20 March ~ When we first play football, a left-footer will automatically go to the left, and a right-footer to the right. It is essentially unnatural to swap sides and, speaking from experience as a lifelong left-winger, unremittingly difficult. Either a coach will prompt the move, or the player might have an innate understanding of where he should be. Mostly, though, the possibility of having to use one’s weaker foot brings most wingers out in a cold sweat.
Wingers operating on the opposite side of the pitch to their favoured foot may not be a new phenomenon, but it is one that managers in England are increasingly embracing. Last Sunday, Adam Johnson provided a stunning vignette of what the inside-out winger offers. With Manchester City trailing Sunderland by a goal in the last minute, a corner was cleared to the right side of the penalty area where Johnson was waiting. Attacking on the outside would have been futile as he would have led himself on to his right foot. Instead he rolled inside before curling the ball into the top corner with his left.
The thinking behind the tactic is not complicated. By attacking on the inside, a winger is able to target a full-back’s weaker foot, leaving them in a position in which they are less likely to risk a tackle, for fear of committing a clumsy foul. On his first start for City, Johnson won a penalty after a teasing run induced enough panic in Bolton’s Paul Robinson that he eventually tripped the winger. Furthermore if the winger is clever enough to open up his body, when he receives a pass, there is a clearer view of the pitch.
Perhaps improving defences are making the ploy more fashionable. Against quick and strong full-backs, it is harder for a conventional winger to attack effectively on the outside before delivering a decent cross. Older wide players, with diminished speed, are also suited to this tactic. Damien Duff has thrived on the right for Fulham this season.
Of course when managers come up with a novel method of attack, others will look to counter it in defence. Rafael Benítez quelled Lionel Messi by playing the right-footed Alvaro Arbeloa at left-back in 2007, the idea being then that the Argentinian would attack the defender on his stronger side. Although the tactic worked, Messi forced Liverpool to be reactive rather than trust their regular gameplan.
Accusations abound that the tactic creates an imbalance in midfield. Minds are drawn to Manchester United’s classic combination of Giggs-Scholes-Keane-Beckham, but this is increasingly becoming a thing of the past, often relying on teams attacking in straight lines.
Many teams have dispensed with wide players altogether over the years, but Arsenal were one of the most successful teams in England to succeed by their wingers’ versatility. Initially they had Marc Overmars on the left, but he would regularly cut inside on to his right foot, hoping to shoot. Arsène Wenger refined the side, with Overmars replaced by Robert Pires who would come inside looking to link play. This would create space for Thierry Henry to move to the left, while Ashley Cole marauded from left-back. Dennis Bergkamp prompted from behind.
Notably certain wingers are more comfortable playing on the opposite flank. Ashley Young is one of the best crossers in the country, but finds it easier to check back on the left and deliver inswinging crosses with his right foot than move to the right. The inswinger is a goalkeeper and defender’s nightmare, as the ball is whipped towards goal and only requires a faint touch to find its way in.
Yet while Young is undoubtedly talented, he also illustrates the complexity of the role. He is less comfortable attacking on the outside and defenders are aware he will look to cut the ball back on to his right foot. Doubling up on him is effective, and the challenge for Young is to introduce more unpredictability into his game. The best, Messi and Arjen Robben, are able to go in either direction. The rest of us can only dream of it. Jacob Steinberg