Did Guardiola and Mourinho Formation Kill Traditional Wing Play?

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Did Guardiola and Mourinho Formation Kill Traditional Wing Play?
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

The standard of crossing in world football in 2014 is dire.

Even in the Premier League, where hulking target men and nimble crossers have been a mainstay for the best part of a century, the talent pool seems severely thin.

We've seen sporadic seasons here and there where crossing teams have reigned supreme: Sampdoria's 2009-10 season saw Giampaolo Pazzini gobble up a plethora of floated deliveries; Manchester City have been remarkably efficient in the air this year; Stephan Lichtsteiner has been a valuable resource from the right for Juventus for three years now.

Fred Sport

But they're rarities—one-offs. When Christian Eriksen swept in a nice ball for Emmanuel Adebayor to convert against Swansea on January 19, people took to Twitter to suggest it was the best cross of the season.

David Beckham would be appalled.

What happened to traditional wide play, genuine crossing technique and getting to the byline to hammer in a delivery?

 

The rise of tiki-taka football under Pep Guardiola

The 2008-09 season saw Barcelona become the envy of every other team in world football.

After riding out 10 minutes of pressure from Manchester United in the Champions League final, Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi struck to set the club on the way to victory in Rome.

It was then that the talents of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Co. came to the fore: unbelievable technical ability on the ball, dictating tempo with ease and playing with their ragged style, tiring opponents in a magnificent 4-3-3 setup.

Defending with the ball, resting in possession, short, sharp passes, wall passes and all sorts of ancient La Masia techniques were admired for 90 minutes; the following day, managers worldwide set about frantically trying to copy the approach.

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

The following season, Barcelona frequently racked up possession figures of 70 percent and dominated games with ease. They won La Liga, but they were knocked out in the Champions League semifinals.

Brendan Rodgers is one prominent name among hundreds who preach a possession-oriented game, and that number certifiably swelled following the exploits of Pep Guardiola's Barca.

No one can rival the tiki-taka La Blaugrana produced. There are certain measures you can put in place to maximise ball retention, and cutting out crossing is one obvious casualty.

After all, why lump the ball in and expose yourself to a potential counter? Barca rarely even took corners under Pep, often choosing to simply play it short and work it back inside immediately—on the floor.

 

The rise of the 4-2-3-1 under Jose Mourinho

Jose Mourinho masterminded a UEFA Champions League victory the following year (2010), beating Bayern Munich in the final at the Santiago Bernabeu.

He used a "defensive"—and we use that term reservedly—4-2-3-1 formation, converting Samuel Eto'o and Goran Pandev to hardworking, deep wingers and letting Wesley Sneijder combine with Diego Milito up front.

On the way to the final, the Nerazzurri beat the mighty Barcelona, led by Guardiola and in search of consecutive Champions League triumphs, by recording just 16 percent of the possession at the Camp Nou.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Sixteen percent.

Jonathan Wilson of The Guardian asked whether or not this could be a turning point in football with regard to planning for success, and while the lack of possession didn't really catch on, it further buried the importance of the winger in the modern game.

Inter's model, in particular, reduced Eto'o and Pandev to borderline non-entities in attack. Sneijder was the main man, and while Milito is a brutish centre-forward capable of occupying two centre-backs, the team crafted high-percentage attacks rather than swinging balls in from wide areas.

Another nail in the winger's coffin.

 

Where are we now?

The 2010 FIFA World Cup is the third major systematic element that has harmed the winger; it compiled the infatuation with Guardiola's Barca with the gritty effectiveness of Mourinho's Inter, creating a set of two de facto "best" formations to use in 2011 and beyond.

Brazil, under Dunga, used a 4-2-3-1 with a steely holding pivot of Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo. It made for a solid look, and many teams saw its effectiveness and looked to follow suit.

"If Mourinho's winning Inter and the mighty Brazil use it, why not us?" was the call.

Neither side used traditional, chalk-on-your-boots wingers, and the 4-2-3-1 is still the most popular formation in the game.

Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

In the same tournament, Spain starved teams of the ball to the point where it seemed only 11 players on the pitch were actually playing. Their eventual victory was seen as a triumph for football, as their attractive play deserved a win.

They used a variant of Barca's all-conquering system, with six of the XI all playing their football at Camp Nou. David Villa would make it seven a few weeks later for the cost of €40 million.

And there you have it: two effective approaches honed at club level, on display in front of billions at the world's biggest sporting event in a genuine copycat sport.

Much like how NFL teams will be looking for the next big-bodied cornerbacks and safeties now that Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor have set the golden standard, football set to work on replicating what was seen as the de facto best approaches.

Neither system provided an arena for wingers to thrive.

 

Looking forward

Sometimes, players can be born in the "wrong era." What does this mean?

Well, as an 18-year-old looking to break into the first-team ranks, your manager will assess your strengths and see where he can place you in his XI.

If you grew up a speedy, genuine wide player with a good cross but little in terms of short-passing skills, you were bang out of luck in 2011-12.

With Roberto Mancini stuffing three No. 10s into a narrow 4-2-3-1 and Swansea City rocking the Premier League with possession-based football, you had little chance of finding a gap.

Serie A is perhaps the only major league in which crossing thrives, and a result of the paucity of talent in this area has led fans to believe that Eriksen's cross for Adebayor, cited at the top of the article, is a thing of beauty.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Navas' crossing is excellent, and it felt like people had "forgotten" you could do that at the top level until he arrived.

Really, that's a regular-looking cross in a sea of average wide play. Beckham could have done that with his left foot if asked to.

As formations fall in and out of fashion, so do player "types." Right now, the hybrid CM/AMC look, personified by Cesc Fabregas, Toni Kroos, Ross Barkley, et al, is the go-to type of player, but wingers have been cut adrift for years.

You can count the number of genuine crossers in the Premier League on one hand, but the good news is that number is steadily rising.

With the 4-4-2 formation coming back into fashion after several years of exile, exciting wing play and speed has again become a valuable commodity. Arda Turan, Gareth Bale, Juan Guillermo Cuadrado and Jesus Navas have been the flagship cases for this over the course of the 2013-14 season.

It's been a barren half-decade for wing play, but the tide may just be starting to turn.

 

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