All about wingers

Aaron Lennon (left) is in sparkling form this season.-PICS: AP Aaron Lennon (left) is in sparkling form this season.

Do wingers live; or don’t they? In the case of the England team, there is now almost a superabundance of them, writes Brian Glanville.

The recent Chelsea-Liverpool Premiership game at Stamford Bridge provided a fascinating if somewhat confusing and contrasting study in wingers. Chelsea didn’t use them, Liverpool did. Yet, Chelsea won the game with two goals which were set up by an irresistible Didier Drogba, first from the left-flank, then from the right.

It should be said that Liverpool employed no fewer than four flank players though by far the best of them, the Israeli left-winger Yossi Benayoun, was brought on only late into the second-half. Instantly causing confusion in the right-flank of the Chelsea defence, even if, near the end, with Chelsea in the lead, he pulled wide of the goal an excellent chance.

So do wingers live; or don’t they? In the case of the England team, there is now almost a superabundance of them. Yet, Fabio Capello continually calls up the one-paced, one-footed, David Beckham who never beats his man, never even attempts to get to the line and pull the ball back as a classical winger will. As indeed Drogba did, first from the left-flank, finding Nicolas Anelka, his strike partner, who also used the flanks, with a gem of a pass. Then, in injury time, bulldozing his way past the vulnerable Liverpool centre-back, Carragher, to make an easy goal for Malouda. A natural winger, who had come on as a sub, but was largely operating in the middle.

A curious sideline to Chelsea’s tactics was that in the absence of true wingers, it is very often the habit to rely on an overlapping full-back or two. Chelsea, in fact, have the ideal overlapper in the versatile Ashley Cole, the England choice at left-back, but on this occasion, he stayed largely in defence.

England’s situation is now a somewhat ironic one. With the platoon of excellent right-wingers he has available — James Milner showed on his fine second-half debut in Holland that he can play on the left just as well — Capello still insists on using Steven Gerrard there, unable or perhaps simply reluctant to resolve the endless dualism for a central-midfield position, between Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

Yet again, one has to say that for all his strength, skills and penetration, Gerrard is essentially a right-footed player, no winger at all, who is never likely to go past his opposing full-back on the outside, and, in moving as he does so frequently into the middle, potentially leaving dangerous gaps which a vigorous opposing full-back could exploit.

Milner aside, England are also lucky enough to have Tottenham’s Aaron Lennon, in sparkling form this season, the best since his displays in the 2006 World Cup Finals in Germany, when Beckham graciously permitted him to get the occasional chance. Lennon at present is playing with supreme speed, control and confidence, a very hard man indeed to pin down. And just to emphasise an embarrassment of riches, which England have hardly had since the remote days of the illustrious pair, Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney, finally resolved when the England selectors realised that Finney, a natural left-footer, could obviously play on the left, which he then did, often to devastating effect. A 10-0 win in Portugal in May 1947, a 4-0 win against Italy in Turin, the following year.

Theo Walcott... back again at last after a string of unlucky injuries.-

Yet, it has sadly to be conceded that Brazil, once the crucible of superb outside-rights, hasn’t used wingers for years. Yet, in the 1954 World Cup finals in Switzerland they had the marvellous Julinho, an amalgam of pace and power, scorer from distance of what was possibly the most spectacular goal of the tournament in the so-called Battle of Berne, against Hungary. He was followed by the still more astonishing Garrincha, a child of nature who was just as happy playing with his friends in pick up games on an appalling pitch in his native village of Pau Grande. Garrincha’s irresistible swerve and speed gave Brazil two vital goals in the 1958 World Cup final, against Sweden, and in 1962, when the illustrious Pele was injured, he emerged as the fulcrum and inspiration of the Brazilian attack, capable, despite his small stature, even of heading a goal from a corner, as he did against England. And after him, a 1970 World Cup winner, came the muscular Jairzinho, a trial for any left-back.

There can, of course, be a temptation to use wingers more centrally and indeed Garrincha himself would often come into the middle in the 1962 World Cup in Chile, once scoring a goal with his supposedly weaker left-foot from way outside the penalty area. With England, now, there is the case of Theo Walcott, back again at last after a string of unlucky injuries, one of them suffered while training with England before a match in Germany. Walcott was prematurely and inexplicably taken to the 2006 World Cup by Sven Goran Eriksson as a raw teenager yet to play a first team game for Arsenal.

But who could forget his 90-yard dash up the right-flank last season in a European Cup game at Liverpool, resulting in a goal? Or for that matter his devastating performance, with a flurry of goals, against Croatia in Zagreb in the qualifying tournament for the current World Cup? Arsenal see him as a striker. In an ideal world surely Milner would figure on the left-flank and either Walcott, Lennon or the more than useful Shaun Wright Phillips, however unpredictable, on the right-flank.

There is an absurd tendency in the English Press to refer to wingers as midfielders; a habit at once lazy and careless. True, wingers nowadays are often expected, as Wright Phillips recently did in an international friendly game, to double back to help their defence. But wingers they surely are. Just as the Brazilians who, after all, invented the 4-2-4 system, always in midfield distinguished between wing-halves and inside-forwards. While they themselves possessed what you might call the ultimate Stakhanovite, most tireless of workers, in left-flanker Mario Lobo Zagallo, who worked up and down that left-flank like a tireless pendulum. So that even in 1958, the supposed 4-2-4 was often more of a 4-3-3, as it officially became when Brazil held on to their World Cup in 1962, in Chile.

The advent of Total Football in West Germany and Holland in the 1970s led to the theory that any player could do anything, yet Holland still produced a series of talented wingers: Rensenbrink, Van der Kerkhof, Keizer. And the Germans used Uli Hoeness on the right-flank. If you are lucky enough to have a Drogba, you can get away with employing no genuine wingers. But Chelsea know full well that they are going to lose Drogba to the African Nations Cup. And then? What of the winger?