Though there seem to be other pressing concerns at the moment like
Who should play in midfield?
Who do we need to sign in the summer?
We need to beat Swansea on Monday.
And of course the endless goalkeeper debate for the cup final. Thought I’d take a break from those and address a suggestion I heard on a couple of pods and have also seen some tweets on the matter – Hector Bellerin should play on the wing!
This idea doesn’t seem crazy and probably makes a lot of sense – we have all seen his speed, ability to beat a man or two, and put the ball in dangerous areas when he goes on those surging runs down the flank. Add to that the fact that he started his career as a winger at the Barca academy.
Some of you may be thinking that we already have players for that position in the Ox, Gnabry, Walcott, Welbeck, and now Ramsey apparently! Valid point; but, I’d like to move away from squad depth and address this from a footballing perspective.
Momentum and the Full Back
Mention names like Dani Alves, Cafu, Maicon, Roberto Carlos, and what image does your mind conjure? I’m hoping that image is of talented full backs bursting down the flank and playing a part in creating a goal for their team! We can take it down a notch and think of Zabaleta, Ashley Cole, Jordi Alba, Lahm, and you’ll probably think the same. However, I will stick to the first crop I mentioned because unlike the second crop, these players have/had more of a knack to beat their man and create something on their own.
There are certain players who thrive on momentum – the momentum they build as they run in from deep positions; especially when carrying the ball. The full back position allows the player to build that momentum. I’ll digress for a moment and say it doesn’t necessarily have to be from the wing; think back to Walcott’s unbelievable run versus ‘Pool, or Henry’s goals versus ‘Pool, Real Madrid, Spurs, think of what Wilshere does when he steps out from the deep and reaches the opposition’s area in a flash. It’s all about momentum.
Playing deep gives you a greater view of what is ahead of you and the spaces available. Full backs can see the spaces that can be exploited and they carry the ball accordingly. Accelerating from deep, with the ball at your feet, you have time to also consider how you’ll beat the man facing you – should I show him one way and go around the other? Is he leaving enough space between himself and the touchline for me to skip around easily? Etc.
From a defender’s point of view, stopping a player who has momentum going with him can be very tricky – do I commit? Do I stand off? But he’s coming at pace, will he go right or left? Do I have cover? He’s already beaten one man…
Of course, a defender or any covering player may also underestimate the opposing player’s ability and hand it down to luck.
Anyway, it’s the combination of the momentum and creating that uncertainty in the opposing player’s mind that helps these full backs be successful when going forward. Yes, of course, their ability to skip around a player helps too and that’s why I’ve separated Alves, Maicon and co. from the others. Their runs start/started from just before their half way line whether on the ball or off the ball. Their willingness to take on their man and beat him, of course, added to their success.
However, did we ever see any of them be converted to a winger? No. For further perspective on this, here are some stats comparing Bellerin and Alves:
|Hector Bellerin||Dani Alves*|
|League Games Played||16||27|
|Successful Take Ons||23||33|
*These figures are from the 2013/14 season as Alves was more prolific in that season
I highlight the take ons because my guess is that popular opinion has been driven by seeing this on the field. Once again, Dani Alves isn’t a bad comparison and I wish I had stats on Maicon, Cafu, and Roberto Carlos. Nevertheless, I reiterate the point; none of them were converted to wingers.
By the way, the Ox has had 80+ successful take ons! Quite a stat that is.
Anyway, I’ll put these players on hold now, and move on to someone more familiar to build on my argument.
The Curious Case of Emmanuel Eboue
Emmanuel Eboue, I felt, was actually a good player before being replaced by Sagna. Defensively he wasn’t that terrible really, and going forward was one of his better qualities. Once again, he thrived on momentum. Some of his memorable runs did start around the halfway line, whether on or off the ball. He was so confident when taking on the opposing player.
Now, I’m not sure whether it was his attacking qualities that prompted it or the signing of Sagna was made because Wenger thought Eboue’s defensive side wasn’t sufficient; but, Wenger shifted him on the wing. That, for me, started the downfall of Eboue. He just could not replicate that same attacking prowess.
It’s very simple why. He wasn’t used to what was required of a winger; especially in Arsenal’s system. He was so used to, and good at, running in from deep on the overlap.
Suddenly he had to be further up the field and not hugging the sideline.
Suddenly he had to be more involved in the pass and move rather than do what he was better at.
Suddenly, he was courting the attention of more than one opposing player. When he was a full back, his team mates could drag some players out of the equation.
Wrapping it Up
There is a tendency for many to believe that XYZ players should be played further up the field when they show better technique or that ability to beat a man and I guess it’s because those skills are very useful in the final third. Some people believe Wilshere should be played further up, Wenger tried it and it didn’t quite work. He moved Cesc further up in the much latter part of his Arsenal career and personally, I feel he was as effective.
It’s never as simple as putting two and two together in these matters. Gareth Bale, in recent memory, is the only full back who successfully converted to an attacker though if I recall correctly, as a full back he never actually did what he did as a winger!
Bellerin is so good at what he does because he thrives on momentum and on banking on the opposing player’s uncertainty. Additionally, having a skillful winger AND a skillful full back will only give more of a head ache to the opposition. Defensively he’ll continue maturing but the skill set is there; I won’t go into his defensive improvement areas because that’ll be off topic.
Wrapping it up, in conclusion, NO, Bellerin should not be played on the wing.
Of course, if he does one day, and I’m proven wrong, it would be a pleasant surprise!
Would love to hear your thoughts of course, I always try to understand people’s rationale for their opinions and this was mine. Leave a comment of tweet me!