Arsenal Positional Converts

Some players that changed position at the club… and others who might have done

Responsive image

Kenny Sansom : How would he have done in midfield?

Some of Arsenal’s greatest ever players have been converts from one position to another: good players who became great players through a change in how they were deployed. The 1971 team was full of them: famously skipper Frank McLintock came to Highbury as a ball playing midfielder but Bertie Mee and Don Howe saw enough in him to turn him, for two or three seasons at least, into the best centre half of his generation, and the gudgeon pin of the ‘double’ team. Peter Storey, too, started out as an accomplished full-back, but shone with an even greater intensity once he had been moved into central midfield as the enforcer and heart-beat of the team, from where he went on to become an England regular for the tail end of Ramsey’s reign as national supremo. George Graham had transferred to Arsenal from Chelsea as a centre-forward, but again Mee and Howe recognised that Stroller’s laconic style was more suited to scheming and orchestrating in and around the front two; a move which allowed for John Radford’s switch from winger to number 9 and to be a man who absolutely led from the front: four key players whose reputations perhaps rest on their moves from one position to another: indeed, good players who became great ones as a result.

Moving the clock on to 1998 we can trace the transformation of Emmanuel Petit from centre-back to the kind of complete midfielder we have never been able to replace since his departure. Petit cost a mere £2.5 million and while losing none of his natural defensive functionality he went on to bestride the English game as he displayed an array of passing and an awareness of game management which all combined to make him perhaps the most complete central midfielder of modern Arsenal’s history? There was Lauren too, a wide right midfielder when he signed for Arsenal from Mallorca, and in his initial outings too, but a switch to right-back was the catalyst for his transformation into a key member of the Invincibles. He was a tough player, never gave an inch, an unsung hero of the teams from the early 2000s. Finally, there is of course Thierry Henry whose stellar profile as a forward dwarfs the more modest reputation he had as a winger in his formative time at Highbury. To reiterate they were all good footballers, but without the transformation into being different types of footballer in a positional sense then all would have come and gone without quite leaving the impression upon the game, and specifically Arsenal’s history that their positional changes prompted them to.

All this is perhaps a round-a-bout way of picking your brains and memories, and to pose the question: which Arsenal footballers, ancient or modern, would you pick to play in a different position to the one they are recognised for playing in? In which players did you spot characteristics which seemed to suggest that they had more to offer in a different position: who would be your candidate to be a McLintock, a Radford, or a Petit?

Mine would be Kenny Sansom I think. I’d have pushed him into midfield, perhaps as a successor to Brian Talbot, or as the wide man of a flat midfield ‘four’, where for a season or two we would have been treated to the sight of him with Sammy Nelson bombing beyond him on an overlap. I always felt Sansom had within him the capability to influence the tempo of a game, a talent more serviceable perhaps in midfield than at left-back, albeit he was an outstanding left-back. Another from Sansom’s time was Paul Davis: I could always see him as Arsenal’s Franz Beckenbauer. Der Kaiser started as a conventional central midfielder, like Davis, before experimenting with his own version of the ‘libero’: notionally a defender but one who’s defining function it was to give attacking impetus by either carrying the ball, or through directing the attack, marshalling the movement of the ball with passes short and long. Davis was one of the most naturally gifted footballers of his generation, whose ability to appear to always to have more time than other players made him stand out; the sweetest of passers and deceptively tough (as Southampton’s Glen Cockerill would testify to) Davis could have played anywhere but I see him controlling the game from a deep central area running from the penalty box to the half way line.

Of the modern group, Bellerin seems uniquely suited for a wide midfield position; or like Sansom as a deep, defensive midfielder, the role that is perhaps ultimately the one which will justify Arsenal’s rush to sign David Luiz?

Yet within the context of the contemporary game, as football has become more fluid, and the distinction blurred between traditional positions, have players correspondingly become perhaps more generic; has the modern footballer as a result become a bland interchangeable hybrid? Has the slow burn of total football and then tika taka set in train a development that will one day render the idea of the positional specialist obsolete? One day, will all footballers be a man for all positions, and as a consequence will the whole question of players changing their specialist position have become a redundant one? I hope not, for football is a game of ‘ifs and buts’, the ‘what if’ interjection one of undimmed intrigue.


You can follow The Gooner on
or subscribe to our
YouTube channel (where you can find the GoonerFanzineTV weekly podcast)

The October edition of the monthly (original) Gooner podcast can be listened to and downloaded here


Buy the current issue of The Gooner
Issue 279 of The Gooner can be bought from our online store on this page

Subscribe to The Gooner
If you wish to subscribe to receive every issue of The Gooner by post, UK and abroad options are on this page.

