10) Javier Mascherano – Central midfield to centre-half
Having carved out a career as a tough-tackling, tenacious central midfielder at Liverpool and in his native Argentina, eyebrows were raised when Barcelona decided to play Javier Mascherano at the heart of their defence. Ballsy. Hardly a dominant physical force at just 5ft 8 and a very important half, the spectre of his inability to grapple a central midfield berth from Hayden Mullins while at West Ham followed him to the Nou Camp.
Positional adapter extraordinaire Pep Guardiola was the man who, upon signing the Argentine in 2010, sought to exploit his defensive strengths. The then-26-year-old struggled to settle at first, but eventually formed an impressive partnership with Gerard Pique. Having quite literally been torn a new one at the 2014 World Cup, Mascherano’s adaptability must be applauded.
9) Philipp Lahm – Full-back to central midfield
As mentioned above, Pep Guardiola has a tendency to break down the barriers of football convention, analysing the player beyond their position in an effort to best utilise their strengths (we suspect we are quoting Brendan). The Spaniard’s football Merson-esque insistence that ‘the game is won in midfield’ led to the quite unprecedented positional change of Philipp Lahm from full-back to central midfielder.
Guardiola’s theory was borne from the belief that, as the centre of the midfield is key, it’s where your best player should feature. Lahm had previous experience in the role but, before the manager’s arrival in 2013, it was limited to his days as a youth player. The ‘Magic Dwarf’ would be suddenly thrust into the limelight.
Hailed by Guardiola as “perhaps the most intelligent player I have ever trained”, Lahm’s seamless transition from full-back on either side to a dominant defensive midfielder supports his verdict. A league and cup double was the reward in his first season after the change in 2013/14, which culminated in Lahm reprising his new-found role as he helped Germany win the World Cup.
8) Sergio Ramos – Right-back to centre-half
If Sergio Ramos completes his move to Manchester United this summer, competition for places – in the loosest sense of the word – will be provided by the likes of Jonny Evans. There was a point in the Spaniard’s career when he could have been up against Antonio Valencia and Rafael.
Signed by Real from La Liga rivals Sevilla in 2005, the Sergio Ramos of a decade ago was a stylish marauding right-back. Blessed with pace, strength and good crossing ability, the Spaniard had all the attributes necessary for the role, and it appeared that Real had secured their right-back for the next decade.
That precious combination of pace and strength meant his immediate switch to a central position was painless. Brief forays into central midfield and his previous full-back role followed, but Ramos gradually made the central berth his own at the Santiago Bernabeu, becoming one of the finest centre-halves of his generation.
7) Rio Ferdinand – Striker to centre-half
“He always fancied himself as a bit of a striker.” Alan Smith’s line after Rio Ferdinand’s exquisite goal against Liverpool in a 2-0 win in 2006 seems an innocuous throwaway comment at first, but it reveals plenty about the Manchester United legend’s early footballing career.
Considered by many as one of the finest central defenders in world football at his peak, it could have been so different for Rio. Idolising John Barnes as a youngster led to young Ferdinand trying his hand at merking opponents in a more attacking role. As it happens, the Englishman was a fairly adept attacking midfielder in his formative years by all accounts. West Ham soon snapped him up as a 14-year-old in 1992, by which point his early promise as a central defender was beginning to show.
6) John Charles – Centre-half to striker (and back)
Where some players start out in one position then make the transition into another down the line, a select few are equally capable in one as they are in another. Much rarer still is the player who can seamlessly switch roles throughout their career. But then not too many players were like John Charles.
Starting out as a physically imposing centre-half at Leeds, the Welshman excelled at the heart of the Elland Road defence from an early age. Spells at right and left-back in the reserves made it pointedly obvious that Charles’ talents were wasted on the outskirts.
By his third year at Elland Road however, and with his side struggling for goals, manager Frank Buckley came up with the most improbable but sensical solution. The pacy 6ft 2 ins powerhouse would be utilised up front. What followed was 150 goals in the ensuing five seasons, culminating in the Yorkshire club sealing promotion from Division Two to Division One, with Charles’ personal reward coming in the form of a move to Serie A giants Juventus. Throughout the remainder of his 26-year career, the Gentle Giant would integrate the two positions into his considerable arsenal, becoming one of Britain’s greatest ever all-round stars.
5) Carles Puyol – Right-back to centre-half
Sergio Ramos’ move from right-back to centre-half remains one of the most effective positional changes in football, but it doesn’t even rank as the most impressive from a Spaniard. That accolade surely belongs to Barcelona talisman Carles Puyol.
It’s fairly common knowledge that the shaggy-haired defender plied his trade on the right side of the Nou Camp defence before moving to its heart later down the line, but Puyol actually started first as a goalkeeper and then as a striker in his hometown. Joining La Masia in 1995, defensive midfield then became his forte, before right-back came calling upon his first-team debut in 1999.
