling Brighton‘s empty void up top. After operating as a dynamic wing wizard throughout much of 2021-22 (even as a wing-back at times), Trossard seamlessly transitioned into a consistent role up top, and immediately upped his goal tally.Embed from Getty Images
But the intrigue came all the more when he moved to Arsenal, and became all the more creative in his approach. That move felt natural. Trossard is not the type to pin defenders back and win aerial duels. Instead, he actively wants to involve himself in the play deeper on the field. He wants to drift away from defenders where he can receive in between lines and then drive/play forward. He wants to get into these types of positions, where he has acres of space to receive and create.
But regardless of the innateness to the change, it paid off in brilliant ways for the Belgian. Trossard turned from a player on 7 goals and 2 assists at Brighton, to a player with 1 goal and 8 assists at Arsenal. A complete 180! He became a key cog in creating chances as he drifted wide and caused havoc for opposition defenders, showcasing his immaculate vision throughout. He could then use his incredible dribbling power to spin away from defenders, get into the penalty area, and then pull it back for others.
It’s true that the Belgian winger also played a fair amount of minutes out wide. But one of the benefits to Trossard’s versatility and two-footedness is that he naturally allows for fluidity and freedom of movement across the front-line. Even if technically starting off the wing, he will still spend much of his time floating around in the centre of the pitch, as the likes of Jesus drift wide instead. That’s only one more underrated element to the move, increasing fluidity of that front-line and opening the door for more chaos to combust.Embed from Getty Images
Overall, credit goes to the Belgian for his seamless ability to go from goal-scorer to provider in the blink of an eye, but also to Mikel Arteta for recognizing his creative power. Trossard loves to put glasses on after scoring, but realistically, he doesn’t need them! He has all the superhuman vision he needs already.
5. BRUNO Guimarães – DEEP-LYING PLAYMAKEREmbed from Getty Images
Bruno Guimarães entered the frame at Newcastle United to fulfill the void of their ‘number 6’. But with Jonjo Shelvey still in decent form, the Brazilian settled for a more dynamic role, as a ‘Box-to-Box Midfielder’. He played like a ‘Tempo Setter’ in some matches, but Howe’s preference was clearly to have two of his midfield three go box-to-box.
Guimarães thrived in the role. It allowed his brilliant perceptions of space and phenomenal energy to impact the Magpies everywhere on the pitch. With that freedom, he ended the season as Newcastle’s second highest goal-scorer, bagging 5 in his 17 appearances.Embed from Getty Images
But he never actually fulfilled that ‘6’ position that he had been brought into the fold for in the first place. So while this may now seem obvious in hindsight, it was a bold move by Howe on the opening day of the season, and one that’s stuck ever since.
The change has allowed the Brazilian to strut his stuff in attack, but from a deeper position, where he can then quickly engage in transitional moments and lead counter-pressing situations. It’s truly showcased Guimarães’ fantastic eye for the game, where he’s pulling strings from deep, dictating the tempo, switching play, and completely bossing games from the centre of the park.
The Brazilian’s weight of pass is absolutely immaculate, and able to come to life so much more in a role that prioritizes on-the-ball actions over his off-the-ball mobility.
His involvement has gone from 4.7 progressive passes per 90 in his first season with the Magpies, to a stunning 7.1! Defensively, he’s also been able to swing that toward an uptake in recoveries and interceptions, again allowing his reading of the game to come to the forefront.Embed from Getty Images
Arguably Newcastle’s best player this season, the Magpies would simply be a different team with him as an ‘8’, or without the Brazilian in the side altogether. He’s just so calm and classy on the ball, and the one who takes charge of all their newfound dominance in matches. Putting him in the ‘DLP’ slot has been the key way to which he has been afforded room to do exactly that, and a fantastic switch from Eddie Howe.
4. TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD – INVERTED FULLBACKEmbed from Getty Images
While the severity of this move has only been a recent inception, Trent Alexander-Arnold has been playing more like an ‘Inverted Fullback’ this season than ever before. Back in October, we posited this reserved role to be a reason behind his lack of assists. But since moving firmly into central areas and inverting all the more in a 2-2 draw against Arsenal, Trent’s form has taken to new heights, and Liverpool have won each of their last six games.Embed from Getty Images
The usual tricks simply weren’t working for Jürgen Klopp this season. With ten matches to go, top four looked completely out of reach. The German coach recognized the need to re-shift and reshape the squad to achieve optimal outcomes, and it’s quite possible that he stumbled upon his new approach from that single-match implementation against Arsenal. Either way, the move has worked wonders in getting the best out of Trent’s playmaking and passing class.
Liverpool have never had a ‘Deep-Lying-Playmaker’ under Klopp, with Thiago Alcantara the only midfielder capable of not only controlling possession, but breaking lines on the drop of a dime. Trent Alexander-Arnold possesses both of those qualities, and has excelled under the freedom to spray beautiful long passes over the top, and dictate the play.
Crucially though, it’s positioned him with more room to see all avenues of the game, where his fantastic vision can take center stage. Meanwhile, he’s now getting high up in the half-spaces when the ball reaches the final third, allowing his crossing magnificence to come back to life.
Since the move, the British full-back has accumulated six assists in seven matches, with Liverpool now on an unbeaten roll in their top four push.
While obvious to everyone that Trent would excel in central areas, it was also obvious to everyone that he was one of the best high-flying wing-backs around, and a crossing demon that you would not want to take out of the wide areas. But Klopp changed that approach in 2022-23, positioning Trent in deeper positions, where he’d perhaps be less susceptible to transitional mistakes. He’s only now moved a matter of inches, but the greater structural changes to Liverpool’s build-up and progression have been one of the best examples of a change in role to achieve optimal outcomes for both team and player. If only Liverpool had gone “all in” on this approach earlier in the season.
3. BENJAMIN WHITE – INVERTED FULLBACKEmbed from Getty Images
Ben White has been one of the standout players in the Premier League this season, playing a pivotal role in Arsenal’s success. But having started all thirty-two of his matches at right-back this season, it’s easy to forget that the Arsenal man rarely ever fulfilled that role last campaign.Embed from Getty Images
White had a solid first season alongside Gabriel at the heart of Arsenal’s defense, and helped to increase their progression and defensive solidity. But more was still to be desired in finding someone that could truly command the back-line. The Gunners brought the wonderful William Saliba back into the fold, but White retained his place in the back-four, simply by moving one slot over.Embed from Getty Images
Arsenal frequently utilized more of a ‘Wide Warrior’ in Takehiro Tomiyasu throughout 2021-22, as Kieran Tierney typically played high and wide on the left. So Ben White’s initial adoption into the position made sense. He would easily fulfill the defensive quality needed in the role, as Arsenal’s other full-back (Oleksandr Zinchenko) could invert and be more adventurous. Perhaps there were even thoughts to do the Man City back-three deal, and push Zinchenko inside alongside Thomas Partey.Embed from Getty Images
But what’s been so impressive about Ben White this season has been the Brit’s quality when going forward. The 25-year-old’s awareness of space is phenomenal, and he’s been able to utilize that expertise to continually underlap and overlap Bukayo Saka, creating constant headaches for opposition defenses. Saka’s taken off to even greater heights this season, and White’s role in helping to complicate matters along the way has been pivotal to the success of both players.
Ben White has not only glistened when galloping up and down the wing, but also when coming inside to help dictate possession. He’s often been used in the old Man City 2+3 Inverted Fullback build-up pattern, with both fullbacks coming inside. Within this shape, Arsenal massively improved their rest-defense this campaign, by having two excellent defenders to immediately step up and contain central areas.
He’s never looked lost – almost as though right-back has always been his home. Keeping Tomiyasu out the entire season is a feat in itself, and it would now seem almost odd to put Ben White back into the centre of defense, knowing what we do now about his excellent awareness of space in attack.Embed from Getty Images
A special shoutout should go to the advanced use of Granit Xhaka within Arsenal’s 4-1-4-1, but White’s positional shift has been one of Arteta’s greatest decisions across what will go down as Arsenal’s best season in years.
