The masters of universality

Posted by Michael Cox

Arturo Vidal celebrates his equaliser against Inter.GettyImagesArturo Vidal has become the complete player at Juventus.

In a tactical sense, 2013 hasn’t been a particularly fascinating year: There have been no major innovations and no widespread return to a specific formation or style. There have been individual moments of interest, and coaches have tried new things, but 2013 wasn’t significantly different than 2012 stylistically.

Arguably the major theme, however, has been the importance of the concept of universality. Players are increasingly all-rounders, and while this isn’t a revolutionary concept for 2013, there have been some particularly pertinent signs. Teams are playing more compactly, attackers are ever more crucial in the defensive phase, defences are increasingly crucial in the attacking phase, and midfielders have a wider responsibility in both spheres, rather than simply connecting the two parts of a side.

Compartmentalisation is outdated, and this universality becomes more obvious each year. Here are eight individuals who have been crucial in that concept throughout 2013.

Javi Martinez

Javi Martinez Bayern munich v Barcelona
PA PhotosThe one that got away: Javi Martinez impressed in Bayern's 7-0 Champions League drubbing of Barcelona.

In the 94th minute of Spain’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Italy -- a goalless draw eventually decided in the world champions’ favour on penalties -- Vicente Del Bosque made an unusual substitution. He withdrew Fernando Torres, his only striker, and introduced Javi Martinez, a holding midfielder.

Del Bosque wasn’t strengthening his midfield, however -- Martinez trotted up front and played as a No. 9 for the extra-time period. His qualities include good linkup play, aerial strength and calmness in front of goal. Bayern Munich's European Cup-winning midfielder wasn’t good enough to get into Spain’s midfield, but he was good enough to get a chance up front, and fared well.

Amazingly, Martinez’s next games were for Bayern in a preseason tournament, the Audi Cup, under Pep Guardiola. He started both games at centre-back. From centre-forward to centre-back within the space of two games -- and neither was his natural position. That type of utility man used to be a simple, old-fashioned aerial weapon like Dion Dublin or Chris Sutton, but on his day Martinez is one of the best midfielders in the world.

He proved that with his performance in Bayern’s astonishing 4-0 win over Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals. Martinez harried Andres Iniesta and drove toward goal powerfully, breaking up play and launching attacks with incredible force.

Having been a key part of Bayern’s tiki-taka all season, he responded to Barcelona’s passing quality by turning to his physicality, and therefore summarised Bayern’s approach perfectly.

Diego Simeone

Realistically, there should be no doubt about the manager of the year when considering expectations compared to actual performance. The distribution of television money in La Liga is absolutely absurd, demonstrated neatly by this graphic that shows Barcelona and Real Madrid receiving more than three times as much as anyone else.

It’s simply astonishing, then, than Diego Simeone has taken Atletico to such a lofty position -- going into 2014, they’re joint-top with Barcelona and five points ahead of fierce rival Real Madrid. Besides, 2013 hasn’t simply been about promise -- Atletico have actually won a trophy. The Copa del Rey triumph in May was especially memorable because they defeated Real Madrid at the Bernabeu 2-1 in a hard-fought game.

The key feature of Simeone’s strategy is Atletico’s compactness and narrowness without the ball. The strikers both work extremely hard, dropping back to press the opposition midfielders, while the wide players move inside quickly and absolutely pack the centre of the pitch, closing down relentlessly. The opposition are completely overwhelmed, and Simeone’s strategy ensures Atletico dominate the crucial midfield zone.

Neymar

Confederations Cup
AssociatedNeymar beat future Barca teammate Iniesta and compatriot Paulinho to win the Golden Ball.

This was the year the Brazilian wonder boy finally earned his move to Europe, but Neymar isn’t on this list for his club performances with Barcelona.

Instead, it was his Confederations Cup display that caught the eye. Neymar was handed the tournament’s Golden Ball award because of his play in the final third, but the most intriguing statistic was that, as well as being the tournament’s most-fouled player, he also committed the most fouls. He led those statistical measures on a per-game basis, too -- it wasn’t just because he played more games than most.

That shows that even the tournament’s outstanding attacking individual was aware of his defensive role and was prepared to get back and fight for his side. The concept of a "luxury player" no longer exists -- even flair players like Neymar are mucking in defensively.

Mario Mandzukic

Mario Mandzukic hit the headlines last year by finishing as the joint-top goal scorer at Euro 2012, but this time around he tasted proper success with Bayern Munich, helping them to the treble.

