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Top 15 Most Versatile Players in World Football

What does a manager do when his side is 1-0 up in the 75th minute and his only fit left-back limps off with a calf strain? Hidden behind the superstar names in the first-team, the most important membe

What does a manager do when his side is 1-0 up in the 75th minute and his only fit left-back limps off with a calf strain? Hidden behind the superstar names in the first-team, the most important members of a squad are often the unsung heroes who can proficiently operate in two or more positions across the pitch.

Commonly referred to as utility men, these multi-talented personnel are capable of covering holes in the starting eleven or enabling a gaffer to switch up his or her team formation without bringing on a substitute. While it is not unusual for a footballer to play in multiple positions over the course of their career, very few choose to specialize in more than one role.

Take Gareth Bale as an example: once a mercurial left-back with supreme athleticism, dribbling and a decent left foot, the Real Madrid superstar is now a refined attacking package who sends shivers down the spines of opponents every time he gets the ball. Bale could have been molded into player capable of operating in any third of the pitch, but the demand for tactical perfection in the modern game means fewer teams can accommodate a “jack of all trades, master of none” type of footballer.

However, does this mean particular skills of players who excel in numerous areas of the game will be polished to the extent of being unable to utilize their talents in multiple positions? No, and for one simple reason. No matter how much the game of football changes over time, or how much the size of playing squads increases, one 25-man group of specialized players cannot cover every position when injuries, suspensions or international duty render players unavailable throughout an entire season. The importance of versatility will never diminish.

Here are the top 15 utility players in world football.

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15 Branislav Ivanović

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Built like a 6’1” tank, Branislav Ivanović hardly conforms to the physical stereotype of the modern fullback. However, seven years since joining Chelsea to provide cover in central defense, it is difficult to believe the brawny yet mobile Serb was once thought to be playing out of position at right-back. Now with numerous accolades to his name, including a Champions League medal, the 31-year-old has well and truly validated his reputation as one of the most complete players in his role. Having forked out approximately £10 million for a world-class dual-position defender who also chips in with the occasional goal, Chelsea looks to have pulled off a bargain.

14 Benedikt Höwedes

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Fans love a player who is genuinely willing to do anything for the good of the team – especially if he or she wears the captain’s armband. Although a centre-back by trade, Schalke skipper Benedikt Höwedes is one of the most versatile defenders in Europe and more than capable of operating in the middle, left or right of defense as required. The 27-year-old times most of his challenges to perfection, possesses formidable strength and a keen eye for a pass – a trait suggesting he could also be considered an emergency option for the deep-lying midfield role he played during the early phase of his professional career.

13 Saúl

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At just 20-years-old, Saúl still has plenty of time to determine his best position. His ability to read the play and intercept passes make him well-suited to a number of roles, but for now the youngster is being used as an anchor man, box-to-box midfielder, winger and centre-back for Atletico Madrid. Saúl predominantly featured in the middle of the park during the 2014-15 season, picking up four goals and two assists in his first campaign of regular football at the Vicente Calderón. Diego Simeone is likely to continue experimenting with the Spanish all-rounder in order to get the best out of diverse skill set.

12 David Luiz

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Which position is David Luiz most effective on a football pitch? This is a conundrum large segments of the Stamford Bridge faithful struggled to deduce during his time in a blue shirt. Supported by his customary Brazilian flair, he takes great pleasure in exhibiting the beautiful game and refuses to allow defensive responsibilities to stifle his creative talents. His array of qualities make it illogical to confine him to a single position, and that is why managers have seen fit to deploy him at centre-back, left wingback and defensive midfield throughout his career. Now 28-years-old, he has improved his ability to weigh up risk and reward before galloping into opposition territory.

11 Oscar De Marcos

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Prodigious ball control and technique are a prerequisite for breaking into the current Spanish national team. Oscar De Marcos, uncapped for La Roja, is certainly a competent passer of the ball, but some way off being held in the same regard as David Silva or Cesc Fabregas. Instead, the Athletic Bilbao star’s greatest quality rests in his ability to operate in just about any position on the pitch. Blessed with blistering pace and seemingly endless stamina, he provides a valuable outlet in both attack and defense, playing as a right fullback most often. De Marcos is a player of many talents though, and can also do a job at left-back and anywhere in midfield thanks to his strong tackling and exceptional delivery into the penalty area.

10 Kevin Großkreutz

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Kevin Großkreutz played no fewer than six positions throughout a season to forget for Borussia Dortmund. Solid in all aspects of the game, the 6’1” German filled in at left-midfield, centre-midfield, right fullback, left fullback, and even on the left-wing as Jurgen Klopp’s men stumbled to a seventh-place finish in the Bundesliga table. Offering bags of energy and immense physical capacities, his passion and desire to compete subdue his lack of world-class technique. He may not make headlines like Marco Reus, but Großkreutz deserves to be considered a useful player.

