Natural width, in a reliable form, has eluded Liverpool for a long time. This summer, Dalglish signed Downing and, in theory, the team’s need had been addressed. But since pulling on the red shirt, Downing has received fierce criticism.
The problem is that while Downing does provide width he does not do so in the conventional way – dribbling with great flair down the touchline. That isn’t what Stewart Downing is. Though quick, he doesn’t have the lightning pace and ability to glide past his man like other Premier League wingers (Bale, Lennon, Nani, Valencia). He is not a natural or traditional number 11. So expecting him to play like that makes no sense, either from a tactical perspective or simply from basic logic.
Still, many fans and pundits have jumped on the now-creaking bandwagon, criticising him for not being what an English, Premier League winger “should” be. That’s like criticising Lucas – a Brazilian – for not playing defence splitting passes all the time like Kaka or Ronaldinho. Hey – they’re both central midfielders, right?
Downing was not bought to be a natural winger. He was bought to provide natural width. The two are not the same. A natural winger is one way of providing natural width. For instance – the full backs at Liverpool, Enrique and Johnson, are quasi-wingers, overlapping the midfielder in front of them, dribbling with the ball and putting in crosses.
The fluidity of the positions in the team and the movement between the players means that the striker (often Suarez, sometimes Kuyt) can vacate his central position in order to pull wide and stretch the opposition. From there they can cut inside into the empty channel that their original movement created. This provides width, but it is by no means the traditional 1950s British way of delivering it.
The latest tactical trend is to have the central midfielders (such as Gerrard against Manchester United; Henderson against Manchester City, and, to a degree, against Chelsea) push wider when the team regains possession. This pulls the opposition midfield apart and gives opportunity for the winger to cut inside and become a direct attacking presence in and around the penalty area.
So with all of those innovations being employed at Liverpool, the team can get width without having to play a “natural” winger. Downing, with his skill set and left foot, can provide width for this team – but, I will argue, he does not have to do it in the same way as other wingers. Especially when he lacks the ability to play in such a manner.
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