I have seen Jonas Gutierrez play, both in the flesh and on television, on a number of occasions and I have audibly sung my appreciation of his services to my beloved Newcastle United with great pride and sentiment. I must confess though, I’m still not really sure what he actually does…
I can tell you that he plays on the left on the majority of occasions, but I have seen him utilized in a more defensive central role at times when we have been threadbare in the changing room. I have seen him creep up on the right hand side of the pitch also and it is his positioning on the wings that I would like to get to bottom of. Naturally, when someone sees a man being marked out as the left-sided midfielder, you would be forgiven to think that he is going to charge down the flank and deliver deliciously tantalising balls for his striking team mates to pounce onto. On the contrary, Jonas Gutierrez rarely achieves that feat, so what does he do over there and why does he make 50,000 Geordies sing his name?
Let’s start by taking a look at his area of influence during a recent match. Data from the 1-0 win over Fulham on April 7th shows that he played slightly too narrowly to be defined as a winger, perhaps this was to allow the ever-improving Davide Santon to overlap, but that theory seems to be contradicted by his position up the pitch. He is almost level with the areas of influence of his midfield counter part Yohan Cabaye and the heart-on-the-sleeve Steven Taylor, who plays at centre-back!
Let’s take a look, then, at where he made his passes from and where he received them. If he was playing as a natural winger, then we might expect to see the majority of the passes that he makes and those which he receives to be in the opposition half of the pitch, much like Tottenham’s Aaron Lennon.
In studying the two pitch maps it is evident that this is a player who is not fulfilling the role that you would expect of a traditional winger in British football. He is predominantly receiving the ball in the first two-thirds of the pitch, perhaps not overtly innovative, but it is the passing that he makes, passing the ball infield to find Cabaye and Sissoko that differs his role from that which is expected of others in his position.
I believe that it is the next graphic from Newcastle’s 3-2 victory over reigning European champions Chelsea on February 2nd that provides the most plain description of the job that Jonas completes. Every ball that he attempted to play into the box from a wide position failed (as indicated by red arrows). Had Lennon, Young or Cole performed in such a manner, we would be lamenting their ‘end products’ and their ‘final balls’.
No such thing happens at St. James’ Park. Jonas, as I have already explained is revered as one of the most hard-working players in the Newcastle team and we can see why. His play appears to predominantly stem from Newcastle’s own half and his passes are generally in a forward direction, indicating that he is getting the ball and moving it forward quickly, possibly to build counter attacks. Further up the pitch he is passing backwards, a sign that he is more concerned with retaining possession than firing in a hopeful ball into the box. Quite a conservative approach for a ‘winger’, don’t you think? The green diamonds signify interceptions and Jonas made 4 of them in a narrow location, and two in a wide position where the attack-minded Ashley Cole would have operated.
We need some comparison to be sure that the conclusions being drawn are correct. So here is a pitch map for Antonio Valencia, the natural winger of choice for Sir Alex Ferguson. The graphic speak for itself. Here we can see that Valencia operates far higher up than Jonas does and on this occasion made no interceptions with only one successful tackle. Note also how much the play hugs the flank.
All the evidence suggests that Jonas, whether against strong or medium opposition, is employed as a defensive constituent playing narrowly and relatively deep, particularly for a wide sided player. I can’t help but want to draw a comparison to the Italian tornante of the ‘catenaccio’ era whereby the right-winger would sit back, usually to draw a player forward and earn space in behind him which would be useful for running into.
Now I’m not putting Alan Pardew on a par with the likes of Helenio Herrera, but Jonas certainly provides an interesting tactical garnish to a Newcastle side who owe a great deal to the service of their Argentinian amigo.