9 Alessandro Florenzi

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Most players who are shifted around different positions over the course of 43 appearances during a single campaign are considered inconsistent or unsettled. This notion does not apply to Alessandro Florenzi, who has been one of the standout players at the Stadio Olympico this season despite playing right-back, right-midfield, left-midfield, central midfield and either side of the Roma front three. The aforementioned roles demand expertise in a variety of areas in which the 24-year-old excels, including speed, passing, technique, energy, defensive positioning and tackling. The Italian seems content playing anywhere on the pitch – and he certainly has the ability to do so.

8 Daley Blind

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Daley Blind is a handy player to have on the books during a season of experimentation. The Dutchman can seamlessly operate at left-back, centre-back, centre-midfield, left-midfield and holding midfield, the latter being his most effective role according to Louis van Gaal. After trialing an intriguing 3-5-2 formation early in the campaign, the Manchester United boss eventually identified Blind as his first-choice defensive midfielder in a 4-1-4-1, instructing him to protect the back four while allowing Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini more freedom. Determining his best role is hardly an enigma, but Blind also makes for a reliable backup option in defense thanks to his tackling prowess, energy and solid all-around game.

7 Sergio Ramos

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

You need only see Sergio Ramos control or pass the ball a handful of times to realize he offers much more than other elites in his position. A strong player with superb tackling, heading, intercepting and athletic abilities, his expertise at the back is already more than enough to set him apart from his peers. Equally comfortable playing as a right fullback, the Real Madrid defender amalgamates defensive class with dazzling technique, vision and a remarkable passing range that is arguably equal to even some of his midfield colleagues at the Santiago Bernabeu. There is no rational cause to pluck Ramos from a position in which he is revered as of the greatest of his generation, but as his undeniable quality suggests, he could play virtually anywhere on the pitch.

6 Emre Can

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Compared to Michael Ballack and Bastian Schweinsteiger due to his blend of attacking and defensive qualities, few players of a similar age can match Emre Can in the versatility department. Although the 21-year-old is primarily recognized as a powerful midfield player who has excellent technique, passing and long-range shooting abilities, he is talented and mature enough to apply his other less eye-catching talents in defensive roles. Can has earned praise as one of Liverpool’s standout performers during the 2014-15 campaign, playing as a centre-back, right fullback, centre midfielder and anchor man. It will be interesting to see if he is afforded the same mixture of roles next season.

5 Alexis Sánchez

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It is hard not to gasp in awe at some of the magic Alexis Sánchez can produce. Whether hugging the touchline, lurking behind the striker or darting in behind the defensive line, the Chilean is constantly running the show for Arsenal. Two-footed, electrifyingly quick, captivatingly skillful and a proven creator and finisher, Sánchez never looks uncomfortable in opposition territory. The Gunners would be a completely different side without his attacking genius and although he is the undisputed main man, he has the potential to cover for any of his colleagues across the midfield or forward line. Sánchez is truly one of the best all-around attacking players in the business.

4 Philipp Lahm

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Similar to Alexis Sánchez, an unmatchable array of talents sees Philipp Lahm stand above just every player in world football – only in a defensive context. The German, now retired from international duty, has served Bayern Munich since he was a boy, honing his defensive skills in a multitude of positions. Blessed with an innate ability to operate on either flank with equal competency, Lahm’s speed, ball control and defensive solidity have earned him recognition as one of the best fullbacks of his generation. However, a slight decline in physical abilities has seen him deployed in a holding midfield role to utilize his exceptional passing and precise tackling.

3 Wayne Rooney

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The Wayne Rooney wearing the red of Manchester United is far from the freckle-faced 16-year-old who curled in his first Premier League goal for Everton in a 2-1 loss to Arsenal more than 13 years ago. Currently the club’s third-highest goalscorer, Rooney has since forged a career as one of the most clinical forwards Old Trafford has ever seen – but he also offers much more than a deadly finishing touch. Strong, quick off the mark, creative, the 29-year-old sees the game like few other strikers, a perceptiveness that allows him to play anywhere in the midfield or front line. Rooney possesses the tactical awareness and energy to ghost into midfield and find space unlikely to be afforded in the vicinity of the penalty area – an art seldom mastered by natural strikers.

2 Thomas Müller

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It would take a brave man to define Thomas Müller as a midfielder or forward. His goalscoring record indicates he was born to find the net, but just when he produces the kind of finish only a true striker could pull off, his other instincts shine through around the central and wide areas of the pitch. Müller and his attributes simply do not fit the mold of a single position; he is most effective roaming around the midfield and forward areas, utilizing his superior football intelligence to create space and pull teams apart, even without the ball at his feet. Few players have such sharp-witted judgement, but this German is something special.

1 David Alaba

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to unmatched quality in a multitude of positions, David Alaba is a cut above every other player who features in this article. Although the Austrian is categorized as a left-back and on track to becoming one of the best in the world, the role showcases only a fraction of his abilities. Underpinning his success in defense, Alaba boasts exceptional stamina, blazing pace, excellent positional awareness and surgically precise tackling. For a player who can also operate at centre-back, it is incredible to think he is also wonderfully creative and capable of hitting thunderous drives from long range. The 22-year-old has played as a fullback, central midfielder, anchor man and winger during his career, but considering the peerless versatility his traits offer, he can genuinely play anywhere.

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Top 15 Most Versatile Players in World Football