Mandzukic's goal return was decent rather than spectacular last season -- he finished with 22 goals from 40 appearances -- but the real key to his brilliance was his work rate without the ball. This was particularly obvious in the Champions League knockout rounds against both Arsenal and Juventus, when he pressed the opposition centre-backs before dropping back into midfield when he was bypassed, ensuring his side remained compact from back to front.

Against Juventus he was incredible -- a one-man pressing machine who closed down all three Juventus centre-backs, pressured Gigi Buffon into a couple of dodgy clearances, and forced Andrea Pirlo into the worst pass completion rate of his Juventus career. Bayern’s sole striker was also their most important defender.

Aaron Ramsey

Aaron Ramsey starred for Arsenal against Liverpool in the Premier League.
GettyImagesAaron Ramsey's Arsenal career has been transformed in 2013.

We know about Aaron Ramsey’s journey -- the broken leg, being booed by his own fans -- and his recovery has been a genuinely happy tale.

The change in Ramsey’s game has been even more striking. When he first broke into the Arsenal side in 2008-09, it seemed Ramsey would be a patient, calm, intelligent distributor of the ball. He received possession, played a simple pass and then moved into space. He was an impressive but simultaneously understated individual -- a Riccardo Montolivo-type figure.

However, he has developed into one of the Premier League’s best footballers by becoming an all-rounder, and has improved his playing characteristics both offensively and defensively. Thirteen goals and seven assists in 24 games tells its own story -- it’s a rate many strikers would be delighted with.

Yet for long periods during this campaign, Ramsey has been the Premier League’s most prolific tackler, too. As things stand, only Lucas Leiva, Mile Jedinak and Claudio Yacob have made more tackles per game -- and these three are pure defensive players who remain solidly in front of their back four. Between them, they’ve managed just one goal (by Yacob, against Arsenal) and no assists this season.

So Ramsey is contributing the goal statistics of the best strikers and the tackling statistics of the best holding midfielders; this sums up his all-round brilliance.

Pep Guardiola

Where to start? Philipp Lahm in the holding role; Toni Kroos in three separate midfield positions; Javi Martinez as an attacking midfielder, a holding midfielder and a centre-back in the space of Bayern’s key league fixture against Dortmund; Diego Contento at centre-back, Mario Gotze up front, and Thomas Muller everywhere.

Guardiola looks past a player’s defined position for his attributes, and has done more than anyone else to evolve football over the past decade.

Hugo Lloris

The Europa League has paired Tottenham and Lyon together meaning Hugo Lloris will make a quick return to the club he left last summer
GettyImagesHugo Lloris was forced to become a proactive goalkeeper by Andre Villas-Boas' tactics.

Rarely is a manager dismissed because of his relentless commitment to a single tactical concept. Andre Villas-Boas, however, was repeatedly undone by his side’s high defensive line, used in situations that didn’t make sense and often with no pressure on the ball. It was utterly suicidal.

It was interesting, however, partly because it forced Hugo Lloris into the most proactive goalkeeping role of recent years. The Frenchman was a true sweeper-keeper, starting extremely high up the pitch and charging out repeatedly to make crucial interceptions when Tottenham’s defence was beaten. He followed a similar approach when dealing with aerial balls, too, often having to judge the area of the penalty box accurately because he was so close to handling outside the area.

Such an extreme role is unlikely under Tim Sherwood, but rarely has a goalkeeper received such attention for his style rather than his saves. Lloris is not the first goalkeeper to act as an 11th outfielder, and he’s made too many mistakes in recent weeks, but he is a fine demonstration of the modern interpretation of goalkeeping.

Arturo Vidal

In a sense, Arturo Vidal is the world’s best footballer. He’s not literally the world’s best footballer -- he’s not as devastating an attacking weapon as Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, and therefore won’t be recognised as such.

Nevertheless, Vidal is the world’s best all-rounder. He can play anywhere, do anything, be an inspiration in any type of strategy. For Chile, he plays as an advanced No. 10 or arguably even a false No. 9, connecting the midfield with Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas. Yet for Juventus he recently deputised as a centre-back, a role he sometimes played for Chile under Marcelo Bielsa. Like Javi Martinez, Vidal can play absolutely anywhere along the spine of a side.

He’s also an incredible blend of physical and technical characteristics. He charges around the pitch for 90 minutes, displaying both incredible speed and stamina, closing opponents down during the rare moments Juventus don’t have possession, and powerfully connecting midfield and attack with his Michael Ballack-style runs.

Vidal is also technically wonderful, however: capable of delicate through-balls, beautiful finishes and, perhaps most obviously, the most precise penalties you’ll ever see. He’s averaging a goal every other game while making the most tackles per game in Serie A.

If a single footballer personifies football in 2013, it is Arturo Vidal.

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