Cristiano Ronaldo joins illustrious list of players who reinvented themselves in a new position

Cristiano Ronaldo

The brevity of a footballer’s career leaves little time for reinvention, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s first-leg hat-trick against Atletico Madrid was a reminder that some can manage it. Accepted wisdom said that Ronaldo was a player who relied on athletic qualities like speed and strength, and therefore would feel the passing years more keenly than his so-called adversary Lionel Messi. This is not entirely false. The 32-year-old Ronaldo is not the rampaging force of old, but has instead altered his game to remain devastatingly effective. For a player with a reputation for egotism, this demonstrates a well-tuned antenna for detecting the needs of his team.

In the early days at Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United he was a maverick winger: a box of tricks with a simplistic get-ball-beat-man approach. As he hit his early 20s at Old Trafford and acquired technical and physical maturity, he developed into a goal scoring, ‘total’ footballer who could operate anywhere across the forward line. The Portugal international continued in this vein at Real Madrid. In the last year or so however, he has transitioned again into a penalty-box poacher. Ronaldo is less involved in matches and moves more economically, but continues to make vital contributions in the biggest of games.

Here we consider other players who were renowned in one position before excelling in another.

Thierry Henry: Left wing to centre forward

It is a bit of a myth that Arsene Wenger plucked Henry from obscurity, and also a myth that he was a hopeless left-winger. His spell at Juventus was indeed unhappy, but at the age of 20 Henry played in a Champions League semi-final with Monaco from the flank and scored seven goals in that run in the competition. Henry was also France’s top goalscorer in their 1998 World Cup triumph. Had he played in the social media age, football fans in England would have known all about him.

Wenger’s stroke of genius was to persuade Henry to return to centre forward, the position in which he had played at youth level while Wenger was Monaco head coach. Arsenal’s record goalscorer has since admitted he was sceptical about the switch, and his very early Arsenal appearances were pockmarked with missed chances. The time it took Henry to settle in England though has also been embellished: he scored his first goal at Southampton on his ninth appearance and finished his debut season with 26 in all competitions. Another 202 followed.

Thierry Henry is Arsenal's greatest ever goalscorer

Ryan Giggs: Left wing to central midfield

‘Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs, running down the wing’ sang the Stretford End, but by the time the curtain fell on the Welshman’s imperishable career he was a man for all seasons. Perhaps only Henry could rival Giggs’s elegance on the dribble, a skill that appeared effortlessly natural to him: the ball stuck to his foot in the same way Brian Lara’s bat or Tiger Woods’s putter seemed liked extensions of the body. He really was the perfect winger, and the fact he was left footed balanced United’s midfield throughout the 1990s just as England were scratching around for lefties.

After the turn of the millennium however, Giggs became more multi-faceted. Two factors prompted his transformation. Problems with his hamstrings meant he could no longer sprint repeatedly throughout a 50-game season. Secondly, frustrated by some of United’s European exits, Sir Alex Ferguson began to move away from using two orthodox strikers in the Champions League. Ferguson began to use Paul Scholes as well as Giggs just off the centre forward, and bought Juan Sebastian Veron with the intention of solidifying United centrally.

As the years ticked by Giggs began to play more and more in a deeper role, using his vision, technique and footballing intelligence to play at the top level until 40.

Ryan Giggs played until he was 40

Andrea Pirlo: No 10 to No 4

The maestro’s retreat happened over a number of years, but Pirlo’s switch to a deep-lying midfield role changed the way laymen thought about the position. Footballing orthodoxy stated that you place your creative players as high up the pitch as possible, with defensively strong ball-winners filling in behind them. That is exactly how Pirlo’s career began at Brescia and with the Italian youth teams: as a creative No.10 with a penchant for scoring free kicks. Pirlo got his big move to Inter in 1998 but struggled, believe it or not, to nail down a spot in the first-team. A loan spell back at Brescia under Carlo Mazzone saw him deployed as the ‘quarterback’ for the first time to accommodate Roberto Baggio, and Pirlo’s career took off. 

Milan came calling, and Pirlo was an integral part of a team that won two Champions Leagues and should have won three (sorry, Liverpool fans). With first Rui Costa and later Kaka to fit in, Carlo Ancelotti allowed Pirlo to sit deeper alongside Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso. Ran two games against England at Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup, and along with Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso and Michael Carrick embodied a shift away from destructive water-carriers to constructive distributors in this position. The pendulum now looks to be swinging back, incidentally.

Andrea Pirlo celebrates while at Juventus

Gareth Bale: Left back to left-wing

Ashley Cole is the famous case of a winger who made a world-class full back, and dozens of others have followed the same trajectory. However, Bale is a rare example of a player who travelled in the opposite direction. Tottenham Hotspur signed the Welshman as an athletic left-back from Southampton, and famously Spurs did not win any of his first 24 appearances.

Harry Redknapp has his flaws, but to his credit he stuck with Bale just as he backed a young Frank Lampard when he was West Ham manager, stating in 2008:

“He has everything to be a top player. He has to learn how to defend, learn how not to let people play balls inside him, learn to recover, just learn parts of his game. But it's all there.”

Pushing him forward to left-midfield proved the turning point, and his hat-trick in a 4-3 Champions League defeat to Inter was the moment we all wondered what had taken so long to see the blindingly obvious. Now plays from the right frequently at Real Madrid, as well as playing centrally for Wales who he helped to the semi-finals of Euro 2016.

Gareth Bale started as a left-back at Spurs

Owen Hargeaves: Utlitlity player to ball-winning midfielder

Not so much a player who changed position, but one who found a position. Regarded as a utility player at international level, Hargreaves was routinely picked by England manager Sven Goran-Erikson much to the bemusement of this country’s footballing public. Some even wondered if he had some compromising material on the Swede, he was picked that routinely.

Not until the 2006 World Cup did the real Hargeaves reveal himself in a Three Lions jersey. He was England’s best player in Germany, and in a squad consumed by their own celebrity his industry and defensive rigour in midfield caught the eye. He was also England’s only successful penalty taker in the doomed quarter-final shoot-out with Portugal. Sir Alex Ferguson paid £17 million for his services the following summer, and only a succession of serious injuries prevented him forging a place in United’s first XI. Still collected Premier League and Champions League winner’s medals in 2008.

Vincent Kompany: Defensive midfielder to centre back

Regarded as one of the finest centre halves and most astute signings of the Premier League era, Kompany started his career as a ball-playing defensive midfielder. This is still apparent in his style of play, and it was in this position that he made his early Man City appearances under Mark Hughes (getting Kompany for £6 million was Hughes’ finest achievement at Eastlands).

It soon became apparent that his strength in one-on-one duels and leadership skills would be better served in the centre of defence, and the Belgian was a cornerstone of title winning campaigns in 2012 and 2014. Injuries have got the better of him in recent years and he has always had a rash challenge in him, but set the benchmark for modern Premier League defenders.

Vincent Kompany was originally a central midfielder

Fabinho: Right-back to central midfield  

An example from this season, the Brazilian was known as a rugged right-back but Leanardo Jardim has switched him to a central midfield role. Alongside Tiemoué Bakayoko, Fabinho has given Monaco’s array of attacking talents license to do damage, a formula that has guided them top the summit of Ligue 1 and the Champions League semi-finals. Fabinho has been linked with a host of Premier League clubs, attracted by his uncompromising style and versatility.