28 July 2014

Chambers's versatility: an asset or a liability?

As we appear to approach closer and closer to a deal on Southampton's Calum Chambers, the talk has focused on his youth and his versatility. Having played as a right-back, centre-back, and as a defensive midfielder, Chambers seems to check several boxes: he can compete with Debuchy (and Jenkinson?) at right-back while also supporting or competing with Kos, Per, and Verm at center-back. In a pinch, it's possible that he could also slot in in the defensive midfield. All of this versatility should feel very reassuring as we fret over our options—will Vermaelen stay? Will we land Schneiderlin or Khedira? Absent any certainty around these and other questions, Chambers seems to settle our stomachs a bit. Should he, though? A quick review of other similarly "versatile" players should give reason for pause.

Chief among these cautionary tales would be one Jack Wilshere. For as wonderful and as occasionally breath-taking as he's been, he's struggled to find a regular position. Part of this, to be sure, comes from injuries, fitness, and competition. Taking a longer view, though, Wilshere appears a bit unsettled. Is he to become an attacking midfielder? If so, he'll be competing with none other than Mesut Özil, widely and justifiably regarded as one of the very best at what he does. If Wilshere cannot compete with Özil, well, there's no shame in that, is there? Casting about, the next most-natural location would be in the defensive midfield role. With Arteta and Flamini declining, it's only natural that we look to Wilshere to step up as our next holding midfielder.

Unfortunately, as I've discusssed here, that role doesn't suit him. He's not a shielder, nor is he a tackler. He's more comfortable at and better-suited to bombing forward, wreaking havoc in our opponents' defensive third. That's wonderful, and it's something he's very good at—but he may not be the best in the squad, not with Ramsey's resurrection. As such, Wilshere has to carefully consider his career: to what position should he commit? Versatility, even in a system as fluid as Arsène's, can become an albatross around one's neck. That versatility, arguably, has hampered Wilshere's progress just as much as injury has. It pains me mightily to write the following words: despite having been a Gunner since he was nine years old, he still hasn't defined himself. Will he ever? I sorely want him to. It's rare that we encounter a Gunner who's also a Gooner.

Coming back to Chambers, what lessons can we draw from Wilshere's experiences to this point? We're told by none other than Arsène himself that the lad can play as many as three positions, four if we're generous (right-back, centre-back twice, defensive midfield). That kind of flexibility is beguiling, especially as our pursuit of a 'true' defensive midfielder drags on. I almost feel as if I should create a key-board shortcut for "Khedira" and "Schneiderlin" just to avoid a few key-strokes. However, I worry that Chambers, like Wilshere, might struggle to define himself due to the very versatility that Arsène seems to admire. If the Chambers-Wilshere comparison doesn't quite arrest your attention, perhaps a Chambers-Vermaelen one might? Like Wilshere, Vermaelen has found himself an odd man out, perhaps more because of form than injury, but hits 'tweener status has relegated him to the end of the bench, so much so that the question "should Vermaelen be move to DM?" has become a bit of a running joke.

By contrast, consider Aaron Ramsey. For the first half of the 2012-13 season, he bounced around, displaying admirable versatility as he played as a winger, a defensive midfielder, and a right-back. None of this seemed to play to his strengths, skills, or aptitudes. He filled in well enough but didn't drop jaws until he rediscovered himself as a box-to-box midfielder. Yes, his ability to fill in as needed was an asset to the club, but it wasn't until he as allowed to play one role—as wide-ranging and all-encompassing as it was—that he truly started to shine. So I hope it will be with Wilshere. I would love nothing more than for the man to become the club's most-talismanic player, even if it's Ramsey's name appearing in the spotlight more often.

If we are to complete a transfer for Chambers, I hope we learn a lesson from Wilshere's fiftul progress and Ramsey's spectacular season: commit the 19-year old to one position, rather than task him with learning the skills, mindset, positioning, and so many other elements of two or even three positions. Yes, a complete footballer should master all elements of the game, and, yes, becoming a complete footballer should know how to play as his own opposite in order to truly excel. However, at the risk of playing up a pun, one can be a jack-of-all-trades and an ace of none. If the pun rings true, then, where would Calum Chambers play? Would he sit behind Debuchy? At a reported £16m transfer-fee, that seems dicey. Would he commit instead to the defensive-midfield role? This might feel like a budget-buy (not that I'd put it past Arsène to pull such a move) after the pursuit of Khedira and Schneiderlin. Chambers is tall enough (1.82m) to play as a centre-back; could this be his destiny?

At some point soon, Chambers will have to commit to a position in order to become the kind of player he seems poised to become. Whether that's to happen at Arsenal, Southampton, or some other club entirely is another question.