In recent years, we have witnessed several positions adapt to suit the needs and demands of the modern game. Joseph Solomon sheds light on another such position known as the ‘Watercarrier’ and how it has developed from what it originally was to what it has become now.
Football, is an evolving sport. The game has seen changes and perhaps evolution in almost everything. From stadiums to tactics, from fans to balls, from jerseys to rules. The sport has seen mammoth changes, but what remains constant is its ability to garner interest. However, there are certain species which have acted over a period of time as killers of this interest. Giving birth to terms such as ‘parking the bus’ or ‘dirty football’. Out of all terms associated with a negative brand of football, one stands out. ‘Watercarriers’.
The term ‘Watercarriers’, to the obvious reflects ‘a carrier of water’, however, in footballing terms, this word has been linked with ‘destroyers of play’. Used frequently in John Foot’s Calcio, the ‘watercarrier’ is arguably an Italian progeny which took global football by storm and traces of their play can still be found, in many teams.
Players who were less in talent and other technicalities, helped their team by constant running and pressing, ‘off the ball’. These ‘Watercarriers’ did double time in defensive duties, usually to make up for the lack of defensive work by the team’s regista or creative player. Thus, the whole technicality behind the word ‘Watercarriers’ was to win balls and feed them to the team’s creative outlet. Although these players lived under fame of superstars (creative players), their contribution to the team was almost indispensable.
AC Milan’s golden boy, Gianni Rivera rarely performed defensive duties and to balance that, the team played with a ‘Watercarrier’ named Giovanni Lodetti, the third lung. One such player which is perhaps still the epitome of ‘mediano’ or ‘watercarriers’ was Romeo Benetti, who played for Italian giants Juventus and AC Milan. Benetti’s appearance was terrifying. Strongly built with a penchant for winning, the imposing Italian always went into a challenge fully committed. His job was primarily to win tackles, to win balls. Sometimes Benetti was used to mark the opposition’s creative player. But largely like Lodetti, his duty was to win balls and feed them to the appropriate creative player in his team.
Modern day example of a ‘destroyer of play’ is best reflected through the electric career of Gennaro Gattuso. Gattuso justifies all that is to the term called ‘Watercarriers’. A hard man with a proclivity for winning the ball, Gattuso was technically a defensive midfielder with a sole responsibility of providing cover for the Milan defense, or marking opposing players or creating a stinging presence-largely by his tackles- in the midfield. Gattuso’s job, like Lodetti and Benetti, was to provide ammunition to the creative outlets, Ricky Kaka and Andrea Pirlo, in this case. And in that he excelled. The Italian was highlighted for his work rate and some even lauded him as indispensable to the Milan team.
In his sensational career, where he often thwarted and nullified players as magical as Cristiano Ronaldo, Gattuso, though an incubator of many odd things, was arguably the last of its kind. The last of a classic species, termed ‘Watercarriers’, which transited the destruction of play into defensive art.
The term ‘Watercarrier’ has, since Gattuso, become (close to) extinct. These days, where terms such as a ‘Number 10’ or a ‘Pivot’ or a ‘False 9’ are thrown about sporadically, ‘Watercarriers’ or ‘destroyers of play’, have been pushed to oblivion.
In modern football, where players are expected to be ambidextrous, ‘Watercarriers’, are seen as an aberration to the team. Even Gattuso’s career did not feature regular through balls or goals, which is now expected by defensive midfielders. That was left to highly skilled players such as Pirlo and Kaka. Therefore, classic Watercarriers like Gattuso, are seen as an unwanted commodity, which will rarely contribute to the attacking flow of the team. To regulate this, teams have given preference to players, who contribute in attack (more than watercarriers) and less in defense (again comparison made against Watercarriers).
However, the Chelsea team, which won the Champions League, perhaps reflects the ability of a team to perform if all players are ‘Watercarriers’ in their job. Although the team got battered and bruised against Barcelona in the semi-finals, the crop of Ramires and Raul Meireles with their constant pressing and off the ball running would have certainly made Gattuso proud. Now, both Meireles and Ramires are not technically gifted players, but can dish a moment of sheer genius. And they possess enough skill to launch a diagonal or shoot from say, 30 yards; notably, Meireles’ goal against Benfica in Stamford Bridge and Ramires’ delightful chip over Valdes in Camp Nou.
‘Watercarriers’, who lived and died for winning tackles and feeding balls to technically gifted players, have been replaced with a player, who, although perform ‘less’ in defensive duties, give more attacking wise. The role of watercarriers have witnessed an evolution in their style of operation, seems que sera sera.
Even in Italy, ‘Watercarriers’ are a dying breed and one can only presume that they have been replaced by box to box midfielders such as Arturo Vidal. Vidal’s style of play, clearly reflects the style of a modern day ‘Watercarrier’. Clinical in defensive duties, whilst covering ground and delivering tackles, Vidal also provides attacking wise. His scintillating runs, both on and off the ball and his ability to finish, are unparalleled in the Italian Serie A.
Another example of an evolved ‘watercarrier’ is Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson. Henderson, often covers the largest distance in the current iteration of Liverpool. Along with that, the Englishman provides defensive cover, does his tackling duties and is capable of launching through balls, whilst releasing wingers injected with pace such as Sterling, forward.
Technically, the job of evolved watercarriers like, Vidal, Henderson and Ramires is analogous to that of a ‘watercarrier’ like Gattuso. But, given that these players are technically skilled and possess enough firepower in their arsenal to sink teams, they aptly ply their trade in attacking movements too. Thus, evolving the term ‘watercarrier’, which was only supposed to dictate the midfield domain.
Hence, players such as Gattuso, who had the sole purpose of winning balls and feeding it to technically gifted players, have been successfully evolved into players, who are themselves capable of taking forward the attack.
In a classic case of Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest, the term watercarrier, has successfully transited from a 10-15 yard ball playing species, to a 35-40 yard defense splitting one. Nonetheless, the joy of watching, even these new advanced species is unparalleled.
Football has seen drastic positional changes, ranging from a regista to a second striker. However, the art of defending has always been a priority. A priority which could lead teams to win trophies. The replacement of watercarriers with possibly an advanced species of it, clearly indicates that football now has become more about attack and rather less about defence.
Written by Joseph Solomon