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England Saved By The Return Of The Winger

So far this tournament, out-and-out wingers had seemed to be going the way of the 5-man attack and the leather ball. They'd largely been replaced by attacking systems heralded as more flexible, sophisticated, and creative. Funny, then, that it was old-fashioned wing play that saved England today.

As Michael Cox of Zonal Marking rightly notes, we’ve seen a lot of systems that involve players on the wing who don’t naturally belong there. Take Germany. They use two holding midfielders and a playmaker. Then up front they have a central striker, Klose, and two attacking wingers, Podolski on the left and Muller on the right. But neither Podolski nor Muller is a natural winger—by which I mean players whose primary purpose is to stay out wide, beat the opposing fullback and put in crosses for strikers to attack. Instead, they’re both strikers, encouraged to roam into the middle and link up with Klose.

Many of the top teams play similar systems. Even Messi tends to drift over to the right to collect the ball, but is in no traditional sense a winger. He drifts right because it allows him to cut inside onto his dangerous his left foot.

I can't help thinking that teams play this way in part because natural wingers hardly seem to exist anymore. And further, that this is unfortunate for those who like to see attacking football (meaning pretty much everyone who watches football.)

Old-fashioned wingers can change the shape of the game perhaps more than any other player. That’s because, by beating the fullback off the dribble, they can put in straight crosses from (or near) the byline, rather than diagonal crosses from deeper, of the kind we’ve seen a lot of fullbacks and midfielders providing during this World Cup. These straighter crosses from the byline are far more dangerous, both because they allow the central strikers to get closer to the goal without being offside, and because its easier for a striker to direct the ball on goal when its coming from the side than when its coming from behind him.

Remember how John Barnes transformed England’s 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against Argentina after he came on as a second-half sub, through just this sort of work? (Well I do, anyway. His cross for Lineker let us pull one back, and a second similar cross would have made it two had Lineker not inexplicably missed a simple header on the goal-line.) In fact, thanks to Ryan Giggs's long-ago decision to play for Wales instead of England (and Capello's choice to exclude Adam Johnson from the squad), we haven't had an effective naturally left-sided winger since Barnes began to decline in the early 90s.

All this is why I thought the only times England looked dangerous in its first two games was when Aaron Lennon used his speed to beat his man and put in a cross. And it's in part why sticking Gerrard on the left never made sense—he's never going to play like a winger, and his other qualities are obscured. So I was concerned to see Lennon dropped for today’s crucial game against Slovenia, and Gerrard forced to play on the left. But it turned out that Capello—for once this tournament?—knew what he was doing. Lennon’s replacement, James Milner, had clearly been given instructions to play much the same role. Milner isn’t nearly as fast as Lennon, nor as tricky a dribbler, but he puts in a much better cross (he’s a sort of Beckham manqué, even looks-wise, in fact). And sure enough, it was his old-fashioned wing play, featuring a lovely, curling cross for Defoe, that produced England’s only breakthrough.

It was a goal straight out of the Premiership, where at least some teams still let wingers do what God intended.