NEW! Subscribe to the Gooner news list to stay up-to-date with all the latest breaking Arsenal news.

Please note that we will not share your email address with any 3rd parties.

Article Rating

Leave a comment

Sign-in with your Online Gooner forum login to add your comment. If you do not have a login register here.


  1. itsRonagain2

    Nov 16, 2019, 00:48 #115493

    Hi Cyril. Been a while. Mate. Let’s have our red specs off mate. We re very much in the immediate underlevel in the PL now. We might not like it and we might not like to admit it but we re there through our absent landlords choice. That’s what makes it so sickening. I m not sure where we ve been in the World as you say not totally sure where you’re coming from there but we ve only ever been a real force in the UK. That’s reality. Did that put us top 10 in World ? Dunno pal. Reality of where we are can certainly hurt an older Gunners pride. I’m with you there totally but I m not going to dress up what I feel we are now into something we d like to be. Truth is out star has waned this last 12 yrs or so and only them in fantasy land can’t recognise it. That’s half our trouble I feel. We re too busy pretending to be what we think we ought to be and hoping for the ride to turn and forgetting to get back to the raw basics to actually make things happen to point our team in the right direction again. We wandering around in a fog of our own making. The top 3 are driving their own pathways. We hope for one to miraculously appear. There’s the difference in my view. Many old traditional once proud and stable organisations go that way in all walks of life. Prisoners of their own image of themselves, think they’re privileged and when times get tough they sulk and feel they’re owed something instead of re inventing themselves they keep the blinkers on and start to die. If you like, Arsenal are like the English aristocracy. Bewildered in the face of reality. Matey I’ve lived and worked abroad for many years on and off and I can assure you, the footie followers rarely mention us as a club they recognise as any kind of force.

  2. Goonhogday

    Nov 16, 2019, 00:43 #115492

    It’s an interesting scenario. I have no idea what goes on in the Arsenal boardroom and I certainly don’t want a club with a reputation for sacking managers mid season either. However, I realise we cannot afford a Mourinho or Allegri makeover and they’re probably not interested in the mess Arsenal are currently in anyway. However, there are managers, perhaps like NES, that could organise our current squad into a better team (and that includes Xhaka too).

  3. Cyril

    Nov 15, 2019, 22:50 #115491

    Ron, I’m not having that. That’s strong, that statement. Arsenal are top ten in the world. And have been higher. We have a massive issue with an absent , quite frankly ‘slum landlord’. It’s heartbreaking. We can still break free but it’s gonna be hard. 2nd tier level - are you sure? Wash your mouth please Ron. I love your stuff,but I ain’t ‘aving that!!!!!

  4. itsRonagain2

    Nov 15, 2019, 20:51 #115490

    Nuno is an impressive man and so are his team. Style. Strength. Speed. Nous. Skill. A game plan. Tactically sound enough. Best team to win the Ch for many yrs. I think though that before a truly top Club takes him and sadly, that perhaps excludes Arsenal, he needs to do more with Wolves. Another season at the top end. A good run in EC as he’s doing. Maybe an FAC. To be honest I think Nuno s intent on staying with his Club. He has good owners there. Big plans. He s got control. Passionate fans who don’t feel entitled and a noisy stadium. Doubtless a hefty salary too. Why would he want to leave that for a hiding to nothing shambles that risks all he’s done to create his present CV? His own fans absolutely love him. Arsenal still has its attractions of course but it’s wrong to think that joining them is a no brainier. Anything more than top 4 is a doubt for AFC now. You could be talking many many years before they challenge properly again. Not in the same World as City Liverpool and despite where they are, Utd either. Times are changing. Clubs like Wolves. Leics and I think eventually Everton are going to have the same outlook on what success is for such clubs. Arsenal are a part of that 2nd division of the PL now. The hard part is for the fans to accept what Arsenal are now.

  5. markymark

    Nov 15, 2019, 17:48 #115489

    Goonhogday - it’s a good shout. The issue is communication and obviously Nuno has sufficient command to get his ideas across. Van Persie though a divisive figure amongst us, has somehow got hold of 3 minutes of Unai talking tactics( player leaks ?) He simply said he could not understand him. It’s criminal really at this level. I have to say Unai has found his limitations and it should be back to mid table Spanish clubs for him where he can feel at home and probably be a far better manager

  6. Goonhogday

    Nov 15, 2019, 13:20 #115488

    Possibly sticking my neck here (and on the wrong thread) but if Arsenal were looking for new manager, Nuno Espírito Santo wouldn’t be a terrible shout.

