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  • Wingers and Whingers

    By PHMC

    Wingers and Whingers
    Posted on 24 October, 2013
    Way back in the early days of Ruud Gullit’s time in charge of Newcastle, things seemed to be going quite well for a little while. His own particular brand of Sexy Football seemed to be making an impact as we won a few games, scored a few goals and generally luxuriated in what was probably little more than a prolonged “dead cat bounce” (I believe this maxim has been rebranded as the “Fascist Flicker” after recent events on Wearside).

    At the time, Gullit came out with a few fairly peculiar comments. Much like Di Canio at Sunderland, in fact, he obsessed over what the players ate, what vitamin supplements they took and all manner of non-footballing factors. However, I also remember being mildly irritated by his occasional comments about us, the fans, with regard to our understanding of football. In what seemed to be a direct reference to the recently-ended Keegan era, he often talked about our need to understand that football couldn’t always be played at 100mph. That we needed to learn the art of patience and that we couldn’t always quickly thump the ball forward when we were in possession.

    That was back in 1998, of course. In the fifteen years since then, football has undoubtedly evolved into something very different. Even in England, where we lag so far behind more progressive nations such as Germany and Spain, the influence of managers like Mourinho, Wenger and Benitez have gradually introduced a more flexible approach to tactics. Back in 1998 most Premier League teams would play some variation on 4-4-2, ideally using a combination of big target man and a more nippy “fox in the box” goal poacher up front, with two wingers getting up and down the flanks whipping crosses into the box. The more daring teams back then might have gone for the exotic concept of “wing-backs” who would allow for a 3-5-2 formation, flooding the midfield. This, of course, relied on having an exceptional player on either flank who could get up and down the pitch for the full 90 minutes, offering both defensive cover and attacking threat.

    Nowadays it may still be relatively common in the lower leagues, but it is extremely rare to see Premier League teams go into a game playing a straightforward 4-4-2. Football is constantly evolving, it is simply the case that 4-4-2 is well and truly out of fashion. As a system it has become too easy to predict and therefore to nullify. The two in central midfield become easy to outplay by having an extra man in there. The two up front can easily be left isolated by cutting off the supply from out wide. Things will, of course, evolve again and at some stage 4-4-2 will be back in vogue but for the time being the onus is on Premier League managers to ensure that their teams move with the times and compete.

    To that end, we’ve seen Pardew’s Newcastle effectively playing a 4-3-3 system for most of the last couple of years. Which is fine in principle and, at times, it has worked well – the games this season at Villa and Cardiff being great examples – but when it fails it can look absolutely horrible and leave us on the receiving end of a real thrashing. The main reason for this is the personnel we have available. Playing 4-3-3 means having a front three that includes two wide-ish attackers who are comfortable cutting in to the box and acting as a central striker but are equally capable of dropping deep to support the midfield. Remy has played this role to perfection recently. Equally, the central striker has to have the ability and intelligence to adapt his own game when the wide players cut in to the middle, either by dropping deeper to pull the opposing defenders out of position, or by alternating with his team-mates and moving out wide to allow them to cut in to the centre. Cisse has found this role to be increasingly difficult to fulfil. Meanwhile, the three in midfield have to be a very dynamic group, constantly on the move to a) provide an outlet to be passed to when you’re in possession and b) offer protection to the defence when the opposition have the ball. For me, Anita and Cabaye are both naturals in a midfield of this nature. The “spare” place in there has to be fought out between Tiote and Sissoko, particularly in home games.


    So it becomes quite exasperating at times to hear criticism of Ben Arfa for not tracking back to support Debuchy, or to hear people complaining that Gouffran or Gutierrez can’t put a decent cross in. The fact is that not one of these players are what we would once refer to as wingers. We’ve played a system entirely without wingers for years now yet we still seem to expect our players to behave in that way. It would be almost entirely pointless for Ben Arfa to drift out wide and lump a cross in for Cisse to attempt to win a header when, as a lone striker, he’d have next to no chance of getting anywhere near the ball. Similarly, if we’re asking Ben Arfa to break into the box and provide a goalscoring threat then it isn’t always necessarily down to him to immediately track back and support the defence. The whole point of a front three is that the players are interchangeable; they read each other’s runs and cover their positions when a player makes a break forward.

    Ben Arfa is no winger. He is, however, an outright attacker, and a frequently brilliant one at that. Which is why, in my humble opinion, Yoan Gouffran is currently one of our most underrated players. He’s an extremely bright, intelligent player and reads the game very well. Much like Cabaye in midfield, who always seems to know where he needs to be on the pitch in relation to his colleagues, Gouffran’s positional play is excellent. He suits the 4-3-3 system very well. Which is why I was impressed with Pardew’s courage in dropping Ben Arfa and sticking with Gouffran for the excellent away win at Cardiff. The onus was more heavily placed on our front three to operate in deeper positions and it worked a treat.

    At some stage, probably soon, we’ll see Gutierrez back in the starting XI. And a few minutes later, someone in the crowd will have a go at him for not getting down the flank and putting a cross in. At risk of sounding like Ruud Gullit, it’s perhaps time for us to embrace our wingless wonders. We need to accept that wingers don’t really exist any more.

    Originally published in The Mag, October 2013
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