Before there was enough money in the game to buy multiple players in the same position and teams could build second, even third squads, some of the most valuable yet unsung heroes of the best sides were utility players.
They might not have had the most flair or scored the most goals, but they were willing to come on and do a job whenever and, most importantly, wherever necessary.
Manchester United have been fortunate enough to have had some of the best utility players a club could ask for: Phil Neville, John O’Shea, Ji Sung Park; Wayne Rooney certainly played in his fair share of positions and there’s even a case to be made for the likes of Darren Fletcher and Daley Blind.
Whilst this kind of player may have been phased out somewhat in recent years, there are still a fair few in modern football who have been key in helping title-winning sides across the line: Fernandinho and James Milner come to mind. Now, for obvious reasons, these two players can be taken out of the equation, so I’ve drawn up a shortlist of three individuals United should consider.
The first name on our list is coming off the back of his highest profile season yet, after making his big move to Bayern Munich: Alphonso Davies. The 19-year old is Ghanaian-born but holds after Canadian citizenship after his family arrived in the country fleeing civil war in Liberia.
His story has always garnered attention and admiration, but so has his talent, having been touted as one of the MLS’ most exciting prospects for some time. His best season came in 17/18, when he racked up eight goals and ten assists, and it was this return that sealed him his major move to Bayern in November that year. Now, at one of the biggest teams in Europe, his ability is being showcased on the world stage.
Davies main position is as a left-back, although he truly is more of a wing-back – a playing style that has led to comparisons with his fellow teammate, David Alaba. Not only has he deputised in both full-back positions, but his lightning speed and agility down the left flank has also seen him play as an out-and-out winger on occasion.
According to Sky Sports, United have been interested in Davies since the age of 15, when he made his Vancouver Whitecaps debut to become the youngest player to feature in MLS history. So, with him already being on the club’s radar and his ability more evident than ever after an impressive first season at Bayern, I can see that interest being renewed.
He is still early in his career and yet to fully establish himself as a first-team player – not to mention the left-back position at United is still up for contention. The prospect of joining a young team, where his attacking intent will be nurtured and a clear starting position to try and compete for, this might be enough to coax him to Manchester.
We’re staying in the Bundesliga for this next option and although he may currently be the least well-known on the list, like so many utility players, this only further adds to an underrated reputation. The man in question is Tyler Adams, the 21-year old American who is proving extremely functional in Julian Nagelsmann’s dynamic RB Leipzig system.
Adams is typically considered a defensive midfielder, but given the frequency with which the team transition from a 3-5-2 to a 3-4-3, his role in the midfield can range anywhere from a sweeper to box-to-box and everything in between. Moreover, depending on the movement of players around him, Adams often finds himself plugging the hole at wing-back.
Like so many players today, his importance in games can often go overlooked because his output doesn’t come in the form of direct goals and assists. Instead, his contribution is better described as a dogged pressing of the ball, breaking up passing lanes and intercepting the ball before moving it on to other players to progress.
This is not to say that he doesn’t get involved in attacking moves – he certainly moves the ball quickly and closes players down with great aggression – but it is his workhorse mentality that often starts off the plays, rather than finishing them. He is a player that covers an awful lot of ground and is almost fluid in position, which is why I think he encapsulates so much of what makes a utility player; he isn’t just willing to play everywhere, he does it in most games.
The last player on this list is a fairly hopeful one: Achraf Hakimi, the 20-year old Moroccan, also playing in the Bundesliga at Borussia Dortmund. Originally born in Spain and only currently on loan at BVB, Hakimi is actually a product of Real Madrid’s academy, but has made a huge impact at the Signal Iduna Park in his two-season spell by being a jack of all trades.
Operating primarily as a full-back, Hakimi has favoured the left flank mostly, but has played plenty at right-back and, like Davies, has recently been filling in on both attacking wings. This more advanced position has not only seen his assists increase from last season, but he has also begun to add goals to his game more regularly. With seven goals and ten assists in all competitions, Hakimi has been one of Dortmund’s best performers this season and even has the most Champions League goals in the side.
The problem with Hakimi is that I simply don’t think he’s available. Not only is he an instrumental part of Favre’s Dortmund, but given he is on the books at Madrid and the level of performances he has been putting in this season, especially, I don’t see either letting him slip away easily. For most players, Los Blancos would be the end goal: having proved himself in a top-flight team, in the Champions League and at such a young age, no less, staying is likely his best move.
Furthermore, although Hakimi’s flexibility might qualify him as a utility man, in truth, he has more than cemented himself as a first-team player. Although the left-back position is by no means secure, Shaw still has the potential to finally kick on in his United career, and Brandon Williams is showing plenty of promise regardless, so it might be premature to bring in someone who would expect to start every week. That being said, should he struggle to fight through Zidane’s star-laden squad, he would be my first choice in a heartbeat.
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