WING and a prayer
Why wingers flatter to deceive
WHERE were you when Andros Townsend first played for England? How about when Aaron Lennon came on for David Beckham in the 2006 World Cup? Or when you saw highlight reels of new Manchester United £10m man Wilfried Zaha?
All three of these players showed incredible ability. They could beat their man almost every time with spellbinding movement and a turn of pace to make defenders’ reactions look like slow motion.
Even when they weren’t successful, it was still edge-of-the-seat stuff: a determination to get forward at all costs, a confidence to try the impossible. Rave reviews inevitably followed. And then? Well, nothing really. How could these players, with so much talent and attacking impetus, start to flounder before they even reach their mid-twenties?
The answer is a controversial one: it’s because they are playing in the easiest position on the pitch – or perhaps if not the easiest one, then at least the biggest magnet of unwarranted praise.
There is no better position to soar to dizzying heights blessed solely with pace and quick feet than winger. The above three examples are just a sliver of the greater whole.
Victor Moses, Ashley Young, Royston Drenthe, Hatem Ben Arfa, Adam Johnson, Jermaine Pennant, Stewart Downing, Nani, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Ryan Babel – the list goes on and on. All of them possessed the same skills that appeared to football fans, managers and pundits as being signs of real ability. It took months for these players to slowly become more and more of a bit-part in managerial plans.
Think about it. Even after decades of watching football, you can struggle to appreciate the positioning of a defensive midfielder that narrows the options, or even the marking of a centre-back keeping their star striker quiet.
With wingers, too many fans go with their heart, not their head.You see a winger outpacing his man and delivering a cross straight into the keeper’s hands.
All you remember is him beating his man – after all, the delivery is surely the easy bit? It’ll come with time, right?
To pick an example, eyebrows were certainly raised among Football League fans when Alex Ferguson made Crystal Palace’s Zaha, then 20, his last-ever signing. When he started the play-off final against Watford at Wembley, his stats that season read 43 games, 6 goals, 10 assists. Certainly not a bad record.
Yet on Watford’s bench that day sat Fernando Forestieri – 28 games, 8 goals, 10 assists, and at just 20 months older with just as much football ahead, but without the hype. So why was Zaha getting headlines and a £10m price tag, while Forestieri wasn’t?
Well, perhaps we could use the eternal truth that English players cost more, but Ferguson never seemed to follow that feeling in his transfer dealings. His most expensive English signings were Rooney, Ferdinand and Carrick, which even the most ardent detractor would have trouble saying wasn’t money well spent.
The real reason is that Zaha, on his day, is truly exciting to watch – always looking to beat his man, always looking for the forward ball.
The football world takes these skills as the holy grail of football.Who cares if you score less and assist less when you can get the crowd on their feet?
Even Roy Hodgson seemed to agree, giving Zaha two England caps before he’d even played in the Premier League. In fact, that season he was one of the only players in the Championship getting fans on their feet – and certainly the one in the biggest club.
Forestieri was, and still is, known to Football League fans as an inconsistent attacking midfielder.
His best strengths aren’t beating his man, but instead finding space – ability often overlooked, but one which has given him a superior record at the same level. There are
plenty of Forestieris playing in the Championship – and indeed the Premier League – but it is the Zahas of this world that get the plaudits.
In truth, neither player had done enough in their career to warrant a big move, both seemed to be doing well at their level.
But Forestieri will still have the ability to drop into space in five years’ time, whereas it’s worth questioning whether Zaha will have the same turn of pace that turned scouts’ heads.
But let’s take a step back. Fans shouldn’t feel too bad for making this mistake so often. After all, take a look at three of the best players on the planet: Ronaldo, Messi and Bale. All three started as wingers (although Bale often played wing-back), and have fulfilled their devastating potential. When a winger starts scoring and setting up goals at the rate of a striker, they stroll onto the Ballon d’Or shortlist year on year.
If your son wants to grow up to be the best footballer in the world – simple: teach him to be a winger with an end product. In their prime, they are truly phenomenal and anything other than world-class defending simply cannot deal with them.
The problem is making that jump. So, so few do it – and those that do have done so by age 22 at the latest. People talk of Cristiano Ronaldo’s disappointing first few seasons at Old Trafford but by age 21 he was already scoring a goal every other game from a wide position.
Now to become a professional footballer the odds are pretty low, and so to then say you must now become one of the
best in the world is a harsh standard. But it’s not all doom and gloom for the ever-growing pool of pacey wingers with zero end product.
Pace, of course, leaves you with age. The reality is the managers need to accept it, and the players need to adapt to it.
You may have noticed a few players missing from the list at the start of this article. Theo Walcott, Wayne Routledge, David Silva and Samir Nasri for example.
All these players started their careers by being known solely for their pace and skill. End product has become more part of some of their games than others, but they have changed their games admirably to reflect their changing position in the team.
They need to buy into their clubs’ playing styles and be able to roam into different positions for the good of the team.
These are some of the changes that must be considered for a one-dimensional winger to live, and thrive, well past their use-by dates.
Routledge’s inclusion in the above chart may raise eyebrows – but his starting place week on week in a strong Swansea XI shows the leaps and bounds he has made since he was such a disappointment at Spurs – playing just five Premier League games in three years.
Players on the opening list might be quicker and more technically gifted – and some of you might even prefer them in your squad – but what are you basing this on? Perceived ability as a winger? Or actual ability as a team player?
Perhaps there is a greater truth we have only scratched the surface of.
If this season follows the past few, the player with the best cross completion in the Premier League will only find a team-mate once out of every three crosses.
The player with best pass completion, however, will find his man nine out of ten times; and the majority of players hit their shots on target more than off target.
So why even bother crossing? Why not teach young players to use their pace to beat the man, and then head straight for goal? But this is perhaps for another article.
To surmise, we need to be far harsher when we judge wingers. They are the player most likely to make the crowd sit up and pay attention, but they flatter to deceive.
Other players can toil for 90 minutes and be booed off the pitch, but a winger who has delivered every cross into the keeper’s arms can get a standing ovation regardless.
Next time you see a winger for your club or country tear past his man at ease, listen to your head, not your heart.
Hatem Ben Arfa