The festive period every year comes crammed with a plethora of football fixtures, in which we can indulge, but this year has had its questions about the intensity of the schedule, particularly with the impact of the current Covid-19 wave on clubs, their players and staff and the fixture list.
Many games have been postponed as the number of cases has rocketed to record levels in the Premier League and EFL as the demands of the fixture schedule has also come into scrutiny.
With so many games in such a short space of time, there is little time for full recovery from game to game.
However, the fixture list itself is possibly just scratching the surface and perhaps it’s no harm to look a little deeper into the evolution of the role of the modern player.
With every year that passes, it becomes more difficult to get to the highest level of the game because the players at that level have to be better at everything. The role of the modern player is so much greater than it was because now, they have to be good at everything.
In today’s game, your attackers are your first defenders, and your defenders and goalkeeper are often the first attackers as the games’ biggest moments frequently start from transitions and the moments when the ball is won or lost.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult for managers to play forward players who do not press with intensity and longevity in a game. And it’s harder to build play and keep the ball if your defenders and goalkeeper are not really comfortable with the ball at their feet.
When you think about how the role of the modern goalkeeper has evolved, it’s incredible really. Shot-stopping, collecting crosses, dominating the box are still key fundamental requirements of the goalkeeper, but the game now demands so much more from those who guard the posts.
Goalkeepers nowadays need to be comfortable on the ball with and without pressure from the opponent. Being one-foot dominant isn’t really an option anymore either, you have to be able to play off both feet and the range of passing has to be there as well.
Short passes, clipped passes over opposition defensive lines, and the inch-perfect longer ball as well as all the vision and quick decision-making required to know where the space is and how to execute the pass to get it there.
The goalkeeper of the Donnarumma, Becker, Mendy era positions differently to the goalkeeper of the Zoff, Grobbelaar, Bonner era, as keepers now adjust to deal with the pull-back instead of the cross and need to be more connected to their defensive lines, both in and out of possession.
The Euro 2020 Technical Report went as far as posing the question that if players playing wide of a back three were wing-back players or whether they were wing-forwards, such are the attacking play demands of those playing in these positions.
A heavy shift towards three-at-the-back systems compared to Euro 2016 shows how this role is becoming more and more important. The use of the wide areas is now opportune territory because of how compact and narrow teams have become without the ball, fixated on protecting the deeper, central space.
To think that 16 goals were scored by wing-backs or full-backs at Euro 2020 compared to just one at Euro 2016. The areas they were scoring from is interesting too, showing they invert runs into spaces left void by attacking midfielders who look to drag central players into wider areas.
When you think about a player like João Cancelo and the versatility he brings to the very fluid role he plays for Pep Guardiola's Manchester City. The right-footed left-back often seen somewhere in centre midfield when Man City have the ball, is a perfect example of what the modern player needs to be to nail down a place in a team picked by the top managers in the world.
The Portuguese defender had three assists in Man City's 4-1 Champions League victory over Club Brugge last month.
What the top managers want from their players is more versatility, a master of all trades, not a jack of just one.
Leading the line
And while we’re on the subject, where has the No 10 gone and who is the false 9? The modern centre-forward is often not the player leading the line, instead they’re dragging defenders into spaces they don’t want to be with the narrow attacking midfielders underneath often the ones breaking the last line of defence.
In the Euro 2020 final, it wasn't Harry Kane who was breaking lines for England, it was Mason Mount. Gone are the days of the lethal centre-forward pairings, like Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton or the Dwight Yorke/Andy Cole pairing at Manchester United.
The two centre-forwards eventually became one, as the multi-functional lone front player took a greater burden of responsibility, whereas now, the attacking load is borne by a trio of inter-weaving, rotating forwards who live in and pounce from that space between the opponents defensive and midfield lines.
Centre-backs are stepping in with the ball, and under Chris Wilder in his Sheffield United days, they are overlapping!
The modern player is no longer really defined by the position they play, its more about where the starting position takes them during the game and the volume of skills and attributes they can excel in.
They need to be present and active in more moments of the game than it once demanded which means it takes more now to reach the highest level.
With the women's Euros and the men's World Cup to look forward to in 2022, (despite the absence of the Ireland squads), it will be interesting to see what comes next and what new trends emerge.