Dazzling wide men able to terrorise full-backs a thing of the past in Premier League's bland two-touch world of bibs and cones
The death of John Connelly on Thursday occurred during a week in which the breed he once represented, the English winger, appeared to be hurtling towards a fresh oblivion. When even Sir Alex Ferguson sends a team out without a genuine wide man on either flank, as he did against Braga on Tuesday, change is in the football air.
Connelly was a Manchester United winger – a predecessor of the legion who played for Ferguson, including Jesper Olsen, Andrei Kanchelskis, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo. He was bought by Sir Matt Busby in 1964 from Burnley, with whom he had won the title, and in his second season at Old Trafford he won it again. But he owes his place in the history of English football to his membership of the small group of wingers who played in the early matches of the 1966 World Cup finals before being definitively discarded when Sir Alf Ramsey unveiled his wingless 4-4-2 formation in the quarter-final victory over Argentina.
Connelly played in the opening goalless draw against Uruguay, Terry Paine of Southampton took over for the 2-0 win over Mexico and Ian Callaghan of Liverpool appeared in the final group match against France, also a 2-0 success. After that their day was over and the stage was cleared for a different sort of show. Ramsey had found a system with no room for players who might switch off when not directly involved in the play.
His decision did not, in itself, signal the end for the winger. Some of the greatest managers of the next generation incorporated specialist wide men into their 4-4-2 formations: Bill Nicholson with Cliff Jones and Jimmy Robertson, Don Revie with Peter Lorimer and Eddie Gray, Bertie Mee with George Armstrong, Bob Paisley with Steve Heighway and Brian Hall, Brian Clough with Alan Hinton at Derby County and John Robertson at Nottingham Forest. Terry Venables beat the Netherlands 4-1 during Euro 96 with an England team featuring Steve McManaman and Darren Anderton.
Where are they now – not the figures of the past but their successors? One by one the Premier League's top sides have succumbed to a creeping desire to clip their own wings in pursuit of a new tactical ideal.
At Chelsea, where José Mourinho once sent out Damien Duff and Arjen Robben to hug the touchlines and drive full-backs to distraction, the line of players behind the main striker now comprises three almost identical examples of the type once known as inside-forwards: Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar. Each is superlatively gifted, skilful and flexible enough to play across the entire width of a pitch but on occasion their manager may discover – as he did in defeat in Donetsk this week – that a dimension has been sacrificed. When Chelsea and Manchester United meet at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, in a match between two sides separated by four points at the top of the Premier League table, before confronting each other again on Wednesday at the same venue in the League Cup, it will be fascinating to see the approaches taken by Ferguson and Roberto Di Matteo.
The Chelsea manager would appear to have fixed on his preferred formation for the season, going with the £80m investment represented by his midfield trio and introducing Ramires in place of Oscar when a more physically robust style is required. The composition of Ferguson's team is a much less fixed affair and not only because his defensive line-up has been ravaged by incessant injuries. His wingers now fulfil greatly reduced roles as he gravitates towards the 4-2-3-1 formation that has become almost universal since the last World Cup.
Age has modified the role of Giggs, his involvement now restricted to central midfield. But Nani seems to be reserved for emergencies, as he was during the match against Braga, while Ashley Young has been spending time on the bench. Antonio Valencia, such a consistent source of danger down the right during the season following his move from Wigan, has failed to recapture a regular starting place since breaking his ankle in a Champions League match against Rangers two years ago and is as likely to be employed as a stop-gap right-back as in his old position.
Elsewhere the thoroughbred English winger is languishing. Stewart Downing scored a spectacular winner for Liverpool on Thursday night but he had been moved to left-back after starting on the wing, where he has failed to thrive since his £20m move to Anfield. Adam Johnson, another Middlesbrough product, moved on to Sunderland in the summer after making little impact with Manchester City. Aaron Lennon at Spurs struggles to pose a consistent threat.
What happened? Arsène Wenger may have started the trend towards narrowing the attacking front with his regular employment of "inside-out" wingers, such as Marc Overmars and Robert Pires, cutting inside a full-back in order to shoot or pass with their stronger foot. An easier task for the average forward than going round the outside of a full-back and trying to get in a decent cross, it was much copied, to the point where, as part of the wholesale adoption of 4-2-3-1, it has turned into an orthodoxy.
But even Wenger now seems to distrust the value of a specialist player on the flank. That is where he plays Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, although neither thinks of himself in those terms and they are not helped by the lack of consistently effective strike forwards.
The phenomenon of the inside-out winger was not invented at Highbury, or at the Camp Nou with Lionel Messi, and was not exactly new even when Wenger began to make such a success of it. Lob a ball at Chris Waddle 10 times in a row and, as he says, he will kick it with his left foot every time. But the winger preferred to play on the right flank while winning his 62 caps with England between 1985 and 1991, training hard to minimise the weakness on his right foot with the intention of ensuring that his opponent knew he was capable of going past on either side.
Waddle is dismayed by what he sees as the loss of important skills to the current tactical evolution. "We're still completely different from every other country," he says. "Our football is not about keeping the ball and beating an opponent. It's more like basketball, up and down at high speed. But beating a player is the most dangerous thing you can do. You take an opponent out of the game and you create space.
"When I was at Marseille I was never expected to track back. In this country it's rare to find a coach telling a winger to stay upfield. But we've always seen wingers as luxury items and we're just not breeding players with that sort of flair. We don't have the dribblers any more."
He identifies James Milner of Manchester City and England as an example of the problem. "He's a good tidy player who puts a shift in, and he's very versatile. He can play in central midfield, out wide and probably at left-back and centre-forward, too. But if you're asking him to terrorise a full-back, then no. He hasn't got the flair or the tricks of a winger. But that's not the lad's fault."
Waddle blames the academy system, with its concentration on getting players to transfer the ball as quickly as possible. "Why are we so obsessed with two-touch football? In the final third you want to see something different – and we're coaching it out of them. When Samir Nasri was at Marseille, you can bet nobody tried to stop him beating a man. When Lionel Messi was 14 or 15, nobody at Barcelona was shouting at him to get rid of it. There's nothing more dangerous than going past a defender and getting a cross in. But what we've got is a world of bibs and cones."
And a rather less colourful world, if the wizards of the chalkboard are denying themselves the option offered by the traditional touchline-hugger whose repertoire includes a devastating final ball. In the universe of football, however, any discarded idea is likely to reappear when the time is right. Although he may seem to have gone the way of short shorts and black boots, the winger will be back. But probably not tomorrow.