THOSE who study the evolution of modern top flight footballers can find no more apt a case study than Leon Osman. The midfielder who today celebrates 10 years since he made his Everton debut has gone from un-sung utility man to acclaimed international maestro, and David Moyes believes that transition reflects how the game has changed.
Osman – who is close to agreeing a new contract to keep him at Goodison for the rest of his career – will start against Swansea at Goodison today with the glowing praise of his manager ringing in his ears.
And he too will know that there has never been a better time to be himself.
“I think Ossie is perhaps the example of how there has been a big style change in the Premier League over the past 10 years,” says Moyes.
“I think that has probably suited the Osmans of this world and helped him to become a top player – it has been a good time for Leon Osman, and a good period for him to be a professional.
“Barcelona perhaps have changed things with how they’ve done so well with small, talented footballers, and that has paved the way for smaller guys to thrive in this league.
“When he first came in 10 years ago the Premier League was a more physical place and there was more emphasis on physique.
“You even look at the Champions at that time, Arsenal, and yeah they had Bergkamp and Henry, but their midfield was Vieira and Petit, and they had Sol Campbell and Toure at the back.
“They were a physically strong unit and they were the best at the time.
“I think football has evolved over the time Ossie has been around, and that has undoubtedly helped him.”
Moyes believes the pace of the game and the extra protection afforded to skilful playmakers by referees has also helped Osman’s ascendance.
“Some of the laws have changed, there is less tackling and no tackling from behind,” he says.
“It is more about covering now and positional play.
“The back-pass law has changed things too.
“Referees giving regular free-kicks has taken out quite a large element of the physical side of the game and allowed smaller, more technical players to flourish.
“We sent Ossie out on loan when he was a kid to try and develop the physical side, and it is testimony to him that he managed to get himself a career at that time when it was more physical.
“I think he went unnoticed a lot, because maybe he was overshadowed by more physical players, but what he did was make himself a career by being very combative and tough.
“In that period he worked hard to do what he had to do to get a game.
“He had the skills, but if he had to he was good in the air and he could be competitive.”
Full of admiration, Moyes insists that Osman’s experience of both the age of brawn and power, and the beginning of this more refined era has left the adaptable 31-year-old in a position to build a reputation as an exceptional performer.
“If he had to mix it, he wouldn’t shy away from that. He’s always had that and can’t be underestimated,” he says.
“We looked after him, played him off the side and also further forward at times, but for me, now in this climate he is as good a central midfield player as anybody in the country right now.
“We had to use his creativity at the sides at times, but he has developed and grown and kept growing, and honestly, I think this has been his best season so far – and he has fully deserved his England call up.
“I have always been asked if he could play for England, and in the past thought maybe he was just below that level in the next group down, but now he is there by right.
“We are giving him a new contract because he is such a valuable player who can play two or three roles, and if he stays free of injury he can go on for some years yet.
“Now there are different types of players coming into football, and that helps.
“He could survive in the other style of football and have a career, but now he is thriving.”
Osman will take his place in the side today along with another player who gets better with age, Sylvain Distin, and talks contract are nearing a successful conclusion with both.
“We are hopeful there will be a deal (new contracts) with Osman and Distin,” says Moyes.
“You have to make sure you have within your group players you can rely on, and with those two, we have got that.
“We have done well in ensuring we have a group of players here we can rely on.”