  7. itsRonagain2

    Nov 14, 2019, 14:18 #115487

    I honestly wouldnt want Pochetino. Whats he done that Emery hasnt? That whole spuds think i.e him, them being supposedly on the cusp of great things etc. Its all been one big mirage there (as usual) that Poch has presided over. The spuds do that every 25 - 30 years or so. I think that very fact of their being no real stand out candidates is one of the main factors that will keep Dick in situ.

  8. markymark

    Nov 14, 2019, 06:47 #115486

    Seems to be breaking out at Arsenal at the moment minute with Chips and Raul having a disagreement over David O’leary. Personally his Leeds tenure soured my impression of him as a man. What thoughts on potentially Potch being sacked at the weekend. Currently 14th and no silverware but is still a better manager than Unai? I’d say yes. Either way he is another potential candidate . Though I see the Sun is pushing the Arteta angle again.

  9. Dick Dastardly

    Nov 13, 2019, 20:59 #115485

    I never saw Kenny Sansom have a bad game for the Arsenal. One of our finest ever players. As for switching around, Chris Whyte started as a centre half, played a few games up front, I can remember him scoring the winner against Villa in 1985-86 season he was centre forward that day. Good player he was and won a championship medal a few years later for Leeds. Now, if only we could work out what Pepe's best position is.

  10. markymark

    Nov 13, 2019, 08:23 #115483

    Really enjoyed that article and it brought back some lovely memories of players from the past. I’ve forgotten who it was , think it was a Spanish coach . Anyhow his view was everyone would morph into a midfielder. Perhaps Barcelona proved that point around 5-8 years back. But then came along the Gengenpress

  11. Pauljames

    Nov 12, 2019, 18:04 #115478

    What about Michael Thomas , started at right back and turned into a useful box to box midfielder! Seem to remember Gus Caesar playing in quite a few positions too...without much success it has to be said.George also had a penchant for playing centre halves in midfield towards the end, Keown and Pates had go there I seem to recall, got very dull to watch by then.

  12. itsRonagain2

    Nov 12, 2019, 17:22 #115477

    RK - Yes he was. He was a heavy drinker and always in fights etc when at Bham City, always in bother with the FA. Cloughie saved his career. Best Coach of them all i think Cloughie. Leeds were fools not backing him weren't they against that shower of once brilliant players there at the time, all of who were well past their best and Cloughie knew it. Mind you, if its true that Cloughie told them to chuck all of their medals in the skip because they were won under false pretences and so on, he hardly set out to win friends and influence them did he!!

  13. Radfordkennedy

    Nov 12, 2019, 16:23 #115476

    Hello Ron yeah I think ur right I just seem to remember him being very comfortable on the ball and being able to play a lovely weighted pass from the edge of his own box...which is probably why in my mind I picture him as a def-mid..tough as teak as well wasn't he.

  14. itsRonagain2

    Nov 12, 2019, 13:55 #115475

    RK - Hi matey. Didn't Burns play CH alongside Larry LLoyd?

  15. Radfordkennedy

    Nov 12, 2019, 13:52 #115474

    Unfortunately for us the most successful switch of position was for Liverpools benefit, switching Ray Kennedy from striver to midfield, who would of seen that coming...the other one I remember of being a great success was Kenny Burns a quality striker at Brum who won Euro and domestic titles as a midfield enforcer

  16. itsRonagain2

    Nov 12, 2019, 12:56 #115472

    Good old Peter Storey! - He d be sent off every week now in today's poncy sanitised game. A very under rated player though. How about Nic Bendtner?. A devastating wide man, converted to a powerful and deadly striker, with a first touch of Messi and the finish of a Drogba, the terrorizer of defenders the World over. Oh hang on ........................ that was just Nics view wasnt it!

  17. TonyEvans

    Nov 12, 2019, 12:46 #115470

    Interesting article, and nice to reflect on better times and players gone by, rather than the current mess the club is in. I am sure, if I spent long enough, I could come up with some other examples of players flourishing in a new position and making it their own. Of course one that didn't work was Chris Whyte as a centre forward! Interesting point in your final paragraph too, David, about whether we are now in a period of a 'jack of all trades, master of none' situation in football, and in particular at Arsenal. I hope not, but that does seem to be the way things are going - apart from centre forward.