Mind the quality? Feel the width

Michael Cox, editor of ZonalMarking.net (opens in new tab), on how wingers could win (or save) this World Cup...

What are we lacking at the World Cup? The obvious answer is goals. So far, weâÂÂve seen a rather miserable 2.1 goals per game at the halfway point of the competition, compared to 2.3 four years ago, 2.5 eight years ago, and 2.7 twelve years ago. ItâÂÂs fairly easy to spot a trend.

A more specific answer might be width. This is a slightly surprising development at this World Cup, because the predominant system coming into the tournament, certainly amongst the European teams, was to play one striker supported by two wide players. Whether a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, a good proportion of teams played this way, which necessitates having two players comfortable in wide positions.

Or at least, it means having two players who are comfortable starting in wide positions. The rise of the attacking full-back, and the greater desire for midfield players to provide goals, have seen many teams playing what the Italians term âÂÂmezzalasâ â players on the wing who donâÂÂt naturally belong there. 

This has been particularly evident this season, with the popularity of inverted wingers â playing on the opposite flank to which their foot would usually dictate. Manchester City used Craig Bellamy and Adam Johnson on the âÂÂwrongâ sides, Aston Villa often did the same with Stewart Downing and Ashley Young.

Johnson: a left-footer on the right

Roy Hodgson used Simon Davies and Damien Duff â and indeed, Fulham were one of three sides to reach a European final with this system. Bayern MunichâÂÂs Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben did it, whilst Atletico Madrid won the Europa League with Jose Antonio Reyes and Simao Sabrosa either side.

Although not many teams at the World Cup have been using such a system, it does point to the attributes managers are looking for from wide players at the moment â not the ability to get to the byline and swing in a cross, but the willingness to come inside, link up with the striker, and try to get a shot away.

The natural result of this has been for defences to play very narrow. If teams are trying to get their wide players inside to go through opponents, then packing the middle of the defence is an obvious solution. Of course, this leaves the flanks unoccupied.

But not many sides have been able to take advantage of this. The most obvious example was SpainâÂÂs first match against Switzerland. In their 4-2-3-1, Andres Iniesta and David Silva both looked to come inside, move behind the striker and pass their way through the defence. Both players had very poor games because they were denied space in the centre, with the full-backs coming narrow and the Swiss defending across the width of the penalty area.

It was notable that Spain offered much more threat when they brought on a natural wide player in Jesus Navas. Although his delivery was often disappointing, he was certainly SpainâÂÂs best hope of creating a goal.

Navas: desperate to get chalk on his boots

This wasn't just because he was in a part of the pitch where the Swiss were reluctant to venture, but because he suddenly offered a different point of attack, and because he helped stretch the defence. He also had a good game against Honduras, and if Vicente del Bosque insists on fielding David Villa in a wide-left position, natural width is certainly needed on the right.

Holland â who have been slightly underwhelming despite their two victories â are another side in desperate need of a winger in their first XI. The use of Rafael van der Vaart (starting left, drifting in) and Wesley Sneijder (starting central, drifting left) has resulted in their two most creative players occupying the same space.

TheyâÂÂve looked far more impressive in the final 20 minutes of both games when Elijero Elia has come on as a substitute, and the return of Arjen Robben will be an even better solution. You could make similar observations about Mauro CamoranesiâÂÂs substitute appearances  for Italy, and for Portugal Simao Sabrosa was 10 times more effective than Danny.

You can get past defences in three ways â you can go over them, through them, or around them. The immense popularity of defending deep and narrow eliminates the former two options, so it's up to the likes of Navas, Camoranesi, Robben and Simao - just two starts between them so far - to give this tournament a new lease of life.

More from Michael Cox:
June 17: Defences on top in first round
June 12: Back three back in fashion

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