But of course, it was central defence where Puyol would make his home for the next decade. From 2003 to 2013, Barca’s defence was built around ‘the Wall’, with six La Liga titles, two Copa Del Reys and three Champions League victories in the club’s most trophy-laden period. Add World Cup and European Championship honours for Spain, and Puyol’s transition stands as one of the most successful.
4) Bastian Schweinsteiger – Winger to central midfielder
Of Man United’s summer transfer targets, it isn’t only Ramos who has proven his immense tactical acumen by acclimatising to a new position. In fact, Bayern Munich midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger has current Old Trafford boss Louis van Gaal to thank for his move.
Left-back was Schweini’s first role at the Allianz Arena upon his debut in 2002, but the German will be better known for his spells as a left and right winger at the Bundesliga club and for Germany. His crossing ability, coupled with an aptitude for scoring from range, meant the Bayern youth product was a natural, even starring at the 2006 World Cup on the left as Germany secured bronze.
It wasn’t until Van Gaal’s appointment at the Allianz Arena that Schweinsteiger’s full potential would be realised. Arriving in 2009, the Dutchman quickly deduced that the German had all the attributes to dominate in central midfield, and six years, four Bundesligas, a Champions League and a World Cup later, the 30-year-old still has plenty of years left in him at the top.
3) Franz Beckenbauer – Central midfield to sweeper
Never mind a player who changed position during his career, Franz Beckenbauer more or less invented – or at least reinvented – a new position where he could excel.
‘The Kaiser’ started out as a classy central midfielder for Bayern Munich and West Germany; a box-to-box phenomenon whose attacking prowess was matched only by his defensive instinct. Four goals for his country saw him finish the third top scorer in the 1966 World Cup as England lifted the trophy, but it wasn’t long until Beckenbauer looked to develop his game further.
Adopting the ‘libero’ role in the late sixties, Beckenbauer deduced that, as a sweeper, he would be able to not only assist defensively, but his role going forward would be accentuated. Free of a marker, the German’s marauding runs from deep epitomised his unheralded transition from central midfielder to attacking sweeper in perhaps the sport’s most impressive display of self-invention.
As an attacking sweeper Beckenbauer excelled, with the World Cup his crowning glory among a litany of accolades. His innovation in regards to the role extended as far as his management career, helping German legend Lothar Matthaus undergo a similarly impressive switch.
2) Gareth Bale – Left-back to left winger
Lady luck will always play her part in football. Such a phrase is no more true than in the career of Gareth Bale, who benefited from a team-mate’s injury to become the world’s most-expensive player.
Signed from Southampton as a left-back in 2006, Gareth Bale had struggled for game time at Spurs as a precocious young star. His infamous run of 24 Premier League games without victory lingered over him, with loan moves to the likes of Birmingham mooted as Harry Redknapp struggled to find a place for the Welshman in his side.
An injury to Assou-Ekotto in 2009 may have provided only the slightest opening, but Bale burst through. Although still at left-back, Bale’s attacking talent was palpable, with winning goals against the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea following before the end of the season. Upon Assou-Ekotto’s return, Redknapp felt that Bale had shown enough to merit a continued first-team place, pushing him further upfield as a winger.
From there, it’s history. Bale played 127 games in the next three seasons in a forward role, scoring 49 goals as he burst onto the scene in not only the Premier League but the Champions League. “I’m not a left-back anymore,” said Bale upon changing his squad number from 3 to 11 in 2012. A quite remarkable transformation from out-of-place left-back to one of the world’s most-feared forward players was complete upon Real Madrid’s world-record signing a year later.
1) Thierry Henry – Left winger to striker
From average winger one minute to world-class striker the next. Thierry Henry was an afterthought at Monaco and Juventus in his early years, but he became one of the world’s finest strikers at Arsenal.
While Arsene Wenger is generally credited for initiating and overseeing Henry’s incredible rise from average winger to exquisite striker, the Frenchman himself must take a huge portion of the blame for his protege’s struggles. Having featured as a striker for France’s youth sides, it was Wenger who introduced the idea of Henry the winger while the two were together at Monaco.
Fortunately for Henry, his promise shone through adequately enough for Juventus to come calling. Unfortunately, the move may well have come close to scuppering his career. “I didn’t think I could play Henry in the middle,” then Turin boss Carlo Ancelotti later explained of his decision to keep the Frenchman on the wing. “He never told me he could.” Then an inexperienced coach, the Italian could not detect Henry’s central promise.
Henry didn’t help himself, either. “I’ll play [at Juventus] as I did at Monaco, on the wing, either on the left of the right,” Henry said, per Paul Joseph’s book Thierry Henry: Fifty Defining Fixtures. “People shouldn’t expect bagfuls of goals from me.” Quite.
A much-maligned £11million club record signing after his Italian nightmare, Wenger quickly sought to rectify the wrongs of their earlier partnership. Henry was used as a striker, with his boss keeping the faith despite just one goal in his opening eight games. A handy 25 strikes in his next 39 games would have appeased most, never mind the haul of 226 in 369.
Matt Stead – follow him on Twitter