Alessio Cerci is a very good footballer. He has all the right attributes and is not afraid to show them off; pace, skill, an appalling hairstyle. He’s played for Italy now, too, so he’s obviously been influencing people in the right places while turning out for Torino.
I’ve watched Alessio, and Torino, often this season and the more I’ve seen, the more it seems obvious that players of his type remaining in wide positions offer a completely different threat to that which teams are becoming used to in the modern game, particularly in the more technical leagues where 4-2-3-1 is the standard, rather than 4-4-2.
As I’ve done previously, I took the liberty of hand-drawing the ideas I want to talk about, so here’s a plan of two 4-2-3-1 teams facing off.
With the full-backs advanced (I actually started a blog called ‘overlapping wing-backs’ at one point, but never really got on with it) as they are, I’ve highlighted the ‘pressure point’ that the red team will need to pay heed to; where they are out numbered when defending. It would require, generally, a centre-forward stepping forward a little to aid the two defensive midfielders. He doesn’t need to move a lot and, when you see this technique executed properly against a team, he doesn’t; a quick ball threaded through means the striker only has one defender with him, and beating one man is easier than beating two when you’re trying to score.
Its all very central, which is apparent if you think of those players who are regarded as the ‘best in the world’; even those that could have been more conventional wingers in the past (Ronaldo) play far more in the middle now, even if its the width Ronaldo offers is one of the features that make him unique (for illustration – when Madrid are next counter-attacking, note where he picks up the ball; generally a wide position.
I wouldn’t be silly enough to say Alessio Cerci is at Cristiano Ronaldo’s level, but there’s features he can exploit that are the same as the Portuguese. Here’s that same diagram (apologies for the slight unevenness of the drawing, its all free-hand¹) but with the team in green playing two wider advanced midfielders. It doesn’t look a massive change, and it really isn’t. In fact, it might be better if there was one wide (moving to either side) and one closer to where the red team played their men.
The ‘pressure point’ is completely different, with the central defender needing to step wide, to cover the deficiency (as the full-back will need coverage, finding himself doubled up against two attacking wide players. The defender will probably end up moving further from goal than if he just moved forward, too, which allows other attacking players to use that space (think of a deeper lying midfielder arriving late in the box – look how wide Torino have spread their goals this season) and creates a different goal threat.
Now, the ball is not being played directly towards goal in this scenario which means that still has to be done. However, what it is doing is offering a different option. How often do you see a team attacking through the middle, with balls being repelled easily by the defence, or see full-backs whipping in crosses that centre-backs are there to head away easily? To pull one of those heads out of the way (and assume the striker will be ‘looking after’ the other one) should lead to more productive crossing of the ball, and if the wide player and the full-back are good enough at playing together it could prove a very profitable part of the pitch indeed.
In this world of False Nines, it seems wrong to suggest we’re going to see a swathe of wide players coming into the game anew but there’s enough to imply in the emergence of Cerci this season, of the continuing power of Ronaldo, and of Thomas Müller’s swash-buckling Bayern München, to indicate that there is still a place for wide players, and still an important role for them to play.
The key thing is variety – what people are keen on terming a ‘Plan B’. It could be the plan you use more often, it could be an option you have available to switch to, but the variety; the fact your opposition don’t know what to expect, is the important part.
¹Think of it as a ‘back of a fag-packet’ point. That’s the look I’m going for.