The over-lappers

The essential point surely is, however, that the classical wingers could, and still can, do what the overlapping full backs can’t, writes Brian Glanville.

When is a full back not a fill back? The answer might be: when he’s a winger. For many years now, the overlapping full back has been a familiar figure in top class football, surging at speed into attack, crossing or even shooting at the end of his run. The product of a tactical revolution in which for an alarming time, wingers, those knights of the game, seemed destined to disappear. Even now, when, thank goodness, they have come much more back into vogue, there is a maddening tendency to dismiss them as mere “midfielders.”

The overlapping full back was already to be seen during the World Cup Finals of 1966 in England. Alf Ramsey won the trophy as we know with his team of so called “Wingless Wonders.” George Cohen, the sturdy Fulham right back would go racing down the line, though as often as not his centres would end up among the crowd behind the goal and its right hand post.

The great irony being that when it came to the World Cup final itself when England defeated West Germany, it was in large measure thanks to a devastating show on the right flank in the latter stages by little Alan Ball, whose name had been made as an inside forward. As it transpired, the powerful and experienced German left back, Karl Heinz Schnellinger, could do little or nothing with him and though Alan said to himself, “Oh no, not again” when a cross-field ball from Stiles reached him in the first half of extra time, he somehow found the strength and stamina to track it down, elude Schnellinger and cross: for Geoff Hurst to score the ever controversial decisive English goal, in off the crossbar.

In the halcyon day of Total Football in the early 1970s, when everybody, notionally at least, was expected to do anything, attacking full backs were the high fashion. For the effervescent Holland team and Ajax Wim Suurbier and Ruud Krol were always eager to burst into attack and sometimes to strike for goal. For West Germany and Bayern Munich, there was the athletic left back Paul Breitner, winner of a World Cup gold medal and later, by the time of the 1982 World Cup in Spain, modulating into a creative inside forward.

Yet one saw in the 1970 World Cup, when England met West Germany in the quarterfinal in Leon, that attacking full backs could be something of a two edged sword. Keith Newton and Terry Cooper, originally, like numerous attacking full backs, a winger himself, played havoc down the flanks with the German defence, Newton setting up two goals, until they seriously ran out of steam. Alf Ramsey, a solid and unadventurous right back in his own distinguished day, kept them both on the field when they were plainly exhorted, thus enabling his counterpart, Helmut Schoen, to bring on fresh legs in the right winger substitute, Jurgen Grabowski, and turn a 0-2 deficit into a 8-2 win.

Arguably, the comparatively recent re-emergence of the winger though Brazil, who once produced Julinho, Garrincha and Jairzinho, don’t use them now, has made the overlapping full back somewhat less essential than he used to be in those non winger days: but he emphatically still exists.

The essential point surely is, however, that the classical wingers could, and still can, do what the overlapping full backs can’t. That is to say, find their way past the opposing full back, get all the way down to the goal line and pull back into the middle the most dangerous pass in the game.

One saw Garrincha do it twice, superbly, in the World Cup final of 1958 in Stockholm against Sweden. When they formed a glorious pair of wingers for England, both Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney were formidably elusive. How many hapless left backs were left stranded and bewildered by Matthews’ marvellous swerve? “Don’t ask me how I do it,” he once said. “It just comes out of me under pressure.”

True, multi-talented wingers such as George Best, equally elusive and dynamic on either flank, were keen to get off the wing and get into a less “dependent” role in the middle. Yet the classical winger’s run to the by-line remained and still does a trump card for any team. By the same token, overlapping full backs, however fast and elusive, by and large cannot do what such wingers can and would.

At the end of their runs, they simply cross the ball and hope for the best.

The other side of the coin is that committed over-lappers cannot always defend. I think, especially, of the leading contestant for the England right back position, recently out injured, alas, Glen Johnson, who cost Liverpool a cool £16 million. He is a most exciting player when he breaks forward, unusually fast and clever in control. Yet his early second half appearance, nearly five years, ago for England versus Denmark in a Copenhagen friendly was disastrous. Like David James, having one of his worst days in goal, which may have undermined him, he seemed unable to do anything right and Denmark won, humiliatingly, 4-1.

When, much later, he returned to the England defence, one recalls him showing both aspects of his game in a match against modest opposition in central Europe. Early in the match, he carelessly allowed himself to be beaten on the outside by the opposing left flanker, who sped on to deliver a cross which caused huge confusion in the England defence, and all but led to a goal. Yet later in the game, Johnson crowned a superb, sustained run down the right with a cross which brought a drive at goal.

Then, of course, there is that curious rarity, the winger who doesn’t run, as exemplified by David Beckham, back operating on the right wing, on loan from the long suffering Los Angeles Galaxy, with Milan. Some how or other, Beckham seems endlessly to keep himself in the frame with both club and country, yet he barely even tries to beat a man, nor has the pace to get away from him if he did.

Instead, rather like a howitzer, firing its shells from far away, he sends his crosses, corners and free kicks insidiously into the Box, and is adept at exploiting his swerving free kicks, at goal.

Yet it is good to see so many good young wingers, and English wingers at that now appearing in the highly cosmopolitan Premier League, Spurs’ ebullient, rapid Aaron Lennon is surely the best of them, but Manchester City’s Shaun Weight Phillips is devastating on his day, James Milner of Villa has the big match temperament and can operate on either wing — or, as he has done lately, in central mid-field. Spurs’ other right flanker David Bentley, has at last regained his form.