After his exploration of the role of the utility man, David Wild looks to establish the difference between utility and versatility…
What makes a utility man and what makes a versatile player? At first glance it is easy to confuse the two. If we look at a utility man he is capable of playing in several different positions. So he must be versatile.
To borrow a philosophical thought experiment, let’s look at the two terms in a syllogism. Is a utility player always versatile? Yes. Can we infer therefore that all versatile players are utility men? This doesn’t seem to work as well.
So it is necessary that a utility man be versatile but only sufficient that a versatile player could be a utility man. It is not necessary in the same way because a broad range of players could be described as ‘versatile’ who do not fall into the utility men category.
A Utility man is defined as ‘one who can play several positions competently’ John O’Shea playing across an entire back line for Manchester United is a good example. In no position did he excel. He was frequently asked to fill in at left back when clearly not at the level expected of a regular left back at that level of football club.
Rugby Union has the position of ‘Utility Back’ referring to a player who can play 2 or more positions across the back line. So entrenched is the idea of adapting to more than one position that it has, ironically, become a position in its own right.
Is there a player you could say excelled in two positions in football? Someone who, to borrow another utility term from Cricket, is something of an ‘All Rounder’? Both the ‘Utility Back’ and ‘All Rounder’ have connotations of excellence in several positions.
If we think of Freddie Flintoff it would seem a crime to label him a utility player in the footballing sense despite the versatility of his sportsmanship meaning that strictly speaking he was. An all rounder seems to connote excellence in more than one area, which is a show of versatility more than utility.
It is rare to find a player ‘exceptional’ in two positions in football. Perhaps the ‘utility back’ of football would be a player such as Phillip Lahm, who is often the best left and right back for both Bayern Munich and Germany. Does it seem right to call Lahm a utility man? It would seem more correct to label him versatile than as a utility man.
The term ‘Versatile’ can mean the player is able to slot into more than one position but generally it portrays the player’s ability to exhibit a semblance of class in this new position. The player is versatile enough to excel in a position rather than to be ‘utilised’ there for competence’s sake, as Phillip Lahm does at left and right back for Bayern Munich and Germany, as Ledley King could at centre back and defensive midfield for Spurs and England and as Cristiano Ronaldo can at left wing, right wing or centrally for Real Madrid and Portugal.
To look at utility men we can see where necessity comes into play. Take Didier Drogba’s performance at left back in the Champions League semi final 2012. He did a decent job and his covering was exemplary for a striker. Yet he gave a penalty away with a typical striker’s challenge that could potentially have cost his team dearly. He did a job but you wouldn’t want to trust him there on a permanent basis by any means, nor would he ever be in contention to be.
On the other hand you wouldn’t mind a defender with the capability of Gerard Pique going forward from Centre Back to Striker for Barcelona with up front play of this capability. He’s a useful surprise tactic to have and unusually adept in an unfamiliar position. When called upon in a tight game he can excel as a trump card.
There is no better example of the difference in utility and versatility than in that most confusing and unpredictable footballing beast; the Goalkeeper. This is shown in two examples of a goalkeeper being used as a striker. David James was used up front by his manager because he had no other options; he thought he could make a difference. Watching the video shows that may have been a misguided decision. Jorge Campos has 100 caps for Mexico as a goalkeeper and yet regularly streamed forward and even sometimes played as an outright striker, scoring 30 goals for Chivas. He was clearly a bit more versatile; but he was no utility man.
When the two forces collide we have the age old dilemma. A player too useful as a member of the team to be given a fixed position. The Rooney or the Gerrard able to play in multiple positions because of their versatile excellence, yet played in a position that doesn’t take full advantage of their talent. Something is lost by playing Rooney at left wing. His explosive dynamism sacrificed for team balance. As a tactical move it’s legitimacy cannot be questioned but the player himself seems to lose something.
Is this shortcoming the fault of the player? Is he not versatile enough? Or is it the fault of a system that requires him to play somewhere else so as to achieve a whole greater than the sum of it’s parts? A system that turns the versatile player into more of a utility man to work to it’s full potential.
It’s moments like these that should give us pause for thought when criticising individual performances throughout a season where a player’s positions are regularly rotated. Players may be versatile but when asked to become utility men they can lose that edge. Their specialism dulled by necessity and flexibility. We must be careful with our versatile players. They may be good enough to play in more than one position. But in the long term do we really want them to?