Every team needs a utility man, but the idea of being one is probably anathema to most players.
Essentially, it means not being able to carry out any of the main roles in the team, because you’re always being kept as cover for others. But for Fabian Delph, it could turn out to be one of the best things to happen to his Manchester City career.
The England man’s revival as a left-back, playing as cover for the injured Benjamin Mendy, has been a surprise. Indeed, he’s been so good over the past few weeks that you do have to wonder why he wasn’t used in that position last season, when City’s full-back spots were clear problem areas for Pep Guardiola’s side. More importantly, though, City now have a genuine cover for perhaps the only player in the side who seemed irreplaceable, apart from, arguably, Ederson.
When you look at Guardiola’s squad, there are understudies for almost every player. The injury to Sergio Aguero just gave an opportunity to Gabriel Jesus to play in a front three with the pace of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, who all terrorised champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge at the weekend. Since Vincent Kompany last played for City, his side haven’t conceded a league goal and have let in only one in all competitions.
Even Bernardo Silva, one of the outstanding young talents in Europe, is being kept on the bench by the form of David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne. But Mendy was a special case: City bought three full-backs in the summer, two on the right and one on the left, and so an injury to Mendy was always going to mean having to make do with a less than perfect option.
Initially, that looked like being Danilo, or possibly using Leroy Sane as a left wing-back – something which probably cost City a goal in their draw at home to Everton – but now the role is surely going to be filled by Fabian Delph.
It will be interesting, though, to see what that means for the England international going forward. Is he now City’s undisputed second choice left-back? Has his position changed to the point where City won’t be relying on him to fill a central midfield role in the future – even though it’s unlikely that Delph would get much game time in City’s current midfield? And what does it mean for England.
Perhaps the best outcome for the former Leeds United and Aston Villa player is a role as the utility player in the City side, and that could reignite his career.
When James Milner ran down his City contract and left for Liverpool, it was ostensibly because he was tired of being played in a role away from the centre of midfield. Although he ended up – ironically enough – playing left-back for Jurgen Klopp’s side this season, Milner joined the Anfield club on a free transfer on the basis that he’d be able to reprise a central role in a team which didn’t have the likes of Silva or De Bruyne in the way.
Since then, City have been without that sort of utility player. Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov both played unfamiliar roles at times last season, the Argentine full-back played at times in the centre of midfield, whilst Kolarov played mostly as a centre-back. Even Jesus Navas filled in as a right-back towards the end of the season. Clearly, though, none of those players were at their very best, and having all left the club, City have a newly-found versatile player to take their place.
In the long run, that might change perceptions of Delph, and it might really help his career. But for now, perhaps the most credit shouldn’t actually go to him. Perhaps it should go to the team.
When you bring someone in as cover for a player as important as Mendy, and when it happens in a position where City struggled so terribly last season, you could be forgiven for worrying about what it means for the team.
But instead of seeming like a weak position, the team seemed to adapt: Delph deserves praise for being able to slot in, but the team too should take plaudits for the unity they’ve shown and the fact that the team now seems so fluid that losing an important player was so easily fixed that, even though the replacement is clearly inferior, he doesn’t really look it.
Like a mutant in a horror film, City lost a limb and grew it back instantly, looking every bit as fearsome as they were before.