WING and a prayer

Why wingers flat­ter to de­ceive

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.

Vic­tor Moses

An­dros Townsend

Wil­fried Zaha

Hatem Ben Arfa

Wayne Rout­ledge

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