Changing roles

Lionel Messi has willingly gone on to the right wing this season to make room for Suarez in the middle.-AP

Three of today’s leading stars began their career as wingers, but have since come off the line, anxious to be more deeply involved with the play, than be dependent on team-mates’ passes. By Brian Glanville.

There is a very old theatrical adage which says that every comedian wants to play Hamlet. And you might say that in football, every winger, or a great many of them, wants to get off the wing and play as striker. Few more so than the Arsenal and England attacker Theo Walcott. A teenaged outside right when Arsenal bought him from Southampton you may remember that in a moment of distraction Sven Goran Eriksson, then the England manager, took him to the World Cup Finals at the expense of far more experienced right wingers and then never took him off the bench. In the years that followed, he matured into an outside right of devastating pace, but sometimes erratic judgement.

A previous England winger Chris Waddle declared that Walcott didn’t have a football brain. I thought, at the time, this was a bit steep, as when Waddle, a late developer, began with local team Newcastle United, he was a somewhat inconsistent outside right himself, though he matured into a rational one of pace and flair.

As for Walcott, his great gifts of pace and control made him always potentially a match winner, never more so than when he played outside right for England against Croatia in Zagreb — where they had quite recently lost in humiliating circumstances — pulverised the Croatian defence with speed, strikes on goal and incisive crosses and paved the way for a notable England victory.

For most of the recently completed English season injury kept him out of the game. It was an odd and doubtful decision by the England manager Roy Hodgson to pick him in Turin against Italy as a lone striker, when as it transpired he looked far less than fully match fit and, up there on his own, made scant impact.

Near the end of the season, however, by which time he had made it clear that like so many wingers before him, he wanted to move into the middle, he suddenly came to dynamic life in a midweek home league match for Arsenal against West Bromwich Albion, whose defence he devastated with a hat-trick of goals.

This in turn led the Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger to pick him to lead their attack in the FA Cup final at Wembley against Aston Villa. Again he was in dazzling form, scoring another goal in Arsenal’s easy win and fully justifying his choice. Yet, I cannot forget his astonishing solo burst at Anfield against Liverpool when, on the Arsenal right wing, he picked up a ball inside his own half and ran past a bewildered defence deep into the Liverpool half before procuring a goal. You can’t do that from centre forward, unless an offside trap breaks down.

Walcott surprisingly didn’t get on the field a few days after the Cup final, when England plopped in a paralysing goalless draw with Ireland. But when Andros Townsend arrived late in the game, the Tottenham right winger showed just what real wingers can classically do, twice beating his man, getting to the right hand goal-line and pulling the ball back across the box. Reminding us that when he had been brought on as a late substitute in Turin, where Walcott had failed, he responded with a gloriously struck goal. Yet this is a player who cannot hold a regular place at Spurs.

Townsend so far has shown no desire to move into the middle. One of the greatest England wingers of all time, Stanley Matthews, never did. First ever European Footballer of the Year, he never lost right into his late forties, when he went back to Stoke City, his original club, from Blackpool. His amazing body swerve put an infinity of left backs on the wrong foot, while he sped past them on the outside. Though admittedly, he did in a pre-War international against the Czechs at Tottenham move into an inside right position, when England’s right half Jack Crayston was injured, reducing England to 10 men, proceeding to score a hat-trick and procure England a 5-4 win.

But three of today’s leading stars began their career as wingers, but have since come off the line, anxious to be more deeply involved with the play, than be dependent on team-mates’ passes. At Real Madrid both the ultra prolific Portuguese international Cristiano Ronaldo and the still more expensive but rather less prolific Welshman Gareth Bale began as wingers, but now function for the club as all-round attackers. Ronaldo made his name as a right winger at Manchester United, Bale as a left winger at Tottenham, who converted him there from being a moderate left back. Another ex-Southampton player, by the way!

This wasn’t a good season for Bale, who with Tottenham moved off the left wing, where he had already excelled in a more and more central position, often accused of diving, when the truth probably was that with his flying solos through the middle there was so little margin for error that he was always in danger of a mere touch bringing him down. His recent winning goal for Wales in a surprising European qualifying victory over powerful Belgium was a happier moment for him after being bitterly criticised in the Spanish press.

As for Ronaldo, he is still Total Football incarnate, a superb ball player, wonderfully fast and elusive, deadly in the air.

Yet Barcelona’s Lionel Messi scored even more goals than he did last season and, having started as a left winger then moved into a supremely all-round role, has willingly gone on to the right wing this season to make room for Suarez in the middle.

Yet arguably Bayern Munich have the best pair of wingers of any club side, though alas both were injured when their team was knocked out of the Champions League by Barcelona; Franck Ribery of France (for whom he has refused to play after recent criticism) and Holland’s remarkable Arjen Robben, the left footed right winger, who cuts in to do much deadly damage from the right. In the last World Cup, he was in lethal form, cutting the Argentine defence to bits, only just being thwarted at the last gasp by Argentina’s Javier Mascherano when a goal would have put the Dutch into the final. He’s like Matthews — every defender knows what he is going to do, but few can do anything about it, though where Matthews went outside, Robben comes inside.

Brazil, who for years had such marvellous wingers, have played without them for so long. Yet even Garrincha, best of them all, moved into the middle in 1962 when Pele was hurt in Chile; and excelled.