Are wingers essential to thrive in the Premier League?
There is always a discussion of teams needing a quartet of strikers if they are to succeed and have an incisive attacking line. Is it equally important to thrive through wing play? Or is direct play through the middle effective enough?
I would argue wingers are the most underrated aspect of a side in the Premier League. The reason why Chelsea struggled in November and Tottenham have managed to flourish, despite being understrength, recently is width. The pace and precision of Bale and Lennon on the wings certaintly provides Spurs with an advantage. Chelsea’s season has unravelled when teams found out their attacking trio just behind Torres are playing narrow. It makes them predictable and easy to neutralise.
It is also the reason why you see full backs such as Rafael persistently given a chance at Manchester United, in spite of his defensive deficiencies. The need for a team to have wing play is crucial to counter attacking football as well and being able to surprise opposition. When I talk about wing play I don’t mean necessarily passing the ball to the designated winger and him always putting a ball in the box. There is an aspect of this but it is about spreading the play across the whole pitch. There appears to be an obsession with trying to find the next playmaker that can play in the ‘hole’. Surely this is useless if you don’t have a full back and winger combination which works efficiently. They need to pick and probe down their designated side. The nature of how wingers play is interchangeable with the full back bombing forward to provide extra width.
Newcastle United have been exposed for their failure to utilise their wing play as they did last season. The dynamism of having Santon and Ben Arfa, as well as Simpson and Gutierrez helped the Magpies find a way through opposition defences last campaign. They have neglected using these players strengths, and opting for long ball football. The fact that Ben Arfa has been so crucial to anything that has been remotely good, even when they are playing style that doesn’t suit him this season, is telling to the importance of wing play. Despite Ben Arfa not necessarily sticking to a wing cutting inside and playing sometimes as an auxiliary striker, his game is based around running at a defender down the flanks. This helps carve open opportunities for the Magpies for the likes of Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse. Adam Johnson was another example of this though he has failed to flourish since his £10 million move to the Stadium of Light, there was a definite feeling that his keenness on the wings helped relieve pressure for his attacking players when he was at Manchester City as they surged to the title.
David Silva certaintly struggled to recapture his form at the back end of last season, due to his insistence on try to play his way through the middle and found he was endlessly frustrated in spells. There is a reason why wingers command such a high fee. It is because they can free up space in the middle as well as being a creative outlet from which a team can build all their attacks. In this case Silva was forgetting the importance of width. It is something for Sir Alex Ferguson has pondered on too having started both Valencia and Young on the wings in this weekend’s Manchester derby. He decided that playing two out and out wingers was the solution and at the moment it is paying dividends. He also has Nani to call upon too and this strength in depth out wide which could prove telling in the title race.
Chelsea under Mourinho also prospered due to having four efficient wingers who could all add an attacking outlet to their play. There was Duff, Robben, Wright- Phillips and Joe Cole who were all ready to do a good job if called upon to do so. Then when Chelsea won the title under Ancelotti there was also efficient wingers with Malouda winning the player of the season award. It is not a coincidence that Big Sam went out to buy Matt Jarvis for £10million in the summer, as even a man who is not afraid to play direct football sees how crucial having a successful winger is. The playmaker may be able to deal with intricate passes but the wingers are the ones who are often relied upon to create the openings.
I would argue that the addition of Jean Beausejour in January was crucial to Wigan’s survival last season. He added flair and invention to the side on the wing. The fact that he operated so successfully out wide helped the 3-4-3 that Martinez wanted to adopt work so successfully. He was seen as a low key signing, but the balance he provided for his team made him so pivotal to everything that went on at the DW Stadium.
Now that the January transfer window is fast approaching it may be time for clubs to look at adding another winger to their side, like Wigan did. This could certaintly be the answer to rejuvenating the spark in ailing sides. If the club has wingers capable of producing then it is up to the Managers to realise that they can be the key to success.