Football is a team game, but there are four key positions and one of those must be more important than the others, right? Here's an argument for each.
When Petr Cech was on the verge of moving from Chelsea to Arsenal the stand-out quote came from Blues skipper John Terry. "He will save them 12 to 15 points a season," Terry said, and it was an indication of the stock in which a top-class goalkeeper is set. If a goalkeeper really can influence a team on his own with big save, or even a canny piece of positioning, to the tune of four or five wins, it means that only a centre-forward is likely to be comparable for tangible impact.
In recent years the goalkeeper's importance seems to have heightened. It is the only "specialist" position on the football pitch; the only one -- at the majority of clubs -- to have its own dedicated coach.
A goalkeeper's importance in the modern game goes far beyond shot-stopping and the quality that is often used to separate a top-class keeper from his peers comes from the command of the box. Pep Guardiola's jettisoning of Joe Hart, generally a fine performer in both categories, for the ball-playing Claudio Bravo was telling. As has been the rise of Bayern and Germany's "sweeper-keeper" Manuel Neuer to become the generally accepted choice as best in the world.
In the 2000s, a vogue for a goalkeeper able to prevent danger 40 yards up the pitch set in; now he is expected to begin passing moves from his own penalty area, setting an entire team in motion by making the right decisions and executing them correctly. A goalkeeper has to be a masochist, Juventus legend Gianluigi Buffon once said, and the position has never been more crucial to the all-round workings of a side.
If the art of the traditional centre-back is dying, does that make the presence of a top-class one more important than ever? It is revealing that, for all the talent and technical ability in Manchester United's squad, the man most recently linked with a move to Old Trafford is Atletico Madrid's Diego Godin -- the epitome of a hardened defensive enforcer, decisive on the ball and capable of pulling everyone else into line off it.
A dominant force at centre-back repels opposition attacks and sets the platform for those ahead to perform more creative tasks.
Centre-back is still the most common position for a team captain to hold. It is the team's pivot for communication: close enough to both the goalkeeper and the midfield to take a large degree of responsibility for the team's structure and shape. A lack of command from central defence puts a team at risk of splintering -- and if things are malfunctioning further forwards, it is the centre-backs who are charged with standing firm.
Like the goalkeeper, this position's meaning has shifted with time. It is possible to win without that commanding centre-back -- for one thing, you might just have a prolific attack that can absorb any concessions -- but if that is the case then your defence is probably contributing something different. John Stones was bought for £46 million by Man City boss Pep Guardiola this summer because of his ability to bring the ball out from the back, distribute the ball and create shifts in gear and new angles from deep -- a job Rio Ferdinand did for years to bring success to Man United. Javier Mascherano stands at 5-foot-8 but thrives for Barcelona, stepping up into midfield to intercept and win the ball.
An inspirational centre-back is often seen as embodying the identity of a side -- think Tony Adams at Arsenal, Terry at Chelsea, or Wes Morgan at last season's shock champions Leicester City -- and these days he can tell you plenty about its footballing philosophy, too.
Midfield is not called the "engine room" for nothing. The commonly-held adage is that if you control the midfield, you stand a fine chance of winning the game.
Central midfielders come in all shapes and sizes and occupy a number of different roles. Sergio Busquets, widely acknowledged as the most consistent midfielder in the game, is rarely visible in advanced positions but keeps Barcelona ticking through astute positioning and sensible distribution. Andrea Pirlo and Xavi also thrived in relatively deep positions but focused more on their playmaking abilities and passing range.
Gennaro Gattuso and Roy Keane were two examples of central midfielders whose gifts lay more in the physical, destructive side and then there was Patrick Vieira, who could dominate through strength but also drive a team's attacking thrust with his stride and vision.
The performance of Mousa Dembele for Tottenham at Arsenal last weekend was an example of just how effective the modern central midfielder can be. Not only did Dembele both win the physical battle and help his team edge the possession stats at the Emirates Stadium, but a driving run from deep won the penalty that earned his team a draw. It was by far the most eye-catching performance on the pitch, and by far the most multifaceted.
Meanwhile, you need only look to the fact that Paul Pogba is now the most expensive player in world football at £89.3m for evidence of a central midfielder's importance. Pogba may want the position to do "everything: defend, attack, score, give assists, tackle, win back the ball" but in covering so much ground, it may lose some of its individuality.
In the end, no matter how football evolves, strikers still score more goals than anybody else. Sixteen of the 50 most expensive players in world football can be classed as centre-forwards; people will still pay a premium for the guarantee of goals and, even though deep-lying or wide forwards have become increasingly influential in the modern game, there is still a key role for the man charged with dead-eyed accuracy in front of the posts.
The modern game tends to see strikers asked to plough a lone furrow down the middle, foraging off the ball but enjoying a much closer relationship with the midfield -- sometimes dropping back to augment it -- to maintain the team's integrity. Guardiola's refashioning of Sergio Aguero at Manchester City, requesting that he works harder to win the ball back, is telling: a striker must be adept with his back to goal, forging relationships with those supporting him, but must also be the first line of defence as the success of Luis Suarez, and before him Carlos Tevez, show.
The three top scorers in this season's Premier League -- Diego Costa, Aguero and Romelu Lukaku -- are all strikers who operate in that demanding central role while converting a high percentage of their chances, too. If team begins to draw blanks, it is the centre-forward upon whom eyes will first be fixed: it is a position relied on to win matches and even cover up a multitude of sins elsewhere.
THE MOST IMPORTANT POSITION?
The goalkeeper has the most important position in modern football. The role's shift in nature underpins the game's stylistic direction of travel; the vogue for building from the very back would not be possible without it, and that is why the Hart/Bravo scenario bore such intense scrutiny earlier this season. A goalkeeper can save you single-handedly, but he is also the only player who can see the entire pitch from where he stands -- and increasingly that field of vision is fundamental to setting a team off on the front foot.