When Ryan Hall’s sumptuous delivery was powerfully headed in by Luciano Becchio to put Leeds United 4-2 up at Huddersfield last December, traditional wing-play fans rejoiced at the West Yorkshire derby.
Results in the Championship still often rely on wingers getting past their marker and producing crosses for strikers with strong aerial ability to convert. But the way wide midfielders are used in the Premier League seems to have drastically changed over the last couple of years – particularly at those clubs challenging for European football.
With the preferred formation of most top division sides seemingly switching from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 (or variations of the latter), the style of play in the world’s most unpredictable league has broken the stagnant English philosophy of old.
Arsene Wenger is one of the most dogged in his persistent effort to use “forwards” as wingers in Arsenal’s front three. Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski provide width, whilst through the potential absence of Olivier Giroud they can both deputise as lone front-men. Calls for Walcott to play as a striker (from fans and the man himself) have been answered in patches throughout the current campaign. Versatility is a big part of Wenger’s philosophy; the Frenchman will be appreciative of his front three’s ability to play both wide and central.
Whilst at Aston Villa, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing produced consistent performances as opposing footed wingers, leading to big money moves to Manchester United and Liverpool respectively. Both players, especially Young, have made careers from playing on the opposite side to their strongest foot, cutting inside and providing goals and assists. Despite his pace, Young, at times, is incapable of taking on his man, meaning that he has to mirror Downing in swinging early crosses into dangerous areas. Because of this, the former Villa men are fine examples of wingers that would still fit into a rigid 4-4-2 line-up, whilst they may in fact struggle in a Swansea City-esque 4-3-3.
Michael Laudrup’s Swans use Nathan Dyer, Pablo Hernandez and/or Wayne Routledge to assist the clever and capable Michu up top. Dyer and Hernandez are a constant goal threat when the Welsh side are at their attacking best. The pair’s inefficiency – or disinterest – in flooding the box with crosses can sometimes be exposed when Swansea are pressed high and still persevere with their attractive style of play.
At the beginning of the season, Tottenham Hotspur duo Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon would have been considered two of the only remaining traditionally styled wide men in the Premier League. In recent months, Lennon’s growing intelligence on the ball is becoming increasingly evident, meaning the former Leeds youngster doesn’t have to go to the by-line every time he attacks. Bale on the other hand, having often been undoubtably marked out of games, has worked on his ability to play in varied roles rather than as a direct winger. The results have been devastatingly empathic for the Welshman.
Traditional wing-play is gradually becoming a thing of the past in England. Crossing the ball to the big man in the box is seemingly a last resort for most teams, with owners and managers favouring attractive football to the grinding out of results. Ultimately, gaining three points per match is the most important aspect of the football. Is a glamorous, philosophical style more significant than points-based success in the modern game?