Tottenham winger Aaron Lennon has quickly become part of a rare breed of performing wide-men in the top flight this season, but is the decline in effectiveness part of a wider European tactical trend that’s gripping the English game or simply a consequence of the poor individual form of plenty of the bigger names in the league this year?
The 25-year-old has been a key component of Andre Villas-Boas’ counter-attacking style at White Hart Lane this season and he’s absolutely integral to the overall balance of the side, just as he was under Harry Redknapp, with Gareth Bale increasingly given more freedom and license to roam inside in that role just behind the lone striker. Without Lennon in the team now, they can often be found lacking any sort of threatening shape in the final third.
You only have to look at who Lennon’s replacements have been out wide when he’s been missing through injury this season to notice the decline in status and esteem with which the the position is currently held in across the top flight – Moussa Dembele, Lewis Holtby and Gylfi Sigurdsson – all very good midfielders in their own right when played in their natural, more central position, but they can best be filed under the ‘can do a job’ bracket. As much as this exposes the relatively fragile and thin nature of Tottenham’s squad and their need for more strength in depth, it also points to the fact that a lack of width is becoming common practice more and more in the Premier League.
Glancing at the assist table for the league this year tells you everything you need to know about how game is are approached these days, with most sides carrying the majority of their threat through the middle as opposed to out wide – Juan Mata leads the way with 10, Steven Gerrard is on nine, with Lukas Podolski, Wayne Rooney, Santi Cazorla, Eden Hazard, Robin van Persie and David Silva all completing the top ten. Only Theo Walcott (who has spent a lot of time up front this season ) and Damien Duff could be said to be wingers in some degree, at least in the more traditional sense, out of all those players listed.
Sure, Podolski lines up out wide, while Hazard, Silva and Cazorla all drift into positions on the flank during a game, but they don’t hug the touchline, often choosing to move inside in search of the ball. Lennon takes his place with six assists in joint-12th place on the assists table, behind Jobi McAnuff and level with Jean Beausejour and it seems as if out-and-out wide midfielders are now confined to the lower mid-table teams now.
Part of this is the way formations have changed in England over the past few years; Sunderland’s recent struggles under Martin O’Neill just go to show that playing with either a traditional 4-4-2 or any other variant of that where you rely predominantly on width is a recipe for disaster in the long run, even if Adam Johnson and James McClean have hugely underperformed this term to compound that tactical error even further.
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The in-vogue system of the moment is 4-2-3-1, with Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal all found using it at various points this season, while Manchester City often prefer a narrow 4-2-2-2 formation. This places a heavy emphasis on the team’s threat coming from the middle of the pitch, with the success of the smaller-framed playmakers like Silva, Mata and Cazorla this term a direct result of them finding those pockets of space between the opposition’s midfield and back four in a central position. It’s a hybrid role between the old-fashioned no.10 role, of which Juan Roman Riquelme was perhaps the last link between the modern game and the past and the function a winger may have performed 10 years ago. They are quick, technical players that look for space inside a team rather than going on the outside and when used correctly, the can often prove the difference.
The reason for this is that wingers are more often than not used to draw teams out and stretch them, whether that be on the break or when the opposition has men behind the ball; this then allows more room inside to operate and pick a pass in behind the back four, which will always have a higher success rate, particularly given the quality of the players mentioned above, than a hopeful cross into the box ever will.
All across the top flight, wingers are enduring difficult seasons from a personal perspective – Antonio Valencia, Nani, Ashley Young, Johnson, Matt Jarvis, Matthew Etherington, Walcott (since he signed a new contract in January at least), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Hatem Ben Arfa, Scott Sinclair and Charles N’Zogbia all serve as prime examples as those that have struggled through a mixture of indifferent form, a lack of first-team opportunities or issues with their fitness.
The bright sparks have been few and far between – Nathan Dyer, Wayne Routledge, Pablo Hernandez, Victor Moses (occasionally), Shaun Maloney, Jason Puncheon and Ashkan Dejagah – while plenty of players we’ve been accustomed to seeing play out wide in years gone by have reinvented themselves as central players, often in a four-man midfield such as James Morrison, Chris Brunt, Leon Osman, while Routledge has done well off the lone striker for Swansea this season.
Of course, as Brendan Rodgers has shown at Liverpool, the craze at the moment is to play with inverted wingers, with people like Stewart Downing often seen drifting inside onto their stronger foot from the opposite flank, an approach which Norwich, Swansea, Southampton and Wigan have all utilised for the most part, leaving their full-backs to bomb on forwards ahead of them instead. Those teams that rely mainly on their wingers to provide width such as Newcastle, Sunderland, QPR, Reading, West Ham and Stoke have all found a consistent and steady stream of goals and chances hard to come by and that’s not a coincidence by any stretch. It’s increasingly looking like they’re simply regarded as an out-dated and limited option in the modern game; teams are much narrower now than they were even two, three years ago.
Lennon represents a shining example for others to follow, though, and he provides hope that they still have a part to play and that they can still be relevant. When the balance is struck (and he remains one of the best in the business at tracking back well), they can still provide a useful outlet, just so long as they’re not the only outlet. If traditional wing-play is going to survive this latest tactical shift in the game, they’re going to have to adapt in order to survive and start to contribute just as much off the ball as they do on it, with a more fluid continental approach becoming the sought-after norm.
This means becoming more adaptable to different formations and more versatile when keeping new roles and styles of play in mind. Raw pace alone is a precious commodity, just as it has always been, but it has to be used in the right and most effective way for it to be considered dangerous and this is where the Tottenham man stands out among his peers, in what has represented a disappointing season across the board for the winger’s fraternity.
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