Cornerstones of Glory – The Utility Player
‘I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men.’
Excuse the geeky metahphor, but that’s the vow the Night’s Watch in George R.R Martin’s fantasy epic, ‘A Song Of Ice And Fire’, or as most would know it, ‘Game Of Thrones’.
In the story, these men, for various reasons, give up everything to join the Night’s Watch, the last line of defence.
In footballing terms, the closest you’ll get to the brothers of the Night’s Watch is what we refer to as the ‘Utility’ player: that one member of your squad with the ability to play in nearly any position and still manage to be one of the best performers on the park.
Those players you can rely on in an emergency; to stand in and do their duty when all around them are falling to pieces and do so without complaint or confusion.
These jack-of-all-trade players are usually the darlings of the fans. Cult figures in a footballing world full of glory-hunting strikers and ‘number 10s’. Of course we all love those types of players, too – who doesn’t enjoy the likes of Lionel Messi or a David Silva – but, in many cases, we don’t hold them as dear to our hearts.
Rarely glorified by the media, the utility player is always heralded and appreciated more by supporters.
These exponents of versatility are generally great readers of the game, have a strong tactical understanding and complement the team that have specialists in most of the positions.
Never in the spotlight and highly underrated, they are usually the indispensable players for managers.
One of the great modern Premier League examples is Man City’s James Milner. Central midfield is Milner’s best position but during his time at City, he has been deployed as a false 9, on the left wing, right wing and, at times, even right back. He rarely fails to impress.
This is their staple; sometimes to their own detriment: that versatility meaning they’re rarely used in their best position.
Emre Can at Liverpool is another who has been making waves in England this season with some stellar performances as part of a back three and in central midfield. Manchester United’s Daley Blind another who excels in numerous positions for club and country.
There are examples of this brand of player all across Europe; Phillipe Lahm and David Alaba arguably the most renowned in European football right now.
The recently retired Javier Zanetti is probably the most famous example, though. The Inter Milan legend was a right back by trade but over the course of his fabled career at the San Siro, the Argentinian played in every position across the defence and midfield, doing so brilliantly and with little fuss as others basked in the limelight.
Yet Zanetti, known as ‘El Tractor’ by the fans, will go down as one of the Nerazzuri’s greatest ever players.
When their clubs’ various triumphs are spoken about over the course of history, these players’ performances probably won’t be mentioned in the same breath as the more revered, media-friendly names but their versatility, intelligence and durability will be the cornerstones of their team’s achievements.
When the realm is under attack, they are the last line of defence.