Reliability, consistency, and a seemingly inexhaustible work rate are some of the characteristics of one of the most important positions in football today: The Utility Man, a player who can perform competently in multiple roles.
The modern game is a fast-paced one of tactical innovation and ever-changing formations. There is an increasing physical demand on the players. Frequent injuries and long injury layoffs are not uncommon. In these situations, the utility man is one of the most important and highly useful weapons in the arsenal of today’s football manager.
The foundations of footballers playing multiple roles were laid as early as the 1920s and 30s by Jack Reynolds at Ajax. The Hungarian national team of the 50’s, known as The Magical Magyars is also credited by some as having employed this concept to great effect.
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However, the most successful implementation of this idea is undoubtedly ‘Total Football’. Refined and used with great success by Ajax coach Rinus Michels (who played under Reynolds at Ajax), it won them multiple titles in the early 70s and was even used by the Dutch national team as they famously reached the finals of the 1974 World Cup.
Johan Cruyff remains the most famous exponent of this system, playing as a central striker who would regularly drop deep or drift out to the wings, with his teammates adapting around him.
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Numerous examples of such players today readily spring to mind. World Cup winner Phillip Lahm, Dutchman Daley Blind and John O’Shea, all regularly deployed in every possible defensive position from fullback to centre-half (even filling in at central midfield on occasion) are some of the recognised utility men.
In attack, one needs to look no further than the two greatest players currently, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Among their countless other attributes and undeniable skill, they boast a versatility that allows them to play through the middle, as well as on either flank, to inflict maximum damage upon their opponents.
A very recent example of the reliance on utility men these days was provided by Bayern Munich. Often plagued by injury, they found themselves in an undesirable position against rivals Bayer Leverkusen, with no central defenders available for selection.
Reverting to a back three comprised only of full-backs and midfielders, they delivered a master class and ran out 3-0 winners, thus highlighting the modern reliance on players such as David Alaba, Xabi Alonso and the aforementioned Lahm. The fact that they maintain a perfect record in all competitions this season is in no small measure down to the options they provide their manager.
Often hidden behind star players, they regularly slip by unnoticed and unheralded. They may not get all the glory, or make headlines regularly, but their flexibility, consistency and selfless dedication to the team cause ensures that they have the undying respect and gratitude of teammates, fans, and managers alike.