2. ALEXIS MAC ALLISTER – DEEP-LYING PLAYMAKEREmbed from Getty Images
Throughout his Brighton career, Alexis Mac Allister looked like a player who had the technical quality to make magic happen. But he only strutted his stuff in moments and glimpses, predominantly in attacking roles. He flourished whenever deployed in a new position, bouncing back and forth between a ’10’, ‘false 9’, and an ‘Inverted Winger’. But Graham Potter had other attacking weapons that simply stood out more.Embed from Getty Images
Then Brighton lost Yves Bissouma, the defensive stalwart who spent much of the 2021-22 season as Brighton’s ‘number 6’, screening the back-line. Potter used Adam Lallana as a ‘DLP’ alongside Bissouma in 2020-21, but Lallana’s legs were winding down, and Brighton needed someone to match the energy of Moisés Caicedo in a double midfield pivot. Since Caicedo had all the defensive quality to excel, Potter knew he could return to the use of a possession-based pass master in midfield, and selected Alexis Mac Allister to fill the void.
The move worked like a stroke of genius. With the technical quality and precision vision that Mac Allister has in his boots, Brighton have found their best ever ‘Deep-Lying-Playmaker’. Their dominance in matches has only gone up under his calming presence and virtuoso-esque ball control, where Roberto De Zerbi had no choice but to continue the experiment after his takeover. Pascal Groß has even shifted over to right-back at times in De Zerbi’s 4-2-3-1, ensuring all three midfield masterminds can play in the same side.Embed from Getty Images
Mac Allister has seen rapid improvements in his own game, with his passing percentages across all distances skyrocketing. He’s scored a career high 10 goals now that he’s on penalty duties, and carrying the ball more than ever now that he’s involved in all areas of the pitch.Embed from Getty Images
But importantly, the move has worked wonders in bringing the best out of the Argentine’s defensive quality. The 24-year-old is an incredibly tenacious player, and playing him in that deeper role has meant that Brighton’s defensive cover has never been in doubt. He can shift left to right to similar degrees of brilliance to Caicedo, allowing the Seagulls to fly high in transition and go on the hunt the other way in the blink of an eye.Embed from Getty Images
If it hadn’t been for this move from Graham Potter, Mac Allister likely wouldn’t have played such a pivotal role in Argentina’s World Cup triumph, and Brighton might not be battling for a top six finish right now. He’s been that important.
1. JOHN STONES – INVERTED FULLBACKEmbed from Getty Images
If one tactical implementation changed this title race around, it would be Pep Guardiola’s switch from a 2+3 Inverted Fullback build to a 3+2, better working to compliment the players at his disposal. Rico Lewis started the trend, Kyle Walker continued it, and John Stones made the role his own ever since.Embed from Getty Images
John Stones has always been capable of stepping up into midfield, predominantly through his strong carrying ability. He’s difficult to dispossess, not only because of his imposing frame, but from the way he carefully shifts the ball right to left. Walker’s a great progressor when it comes to his passing, but Stones has showcased the potential for a different kind of beast stepping up into advanced attacking areas.Embed from Getty Images
In fact, he’s been so dominant in the role, that he’s even continued to step up into that 3+2 when deployed as the centre-back in the team. Walker then moves inside as part of the back-three, rather than inverting.
This is the next evolution of Guardiola’s ‘Inverted Fullback’ invention, and one that has continued to work in bringing the best out of Walker’s defensive quality, and Stones’ dribbling power. The fact that their ‘Inverted Fullback’ is often now an inverted centre-back, we’re not quite sure what to call this! And don’t get it twisted, John Stones is not starting these matches as a central midfielder alongside Rodri. He’s firmly part of a back-four, dropping back into that position in every defensive phase. But when City immediately have to defend, they now have the imposing brick wall of John Stones and Rodri to get past, backed up by the recovery speed and 1v1 brilliance of Ruben Dias, Manuel Akanji and Kyle Walker. No wonder they’re winning the title again.
For the artistry behind the approach, backed up by the title-changing formula that Guardiola constructed, this has to be one of the best moves of the season. To think that England now have three ‘Inverted Fullback’ options who have all made this list, Gareth Southgate must be licking his lips.
So there it is! The best role changes across this fantastic 2022-23 campaign. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses, and follow on social media @desmondrhys to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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