Trying to work out player positions in the Pep Guardiola era is like trying to understand a piece of modern art: it's open to interpretation.
Take Argentina's World Cup winner Julián Álvarez, for instance. Transfermarkt has him listed as a centre-forward, a second striker, and a right winger. This is indicative of the archetypal modern footballer: one who plays in an area of the pitch where they can be effective, rather than in a single specific position.
Just reflect on the metamorphosis of Álvarez's City teammates. Attacking midfielder Bernardo Silva often mimics a left-back, centre-back John Stones has been transformed into a central midfielder, while new summer signing Matheus Nunes can "play as a holding midfielder or an attacking midfielder" and "with time, he could play as a full-back," according to Guardiola.
So, where does Álvarez think he plays?
"I've always played in different positions, mostly in the attack and a bit in midfield too," he tells ESPN. "In the last few years, I've felt more comfortable closer to the goal, to have more chances to score. But it's true that with [Man City striker] Erling Haaland, I can adapt to play with him, so now I'm playing in a position that's perhaps a bit further back."
However, even Álvarez isn't certain, and this is typical of elite players who work with the greatest tactical minds. Among the most sophisticated systems, players must be fluid enough to fit any shape ... like water. Guardiola has an eye for moving pieces around, but the likes of Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, Roberto De Zerbi at Brighton, and Tottenham's new manager, Ange Postecoglou, are recruiting players who they know will work within their evolving tactical fluidity.
To casual fans this approach marks a shift away from rigid traditional positions, centered around star players, and moves toward a flexible, system-based style of play. And managers who embrace this approach and execute it at a high level, reap the rewards -- winning trophies and earning admiration for their shape-shifting teams.
Is this the future of tactics? A world without fixed positions, where multifunctional players rotate around the pitch? What is driving this trend? How does this controlled chaos work?
The illusion of freedom
So here's the thing about players roaming around freely: They're actually not. It's an illusion called "positional play," a principle utilised by the likes of Guardiola. This system is driven by a strict set of rules where players take up positions to create numerical advantages over opponents in passing triangles or diamonds, with the aim of progressing the ball.
In Guardiola's interpretation of the system, the pitch is split into zones, with each player assigned a zone. Each movement triggers a chain reaction, setting off the movement of a teammate to confuse the opposition. Players are programmed to exploit the right spaces and apply pressure in certain areas. For that, you need flexible footballers. Footballers like Álvarez.
"He is capable of operating in a number of attacking roles, and we firmly believe he's one of the best young attacking players in South America," said Manchester City sporting director Txiki Begiristain, upon signing the Argentine for around £17 million from River Plate in January 2022.
Álvarez's intelligent movement means he pops up wherever there is space with the aim of linking play. During Argentina's historic World Cup win, Álvarez scored four goals and did Lionel Messi's dirty work, leading the press across the frontline. For Manchester City, he has occupied various attacking roles, recently transitioning to a central role as a right-sided No. 8 to cover the injured Kevin De Bruyne, where he's excelled with four goals and four assists in 10 games.
So how does he process his manager's ever-evolving playbook?
"It's a privilege being coached by Pep, and after being here for a year, I feel more comfortable," Álvarez explains at an event to promote his adidas X Crazyfast boot. "Getting to know new things, knowing the club more, I feel better with the teammates. He is demanding, and we as players know that the expectations are high, but he also reminds us.
"He [Guardiola] makes it harder because he knows what we have to give. For managing the team, how he reads the games, the rivals and the tools he gives you for when you have to get on the pitch to play are what makes Pep stand out."
In the past, utility players were seen as jacks of all trades. Failing to master one position counted against them as they were moved around the team, never really thriving, just filling in where needed. Consider John O'Shea, Phil Neville or James Milner -- players not known for having one standout quality, but for their ability to fill in noticeable gaps wherever they popped up.
"Versatility is very important because football has evolved tactically," explains Álvarez. "Players are changing constantly, so playing in different positions gives you more options to be in the starting lineup."
Overloading the opposition
Positioning changes in and out of possession. In this latest iteration of Guardiola's vision, his City team lines up in a 4-4-2 when they're defending and morphs into something like a 2-3-5 as they try to create overloads in the final third.
