In praise of 'tuttofare'

In praise of 'tuttofare'

In praise of 'tuttofare'

In the year that Bobby Robson coached Barcelona, 1996-97, he was not short of players to praise. His defence was marshalled by Laurent Blanc, his midfield controlled by Pep Guardiola and his attack spearheaded by Ronaldo, the greatest talent of his generation.

Even among all those masters, however, Robson took particular delight in his jack-of-all-trades. "Luis Enrique," he once said, "can play right side at the back, left side at the back, right midfield, left midfield, central midfield. He can play up front, if you like. He can play anywhere. He's fantastic."

In Robson's eyes, Enrique was six players in one, and it gave him particular pleasure to point out the circumstances of his arrival. "I got him for free," Robson would say, leaving a beat for the payoff, "from Real Madrid."

Few teams ever had a player of Enrique's versatility, of course. Fewer still had a player who performed so many roles with such poise: Ricardo Gallego, a teammate of Enrique's at Real Madrid, said he was "an example, because no matter where he plays, he is at his best."

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.

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 favour 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 favoured 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 deputised as a left back for much of last season.

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 "unfavoured" 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 fulfil 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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