Recently, in football circles on Twitter, a seven year old video resurfaced. It shows a young Jordi Alba – the current Barcelona left-back – playing for a Barca kids team wearing the no.10 shirt. In the clip, Alba is seen dancing around players for fun, scoring great goal after great goal. He looks like a prototype Lionel Messi.

Alba played as a forward for Barcelona’s youth teams, before being released aged 15 for being ‘too small’ – an all too common tale, especially in the UK. He wound up at Valencia, where he made his name as a brilliant left-back, before Barcelona resigned him in 2012, some five years after his release.

With titles galore to Alba’s name, it’s clear his career – as a left-back – has been a roaring success. Yet one looks at the video (above) and it’s a fair bet that everyone who saw him play back then had him pigeonholed as a forward – and there’s a lesson in this for every coach when it comes to pigeonholing young players (not just in football, but in any team sport such as netball, hockey, even cricket).

JAMIE CARRAGHER – GOAL MACHINE?!

The list of footballers who made their name in a different position to the one they played as a youth is nigh-on endless. Current Liverpool right back Trent Alexander-Arnold was always a central midfielder, Michael Carrick was signed by West Ham as a centre-forward, Jamie Carragher was, almost incredulously, a prolific striker in his youth and started his career there, Andrea Pirlo started out as a number 10, while Aleksandr Zinchenko – currently starring for Manchester City at left-back – was signed by the club as a number 10.

One of the most fascinating case studies is Philip Lahm. A central midfielder in his younger days, he made his name as a quite brilliant right-back – becoming the best full-back in world football, no less – but after Pep Guardiola arrived at Bayern, he was successfully deployed in central midfield, probably due to his immense game intelligence and understanding. When Guardiola first moved him into midfield, many pundits ridiculed the Spaniard for “messing around” with the best right-back in the world – why would anyone move the best right-back in the world from right-back? But the move undoubtedly worked out.

TOTAL FOOTBALL – THE HOLY GRAIL

For young players, the benefits of playing in different positions are huge. Developing a full understanding of the game should be a vital part of a young player’s education, and something that adults / coaches can help develop fairly readily. Developing pictures in your mind, of different scenarios that might occur in a game, is extremely important – something long taught at Ajax, since the ‘total football’ days of Rinus Michels. Total Football was, in many ways, football’s Holy Grail – the theory that any outfield player could comfortably play in any other position on the pitch, becoming multi-purpose and highly-skilled.

Youth coaching has, certainly in the past, been too restrictive, prone to producing players that were functional and robotic – borne out by England’s long list of failures and ultra-rigid displays where more technical and fluid smaller nations would routinely show us up. But, in the likes of Callum Hudson-Odoi, Jadon Sancho and many others, it is clear a generation of young players is emerging through our academies that show coaching is changing. Many of these players appear to have been brought up with street football as a key part of their development, clearly encouraged to play with more freedom and expression.

ROTATING ROLES IN OTHER SPORTS

High 5 is an increasingly popular entry level version of netball. It’s designed specifically for children, aged 9-11, and one of its key elements is the rotating of positions. It means all of the young participants get to experience every position on the court, making them more knowledgeable and more adaptable. By doing this at a young age, at entry age, it sets up young netballers to be better players as they get older.

Traditional netball sees each of the 7 players in every team play in fixed positions. In High 5, players rotate position after each quarter. Every player is required to play in at least two positions during a game, and no player can be off-court for successive rotations. As well as making players more adaptable and versatile, it keeps them almost continually involved. Perhaps other sports could look to adopt similar practices.

Cricket, meanwhile, is a game of specialists – batsmen, bowlers, wicketkeepers – but every team needs at least one all-rounder, and ideally a few batsmen who can bat in different positions. These skills must be developed at as young an age as possible. In youth cricket, everyone has to bat and bowl, with batsman batting in pairs for a full four overs, regardless of if you get out (runs are deducted if you ‘lose your wicket’). Similarly, Kwik Cricket is an abridged form of cricket for youngsters that applies similar ideas – everyone batting, everyone bowling (every player has to bowl at least one over). In cricket there can be periods of inactivity, long spells in the field, and so these ideas not only expand a kid’s skillset but, like High 5 netball, keeps them much more involved and engaged.

These ideas help to keep a coach’s mind more open, and make them less likely to pigeonhole a young cricketer – how could a coach ignore a hitherto unimpressive bowler suddenly bursting into life with wickets galore. Without the rotating of roles, the child would never had the opportunity to blossom and to improve, nor the coach a chance to witness it.

SMALL-SIDED GAMES CAN HELP DEVELOP MULTI-PURPOSE PLAYERS

Players never stop learning, which further underlines why pigeonholing children in certain positions is such folly. Look at Mohamed Salah. At 15 years old, Salah was playing as a left-back for his club in Egypt, when his coach – struck by the frequency with which he dribbled past people and created chances for himself – moved him further forward to play left wing. By the time Salah was 25, was playing as a traditional line-hugging right winger for Roma, and as his 20s progress he’s moving further forward still, often now playing as an out-and-out striker in the Premier League. Players never stop learning and developing, even through their 20s.

Academies and grassroots coaches are undoubtedly improving but we can improve further still. There is still a rush to get young teenagers into 11 v 11. Eleven-a-side football is more restrictive – less time on the ball, more ground to cover, and much less opportunity to be flexible with positional changes. Small-sided games and tournaments are increasingly prevalent, which is clearly a good thing, enabling young players to see more of the ball, and change position without too much disruption, allowing them to learn and widen their skillset.

COACHES NEED TO BE BRAVE

It can be easy for a well-intentioned youth coach to tinker with his players’ positions, see it backfire in terms of scoreline / result, and hastily revert to what he or she knows best with their players in their ‘correct positions’. Sometimes it’s worth toughing out, because the long-term benefits – for the player – will outweigh the short-term setbacks. Coaches don’t like losing – no-one in sport does – and it takes a brave coach to see, say, his regular centre forward struggling in defence, or a middle order batsman having a torrid time opening the batting, and stick with it. Make it a positive experience if you can, even if the result (and performance) isn’t good.

Feel free to tell us about your coaching experiences with tinkering with players’ positions – good and bad!

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