It's in the attacking phase where the traditional perception of positions becomes blurred. Freedom is granted within the parameters of a preordained framework. Players seek out space and exchange roles to create an unpredictable attacking force, as Tottenham manager Postecoglou explained after their 2-0 win over Bournemouth.
"They've all got freedom," Postecoglou said. "We're very structured, but hopefully it doesn't look that way. We had [right-back] Pedro Porro as a centre-forward at one stage -- that's part of us hopefully being a really good, effective team and hard to stop.
"A rigid structure is very fluid because guys understand as long as there's movement out there, they're looking for spaces and other guys are filling the spaces they leave, then it doesn't really matter where they pop up or where they go. But there is a discipline within that; it's not about running anywhere; it's about going into the areas we work on constantly, and if it looks fluid, that makes us harder to stop."
Fans and pundits alike will watch this blur of movement swirling around the pitch and assume the coach has let the team open up, but it's all about control and neutralising the opponent.
"Lots of managers at the top level want to take control of every situation and leave as little to chance as possible," Harry Brooks, who works as a coach and analyst with Premier League and academy players, tells ESPN. "The best managers have almost worked out the algorithm, and they're working, again and again, to repeat that formula, to basically say, 'If you do this and then this and then this, it should result in X,' like a goal, for instance.
"They want their players to memorise pre-rehearsed routines for what they do in every situation, so all the players can refer back to that logbook without having to think too much. This is something they learn in the under-14s where they might play as a No. 10 one week, then as a No. 6 the next, then as a right-back, and so on."
This micromanagement stems from the data revolution. Every club employs analysts to study games, crunch numbers and identify patterns, helping them decode the tactical habits of their opponents.
To maintain an edge, you need to spring a few surprises. One of Guardiola's standout qualities is his ability to recognise how a player's strengths can thrive in various areas of the pitch, both in possession and out of it, rather than merely focusing on their suitability for a specific position.
"The problem with having all these predetermined routines is that the opposition can spot them if they do their homework," Brooks adds. "The best managers find ways to throw the opposition off, and that can be done by playing players out of their traditional positions.
"Look at what Pep did with Stones and the various players [like Rico Lewis] he converted into inverting full-backs. The philosophy doesn't change -- i.e. positional play -- but it's the little tweaks that keep it fresh and opponents guessing. Pep is a genius because he's very good at spotting the trends and staying one step ahead, so finding players that can perform different jobs for the team is really attractive to him."
That's where someone like Tor-Kristian Karlsen comes in. The former chief scout, sporting director and CEO, who now works as a columnist for ESPN, has more than 25 years of experience scouring the earth in search of elite talent. The growing demand for players with positional adaptability has coincided with the increasing use of data and tactical sophistication.
"If you travel 20 years back in time, scouting was quite straightforward," he says. "A player's qualities would be defined by their position. Wingers needed to be fast, direct, good at one-vs.-ones, and able to go on the outside. Full-backs would be running up and down the channel, and centre-backs weren't expected to be good on the ball, but they would be dominant in the box.
"Now the best players have to be able to do everything to varying degrees and understand tactics to the level of a manager. Managers like Arteta and Pep aren't looking at players for the position they play, more: 'What can your skillset provide me in these different areas of the pitch?'"
Formations and positions lay the groundwork for more progressive tactical ideas that create space through the rotation of personnel around the pitch. That doesn't mean players have the freedom to abandon their position; rather, they need the intelligence to make an impact across the pitch, moving fluidly as one to create numerical superiority in attack, while ensuring they protect against the counter and defend with a strong defensive shape.
"The game has moved on from positions and rigid rules, with certain patterns, to a focus on space and relationships," Karlsen observes. "Teams will attack where there is space, giving players licence to roam. It's like an organism -- it has to work as a collective. If it does not, the team becomes stretched and disorganised."
This is a tactical trend for the foreseeable future, but football is cyclical. The 2-3-5 formation we're seeing now dates back to the 1890s, while Ajax and Netherlands' "Total Football" of the 1970s put stock in the same kind of positional changes, for instance. What's next? The return of the free role, afforded to the most gifted of players, when that freedom truly meant no responsibility?
"I don't believe players are positions, it's about best utilising them and giving them licence to be creative," Brooks says. "We know modern players have been instructed to follow a certain plan and to repeat that again and again.
"Every coach is now cancelling each other out, so to counteract that, I think we'll start seeing individual talent given the freedom to play. The ones that you can't plan for."