In Praise of Soccer’s Jack-of-All-Trades, Now Making a Comeback

In Praise of Soccer’s Jack-of-All-Trades, Now Making a Comeback

Almost every team, though, saw the value of a player like that, a squad member capable of adapting to any and every position. They had their own place in soccer’s lexicon: the prosaic “utility player” in English, and the more poetic tuttofare (“does everything”) in Italian, or todoterreno (“all terrain”) in Spanish.

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On a 1990s Barcelona team filled with stars, Manager Bobby Robson reserved special praise for Luis Enrique, shown dribbling during a game against Valencia. “He can play anywhere,” Robson once said. “He’s fantastic.” Credit Cesar Rangel/Associated Press

At Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, the likes of Phil Neville, Park Ji-Sung and John O’Shea filled the role of utility players. Ferguson deemed the latter to be of such importance in the club’s 2008-9 season that at one point he anointed him a contender for player of the year in England. The great Liverpool side of the late 1980s boasted Steve Nicol; the Ajax team that swept through Europe in the 1990s could call on Ronald de Boer.

To a manager, versatility was an asset; to a player, it was an advantage. Steve Watson, who played in every outfield position for both Newcastle United and Everton, knew his flexibility made him “ideal cover” as a substitute, but always felt it gave him “a much better opportunity of getting into the team.”

In recent years, however, utility seemed to have fallen out of fashion. When clubs can name at least seven substitutes, rather than three, for every game, managers had no need to reserve a space on the bench for someone who could cover anywhere.

As squads grew, too, managers learned to favor expertise. Most elite teams employ two specialists for every position, with those positions ever more tightly defined. Few would expect an attacking midfielder to slot into a holding role, much less play at fullback.

In many ways, José Mourinho encapsulates this thinking. In the spring of 2016, when he agreed to replace Louis van Gaal at Manchester United, Mourinho commanded the club’s executive vice chairman, Ed Woodward, to sign four players, each of them designated a specific role: Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

“As you know, especially the ones with more vision, I am a manager that likes specialists,” Mourinho explained at the time. “I am clear with my approach and model of players.” At most, he said, he likes “one or two multifunctional players,” because “you always need someone that can give you a hand.”

In such an environment, then, it should be no surprise that players are increasingly keen to define themselves as specialists. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, for example, cited a desire to play in his favored central midfield role when he joined Liverpool, and Aaron Ramsey made the same request to Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, with more success.

“Some guys, they only want to play in one position,” Guardiola, now the Manchester City manager, said recently. “They say that they are not comfortable in another one.” Soccer, it seems, no longer has much room, or much appetite, for the jacks-of-all-trades.

Guardiola, however, was speaking immediately after his team had beaten Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, thanks in no small part to the performance of Fabian Delph — who has spent much of his career as a midfield player — at left back.

“He showed us,” Guardiola said. “It’s not easy when a manager gives you an opportunity to play in a position you’ve never played before, so it means a lot. I’m so happy for him.”

It is the same across Manchester at United, where Mourinho, for all his professed preference for specialists, is enjoying no little success with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, brought up as wingers, as his two fullbacks. At Liverpool, midfielder James Milner was deputized as a left back for much of last season.

It is not just fullbacks, though. At Barcelona, Javier Mascherano, a defensive midfielder for Argentina, plays in central defense, while Sergi Roberto has won praise for his ability to fill as many as eight positions.

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From left: James Milner of Liverpool; Javier Mascherano, a defensive midfielder for Argentina who plays in central defense for Barcelona; and Antonio Valencia of Manchester United. Credit Antonio Bat/European Pressphoto Agency

Bayern Munich uses Javi Martínez as a defender and a midfielder, while Guardiola’s intervention ensured Philipp Lahm was reimagined as a midfielder rather than a defender in the final years before his retirement. David Alaba is most often used as a left back but can play across the midfield, too.

In attack, if anything, versatility is even more of a prerequisite, among both the elite and the lesser lights. When Stoke City signed Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting this summer, it was his ability to play across the front line that persuaded the Stoke manager, Mark Hughes, to make his move. He had specifically commissioned his scouting team to find a forward comfortable in several roles.

To some, in fact, soccer is moving beyond the traditional, tight definitions of positions. Modern systems and tactics demand that players fill any number of roles during any given game, shifting between duties as the situation demands. “Who even decides the positions?” Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, said. “If you are a left back, maybe you started as a left-winger. A central defender might have started as a No. 6.

“We play sometimes with wingers, but really only when we defend. It is quite fluid. I am not interested in positions: only when we are defending, and in terms of the distances between players.”

It is much the same message many young players are given during their education. “There are different, and continually evolving, systems and styles at the highest level,” said Joel Waldron, the manager of Everton’s youth academy, among the most prolific in England. “We feel it is important that we develop players who are tactically flexible.”

That process involves playing young prospects in as many positions as possible: not just within games, Waldron said, but during coaching sessions designed to “expose them to a variety of selected positional roles and responsibilities,” and in the classroom, too. “As the boys get older, we supplement their learning with video sessions,” Waldron said.

There is an element of pragmatism behind all this; as Waldron noted, many of his graduates will make their debuts in “unfavored” and occasionally unfamiliar positions. But mostly it is a philosophical choice.

“It’s important we have a curriculum that is conducive to developing players who understand the breadth of roles they may be asked to fulfill at first-team level,” he said. “Though understanding a wide range of roles must not be to the detriment of being outstanding at some or all of them.”

That was Enrique’s secret, of course: He was a master of every position he played, not simply a place-filler. It is the model, more and more, that all teams are trying to follow in an age when fluidity is paramount, when managers require players who can adapt to any system they choose. They need players who can play anywhere, who can do anything.

Soccer has not outgrown utility players. It needs them more than ever.

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