Once upon a time a winger's sole job was to get chalk on his boots, in the modern game however a wide player finds himself with a very different footballing role.
‘Inside-out wingers’ is a term currently proliferating the football landscape. It is a tactic that has reached epidemic proportions in top-flight football at present, with Lionel Messi its most famous proponent. When he teams up with the marauding Dani Alves, woe betide the full-back facing them. Should I show Messi inside? He can hit it with his left or play the overlapping Alves in to get his cross in. If I show him outside, there’s also Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and David Villa lurking that he can play in. Hang on. Where’s Alves gone? Is that Pedro over there?
By this time, full-backs are dizzy, Messi has scored and Barcelona are lining up in their own half, waiting to do it all again.
Messi aside, the term was also popularised by Arjen Robben’s performances at Stamford Bridge under Jose Mourinho and those he continues to deliver at Bayern Munich. Closer to home are Adam Johnson and Ashley Young. Steven Gerrard does it for England, with Ashley Cole getting beyond him. Damian Duff has done it at both Chelsea and Fulham. Joe Cole has done it too. Looking further back, Marc Overmars was expert at it at Arsenal, as was his successor, Robert Pires. And if a side isn’t employing inside-out wingers, it is using none at all, either through a fluid front three or four at home (in which wide men are expected to weigh in with goals) or a stable counter-attacking 4-5-1 on the road. With a premium placed on containment without the ball and ball retention favoured when in possession, anything a bit out of leftfield – like running with it, ‘skinning’ a full back and banging in a cross, has become increasingly obsolete.
It was watching Man United at Stoke – particularly seeing Gary Neville wipe out Matthew Etherington for what was an obvious second booking – that ended in us harking back to the good old days of Tony Canham and Jon McCarthy at York, and Stuart Whittaker and Pedro Matias at Macclesfield, the clubs we grew up watching. Wingers who would run with it and nearly always go outside their man to essentially set up a sprint contest to the byline. Every side had at least one potent example in the 90s.
Seeing Etherington ‘skin’ Neville for pace, nostalgia for the ‘old fashioned’ winger came to the fore. Bar Stoke, with Etherington on the left and Jermaine Pennant on the right, there is a dearth of Premiership sides employing orthodox wingers in the traditional sense – a left-footer on the left and a right-footer on the right; players assigned a crossing brief. Outside-out wingers, let’s say. Spurs have Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon. And that’s about it in terms of the English top flight.
Here lies the rub. When was the last time you heard the crowd cry ‘skin him’? Formative memories from days stood on the Longhurst Stand at York or the Star Lane End at Macc are hearing the obligatory ‘SKIN HIM TC,’ or ‘GET AT HIM WHITTY’ five or six times a game.
Not so long ago then, it was all very different. A generation of kids were being brought up on rap star John Barnes’s gospel of getting ‘round the back’ and more poignantly, ‘to the line’. We may live in a time when Lionel Messi arrives on Hackney Marshes by helicopter, but we’re unlikely to ever see him feature in a music video espousing the virtues of knocking the ball past a full-back only to risk getting totally cleaned out by Lucio. By contrast, when Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis were in the Manchester United side of the 1990s, cries like ‘skin him,’ must have been among the most popular phrases going at Old Trafford. Lee Sharpe, a better crosser of the ball than both, didn’t quite have their pace but still thrived before becoming a ‘midfielder’ and buggering off to Leeds.
Success in the early Premier League was built on such players. Blackburn’s SAS partnership owed much to the supply lines of Stuart Ripley and Jason Wilcox. David Ginola was a player who could ‘skin’ a defender, but perversely, he was so good, he could do it on both wings with both feet. So he was inside out AND orthodox. The show-off. Ruel Fox… perhaps not so much.
When individualism has come up against collectivism, the former has always been viewed with both wonderment and suspicion in equal measure. The traditional winger doesn’t fit into the hard tackling, ‘pace and power’ product the Premier League has become. He was quicksilver and lightweight, full of tricks but tenacious enough to get around whatever hapless defender was in his way. Now he has to be an athlete, part of the midfield, tracking back, able to ‘look after himself’, able to finish.
Naturally, the winger has been stunted both in going forward and having to defend by the advent of the attacking full-back. Offensively, it’s as if the suspicion surrounding his diminutive stature, his mercurial style, is alleviated by augmenting him with an extra option running past. He is restricted further by others who are able to use that option to their own advantage, offering an even more effective one of their own when cutting inside to shoot off their stronger foot. Containing formations also leave him with the wide men of a 4-5-1 to beat as well as a defender, stifling the space he would normally run into.
Defensively, he has to track the opposing full back, be big enough to receive the ball on the edge of his box away from home, have a spotless first touch and be able to launch attacks rather than embody them. Wingers that used to spend all their time in a 60-yard long, 20-yard wide patch of grass on either side of the pitch, are no more. All-action strikers prowl the channels, best exemplified by Cristiano Ronaldo. It is now the accelerating full-back that is the one leading the charge to the byline. Excitable cries of ‘skin him’, consequently, fade further and further in the collective memory.
Admittedly, there isn’t much place for such a winger in today’s game as we take off our rose tinted glasses for a minute. We saw this in Theo Walcott’s much-vaunted England hat-trick in Zagreb, when Fabio Capello either thought, ‘if you’ve got pace, you might as well come from deep and score some goals’, or ‘bugger me, Emile’s not keeping up with THAT’. With the exception of perhaps Antonio Valencia at Manchester United, silverware is no longer won by teams sending members of their attacking four or five haring towards the goal line.
The inspiring sight of Giggs sashaying towards the byline, the good old ‘knock it past him and get after it’, has been replaced by Ronaldo et al being shepherded inside to skew a diagonal shot over the bar and up into someone’s face in row Q. The fact remains that nothing gets a crowd on their feet like the ability to beat a man, but the age of two holding midfielders, 4-5-1s and front threes have put paid to that in its most traditional and direct sense. Yes it might be primitive, but most of the greatest pleasures in life are. In these austere financial times, football offers its own brand of conservatism. But it is the fan who ultimately finds themselves out of aesthetic pocket.
Adam & Rob are responsible for the brilliant www.magicspongers.blogspot.com and can be found on twitter as @magicspongers