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Analysis: Are wingers in football back in vogue again?

The emergence of Andros Townsend and Bayern Munich’s success has prompted pundits to ask the question.

Andros Townsend has had a fantastic start to the season with Spurs.
Andros Townsend has had a fantastic start to the season with Spurs.

UP UNTIL RECENTLY, a manager intent on deploying wingers would have been putting himself at the risk of being labelled old-fashioned.

The reason why seems obvious enough. Barca and Spain both enjoyed much success at every level by implementing a system that generally discarded wingers. Such was the level of their dominance that other sides became convinced that the formation they adopted was the only way forward.

Others enjoyed considerable success too by acquiring similar styles. Manchester City won their first-ever Premier League without any real natural winger used regularly in the side, while Jose Mourinho’s Inter also had a quite narrow formation the year they achieved their Serie A and Champions League double.

Conversely, Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland were invariably derided for playing wingers, often Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady, while leaving two up front. It was thus argued that the central midfielders were getting outplayed by sides that had greater numbers in more central areas, thereby leaving Ireland exposed.

Yet those praising the revolutionary strategy adopted by Barcelona and others either forgot or were unaware that the idea of playing without wingers is in itself quite old-fashioned — Alf Ramsey’s ‘Wingless Wonders’’ triumph at the 1966 World Cup is the prime example.

Nevertheless, in recent times, the concept of playing natural wingers has — according to some — undergone a resurgence. Typically, it’s being suggested that it has emanated from a team’s success in the Champions League (as well as England’s recent World Cup qualification) — in this instance, Bayern Munich. In Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, they were the first team to win Europe’s top prize with two natural, recognised wingers, since United won it in 1999 with Ryan Giggs and Jesper Blomqvist. And tellingly, United abandoned this formation when they were 1-0 down after 67 minutes, with a striker — Teddy Sheringham — replacing Blomqvist.

Indeed, the Red Devils have often been the exception to the increasingly prominent tendency of teams to avoid picking more than one winger. Interestingly though, the most recent time they attempted such a policy, with Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia both starting, they were trounced 4-1 by Manchester City. It’s therefore no surprise that David Moyes has neglected to start with two out-and-out wingers since that match.

Moreover, of the current top five teams in the Premier League, not one plays with two conventional wingers on a regular basis. The one team who previously embraced a policy of playing with two wingers — Tottenham under Harry Redknapp — with some success, have more or less abided by the recurring trend since Andre Villas-Boas took over. However, one genuine winger — Andros Townsend — has managed to feature regularly for both Spurs and England so far. Both could potentially decide to accommodate Townsend and Aaron Lennon in the side, however perhaps not surprisingly, they have refrained from doing so thus far.

Townsend is an intriguing case though. There was a hint of scepticism when England’s then-beleaguered manager Roy Hodgson selected him initially for a vital World Cup qualifier. Nevertheless, he proved his worth, putting in an influential performance and turning the England coach from villain to hero.

Yet Townsend and Bayern Munich appear to be among the few exceptions to this ever-increasing norm. Wingers, it seems, are in fact a dying breed.  Jamie Carragher recently commented that full-backs are failed centre-backs and in a way, wingers could also legitimately be perceived as failed central midfielders or strikers — or youngsters not yet strong or experienced enough to be deployed in the middle of the field. After all, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi all started off on the wing, but have gradually gravitated towards the centre in recent years. Unsurprisingly, these decisions coincided with a rise in the performance of all three players, given the greater space and freedom of movement that they subsequently enjoyed.

On the other hand, the wingers who aren’t quite talented enough or who are unable to adapt their game have been increasingly marginalised in recent years. For instance, following extremely bright starts to their career, Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Stewart Downing, Adam Johnson and even our own Damien Duff have seemingly receded in recent years and are no longer considered good enough to play at the very top level of football. The almost inevitable failure of so many of these players are what makes such rare success stories as Robben and Ribery (and before them, Ryan Giggs) so remarkable.

Therefore, can Andros Townsend succeed where others have failed and help herald a new era in which wingers are once again prominent, or will he be burned out and resigned to lower-level obscurity by the time he is 30? Sadly, the latter outcome is more statistically probable.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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