Football's Moonlighters

Many elite players have had to adapt their game in order to play at the highest level and, as Musa Okwonga writes, such flexibility is often overlooked.

Among the ranks of professional footballers, there is a special breed of player; the type who, having come to the club to do one job, find themselves having to take on additional and unexpected work. Famed for their ability to perform a range of roles to a high standard, we can call them ‘the moonlighters’. Much of the time, they are called ‘utility men’, but this phrase doesn’t seem to do them justice. ‘Utility man’ implies a player who tinkers around in various guises without acquitting himself with distinction. But moonlighters are different. They are able to move elegantly between forms. Moonlighters are men like Andrés Iniesta, who played defensive midfielder in a Clásico but also excelled on the flanks, or Gianluca Zambrotta, who could be dominant anywhere along either touchline. The moonlighter is the precocious kid in the school orchestra who was a maestro on both the drums and the grand piano.

Steve McManaman is perhaps England’s most accomplished moonlighter. When he arrived at Real Madrid in 2000, having controversially run down his contract at Liverpool, he did so as either a free-roaming number ten or a marauding winger. Yet he spent the defining phase of his career at the Bernabéu as a key component of Madrid’s midfield engine, lining up alongside the majestic Fernando Redondo - and fellow moonlighter Raúl, who made his name as one of the game’s greatest centre-forwards. McManaman, in an interview with Malaysia’s Semuanya Bola TV, was very sanguine about his versatility.  “I think any player nowadays, if you’re going to be involved at the highest level, you’re going to need to play in three, four, five positions”, he said. “I think you have to be able to play on the right, on the left, in the centre if you need be.”

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Pep Guardiola has praised Fernandinho for this same quality, believing that the Brazilian is good enough to star in as many as ten positions. In that sense, Fernandinho is something of a present-day Luis Enrique, who starred for Real and Barça all over the field. Much is made of Guardiola’s commitment to Johan Cruyff’s legacy, but one element of this which is slightly understated is the Spaniard’s reverence for the concept of the Total Footballer - which, in essence, all true moonlighters are. While some coaches like their players to have single, rigidly-defined tactical identities, Guardiola encourages them to be so fluid that they’re basically genderqueer.

We can probably assume that Guardiola would have enjoyed coaching Ronald de Boer, an amorphous attacking force for Ajax and Holland; and it would have been intriguing to see how he might have deployed James Milner, who is currently acquitting himself to such varied and positive effect under Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. After all, this is a man who, in the final of the 2009 UEFA Champions League, fielded Yaya Toure - then already one of the best young midfielders European football had seen - at centre-back.

While some coaches like their players to have single, rigidly-defined tactical identities, Guardiola encourages them to be so fluid that they’re basically genderqueer.

In recent times, the best example of a moonlighter in a major competition is probably Cesc Fàbregas. Spain’s Euro 2012 campaign is remarkable in that they turned up for the tournament without a centre-forward they could consistently count upon; and so, with Fernando Torres fighting the twin demons of ailing health and poor form, Vicente del Bosque asked Fabregas to play as a false nine. The strategy met with much criticism at the time; the football writer Rob Smyth, upon hearing that Spain were playing without a striker in their opening game against Italy, hilariously remarked that “they've jumped the shark - they've now become an art project." Fabregas took some time to adjust to his brief, but by the time Spain played Italy again, this time in the final in Kiev, he was devastating; he laid on the opening goal for David Silva as Spain retained their title, prevailing by four goals to nil.

Perhaps this quote by Smyth, and then this star turn by Fabregas, work perfectly in tandem: since the moonlighter is a very special type of artist. Each one is not only technically gifted but tactically sophisticated, their minds processing new information with a hunger rarely seen outside academia.  From Ruud Gullit to Javi Martinez to Cruyff himself, they are football’s polymaths; and, in football’s vast gallery, they deserve the very proudest of places.

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Musa Okwonga is a poet, author, journalist, broadcaster, musician, social commentator, football writer and consultant in the fields of creativity and communications. Musa also co-presents the Rabona podcast.