Manchester United's Anthony Martial celebrates after scoring his side's third goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Sheffield United at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, Wednesday, June 24, 2020.

Encara Messi, noodle-haired Ronaldo & NHS Martial: When footballers found their most dangerous versions

Above all else, football is one big pantomime. And with great pantomime comes even better characters, who are propelling football culture forward one new gimmick at a time.

Injuries, new clubs and different competitions allow us to be welcomed to different versions of our favourite players, and for whatever reason, that change of pace can often encourage a complete 180 in terms of how they play.

In celebration of footballers going full Chris Jericho and leaning into gimmicks here, there and everywhere, we’ve pulled together a list of the most dangerous versions of players.

NHS Martial

After falling to the wayside and looking as good as done at Manchester United despite that brilliant debut season, 2019-20 proved to be a sudden redemption arc for Martial until COVID-19 put the season on hold in early 2020.

If there was ever a player destined to never recover from that halt in momentum, it felt like him. But he proved all the doubters wrong.

In empty stadiums, donning his trademark black gloves and now equipped with an NHS badge of honour on his United shirt, Martial found a new level and couldn’t stop scoring. He finished with 23 goals in all competitions, which remains his most prolific season to date. The streets won’t forget.

Blue cast Jamie Vardy

Seriously, that blue cast was like a supersuit.

Vardy broke his wrist back in September 2015 against Aston Villa, aggravating a previous wrist weakness in doing so, and never really had a chance to let things heal properly due to the crazy schedule that is football.

Instead of taking time out, our favourite Red Bull-guzzling menace was simply too desperate to score goals and turned into a different beast, turbocharged by his bionic wrist.

He finally had his wrist properly corrected after Euro 2016, and while it didn’t slow him down in his pursuit of zero to hero greatness, it was sad to have to wave goodbye to the blue cast era.

Lockdown Calvert-Lewin

AKA ‘Calvert-Lewandowski’.

When Carlo Ancelotti arrived at Everton at the beginning of 2020, the world stood still. Some say that the COVID-19 pandemic was actually planned as a means to stop Everton in their tracks of becoming the most successful club in Europe.

Plenty of players enjoyed an upturn in form and abilities under Don Carlo and in 2020-21, the first full season of lockdown football, Calvert-Lewin suddenly embodied a man possessed with James Rodriguez behind him.

The Englishman had bagged 11 goals before Christmas, including a hat-trick in matchday two, and looked like a star.

Injuries and, well, Everton, would then kick into gear and things slowed down somewhat, but he still finished the campaign with a career-best 21 goals to his name in all competitions.

Pre-season Pereira

An infamously mercurial figure, it became clear pretty quickly that Andreas Pereira – while talented – wasn’t going to be a star player at Manchester United as people initially hoped during his academy days.

Still, he managed to establish himself as a key rotation arm around the squad between 2018 and 2020 after a series of loans. Strangely, though, it was pre-season where he’d often deliver his best performances, developing a particular knack for scoring wonder goals.

Pereira became known as the ‘pre-season Pirlo’ among United fans who quickly became all too used to his shenanigans.

For three weeks or so he was great, then the season would start, he’d keep his place at the club but then lose his Brazilian passport.

Noodle hair Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo has reinvented himself a tremendous amount in order to stay at the very top of his game, and it has to be commended.

When he had those blonde highlights whisked through his hair, Ronaldo unlocked new levels of immortality.

The first iteration came in his youth, where his twists and turns would send defenders home wanting to hang up the boots. Then came the second generation of the noodle hair – the gimmick revived and improved.

Purple Real Madrid kit on, sleeves rolled up, noodle hair under those bright Champions League lights, it was game over for any opposition. Clinics in scoring across Europe.

Skinhead Wayne Rooney

The definition of an absolute menace, skinhead Rooney took no prisoners.

Ruthless aggression that put mid-2000s WWE to shame, Rooney with a freshly bic’ed head was absolutely box office. Everything was at full throttle, from shots, to runs, to crunching tackles.

He became a more refined man in his hair transplant era, but we long for the days of batsh*t crazy Rooney before that. Nothing phased him and if you had to go against him in a 50/50, you needed all the luck in the world on your side. A pitbull.

Bandage Benzema

It took years for people to give Karim Benzema the flowers he deserved for his relentlessly consistent exploits at Real Madrid, and with Cristiano Ronaldo finally out of his way, the Frenchman was tasked with taking centre stage and carrying Los Blancos on his back.

He did absolutely that, all with the help of a taped-up finger that single-handedly (get it) took him to his crowning moment: winning the 2022 Ballon d’Or after carrying Real to another Champions League.

Must’ve been watching 2016 Jamie Vardy.

West Ham Lingard

Seriously, what was in his water down there in London?

With his career at United having stalled, Lingard secured a loan to West Ham at the beginning of 2021 and while everybody agreed that it felt like a good fit, nobody expected him to turn into playmaker of the year.

Suddenly, United looked like chumps for letting him leave and failing to get the best out of him. Down south, Lingard’s purple patch was immense and he’d gotten his smile back while popping in goals and assists for fun.

All good things must come to an end, though, and perhaps we look back extra fondly on his short but sweet spell at the London Stadium for exactly that reason. Lightning in a bottle.

Encara Messi

We’ve had noodle-hair Ronaldo, so we couldn’t not include Lionel Messi in his full form.

‘Encara Messi’ typically refers to *that* wondergoal he scored in 2007 as a 19-year-old against Getafe, picking up the ball in his own half before slicing through their entire team like a hot knife through butter and sticking the ball in the back of the net.

It was a goal that announced Messi to the world as simply immortal and still looks just as absurd when watching today.

That fearless version of Messi was supernatural. Nobody could get near him – literally. It was the first of countless times when he entered ‘encara Messi’ mode and made an absolute fool of teams across the world. Timeless.

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