We are so used to textbook roles that players are supposed to fulfill when they play in specific positions. Most would inherently prefer their wingers to play on their weaker-footed side so that they can cut inside. Our ideas of full-backs and wing-backs dictate that they should constantly overlap those wingers. But there is no longer an ideal archetype for each position on the pitch. The game has evolved.
Players have unique skill sets and distinct zones where they are most effective. Coaches (the good ones, at least) put their players in areas and situations where they can succeed. This naturally has ties to the Pep-esque positional play that so many teams today are implementing to control games, but it also applies to those teams who don’t.
Carlo Ancelotti’s use of Federico Valverde is a prime example. A natural ball winner and powerful carrier, the Uruguayan would classically be expected to play in a box-to-box role. Except he doesn’t. Carlo astutely plays him in a wide role from which, in possession, he charges down the right flank, and out of possession, he tucks inside and acts as an additional central midfielder. Valverde really favors his right – so it may be that Ancelotti doesn’t trust him in the middle just yet.
Think of why the game’s assist kings like Trent Alexander-Arnold and Keven de Bruyne do their most dangerous work in the same areas on the pitch – despite being very different players. Teams’ systems are designed to put their players’ best attributes forward.
As we welcome the Premier League and its stars back into our lives, there are players who play unique roles for their respective sides – different to anything we’re generally accustomed to.
Here are three players playing in cool roles that you should monitor over the course of this Premier League season.
Alex Iwobi, Everton: The Metamorphosis
It feels like a consensus that people aren’t high on Everton this year – neither am I. They lost their best player this summer in Richarlison; the squad feels littered with older and overpaid veterans (although some of the new signings seem quite promising); Frank Lampard hasn’t actually proven to be a great coach so far.
Lampard does deserve at least some credit for his setup so far this season. Everton’s new back-five look may not be that sexy, or that good, but his usage of Alex Iwobi has been pleasantly surprising.
Iwobi’s intelligence and close control always made it seem like he would be a great attacking midfielder. Yet he had the bad luck of teams moving away from 4-2-3-1s to 4-3-3s, and was then transferred to a club that played a 4-4-2. Everton fans have moaned about his lack of end product for three seasons. In that respect, his best season came in 18/19 in his last year at Arsenal, where he managed 3 goals and 6 assists.
His profile has constantly proved difficult to place across the front line.
Yet in the first few games, Lampard has deployed him as a number six, next to box-to-box midfielder Doucouré. And the result has been good! He drops deeper in possession to keep the ball ticking (when it seems like his teammates can’t), and orchestrates play well, managing a handful of one-time reverse passes (like the one below) between the lines. He feels pressure well and knows when to occupy or vacate specific spaces.
Higher up the pitch, he pushes ahead of Doucouré and towards the left to form overloads and combine in halfspaces (below). This was arguably the only true threat Everton posed to Chelsea on the opening weekend. Look at how disoriented and out of position Azpilicueta is.
Everton may fail to inspire this season, but watching Iwobi play as a defensive midfielder may prove to be a silver lining. Teams will press them intensively, and Iwobi really makes an effort to play his way out of pressure – especially forward.
Lampard may become the first coach to get the best out of him.
Pedro Neto, Wolves: The Motor
In all ten matches on the opening weekend, Pedro Neto was one of just two recognized left-footers playing on the left wing (excluding wing-backs), along with Leeds’ Jack Harrison. Since match-day one, the only other player to do so is City’s Phil Foden – who has repeatedly featured there over the last few seasons.
But whereas Harrison feels like a wide specialist who thrives on high-volume crossing, and Foden a natural 10 who can provide good passing angles thanks to his wonderful left foot, Neto offers unique dynamism and fluidity.
Part of that fluidity has been on show in the first few weeks of the season. Against both Leeds and Fulham, in which Bruno Lage surprised us with back-four systems, he started wide left, constantly carrying the ball forwards in both wide and central areas. In the opening five minutes at Leeds, he tracked down a long ball before shrugging Rasmus Kristensen off of him. He then drove inside (below) and found Hwang Hee-Chan with a delightful chip to the far post, who nodded it down for Daniel Podence to finish.
The angle for the scooped cross would not have been as apparent if Neto had been right footed. The Portuguese winger is a specialist of creating the right spaces for himself to get around defenders or to get into dangerous areas.
That being said, when Wolves faced Antonio Conte’s dangerous Spurs side, Lage used Neto a little differently. Rather than commit to a back-four or back-five system, Lage entrusted Neto with the entire right flank. That meant dropping back out-of-possession to form a back-five alongside right-back Johnny (below), and jetting forwards with the ball to become a classic right-winger.
This sort of tactical ploy isn’t uncommon anymore. Mikel Arteta has done something similar with Bukayo Saka in the past, and Thomas Tuchel has his own variation with Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Pedro Neto can be the most dangerous player on the field from several different areas. He’s a relentless asset.
Eberechi Eze, Crystal Palace: The Enabler
Crystal Palace had a clear game plan against Liverpool: sit deep in a back-five and hit them on the break. Liverpool’s back-line stayed high — as expected — and Zaha found a lot of joy in behind (and should have found more!).
That being said, the key player in enabling this game plan was Eberechi Eze, who played off the left in Palace’s 5-4-1 (below). The side defended brilliantly, and if they could get the ball to Eze, it was almost a guarantee that he would take space, beat a man, and look for the final ball to Zaha. That worked especially well given that his direct opponent was Trent Alexander-Arnold, who is famous for pushing high up the pitch.
Eze’s movements are extremely pleasing on the eye and he never seems to get out of second gear. I’m sure many of you will remember this goal he scored from two seasons ago. Balance, composure, and subtle touches into space – that’s Eberechi Eze.
But I expect him to play in that role exclusively against the biggest of boys – like Liverpool and Manchester City – who seek to dominate possession and pin Palace deep. Against Arsenal (and then against Villa), Eze played as a ten and searched for pockets of space around Thomas Partey. His carrying was also on display then, as he constantly drove into space when Palace plucked the ball from Arsenal. He drew several key fouls and should have scored the equalizer early in the second half.
Patrick Vieira’s 4-2-3-1 on that night demonstrated his ability to make Crystal Palace more flexible and progressive than we’ve ever seen. In preseason, the midfield three looked more symmetrical, with Schlupp and Eze flanking Cheick Doucouré. In this setup, their number 10 operated in the right half-space and often drifted wide as Jordan Ayew (a natural striker) tucked inside (below). The subtlety in Eze’s touches and body movements make him grueling to defend against. His direct dribbles and carries through the middle can be so, so dangerous.
Now picture Eze overlapping Michael Olise around the box. That alone will not only draw attention from Wilfried Zaha, but also potentially become one of the league’s most promising partnerships.
There’s no telling where Eze will be deployed on a weekly basis, but he will always create danger with his penetrative dribbling.