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Has the traditional two striker system become obsolete?

Saturday 25th November 2017

When was the last time you saw the traditional 4-4-2, 4-1-2-1-2 or 4-2-2-2 formation pop up on your screen when you watched your favourite club in action? A long time I’d guess. Why are these systems rarely preferred in the modern game? Have they become obsolete? Or on the verge?

The game has changed a lot in the past decade. From systems to technology, many things have been revolutionized. Gone are the days when you had a pair of scorching wide midfielders on either flank and twin goal-poaching forwards to terrorize the defence.

Manchester United's treble-winning side is the classic example of the traditional 4-4-2 with two wide players on the flanks. Ryan Giggs' speed and David Beckham's passing skill coupled with the deadly strike partnership of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole.

There were many lethal striker partnerships in the past two decades. Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp fronted Arsenal's Invincibles. Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy featured for United in 2005-06. Liverpool's Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge sent many a defender to the sport psychologist's couch in 2013-14.  

Partnerships died out almost overnight, though. Why?

Time changes everything. Football is no exception. New systems and playing styles render old ones defunct. This time, the inverted winger changed the landscape. Formations featuring inverted wingers are now played extensively around the world. But why did inverted wingers put the strike partnership in mothballs?

Traditional vs Inverted winger

The traditional winger’s position is level with the central midfielder(s) to either side. Whether penciled in as RM or LM, the traditional winger carried the ball forward with pace along the flanks, his goal to lay over or deliver a cross inside the penalty area. Speed and great crossing ability were requisite attributes. Traditional wingers needed to play the side that matched their stronger foot. Left-footed players patrolled the left flank, right footed players the right. This allowed them to keep the ball from defenders with their body, giving them time and space to deliver accurate service with pace. Although he sets up as a fullback, United's Antonio Valencia plays like a traditional winger.

The inverted winger works in the opposite manner. Left-footed players are deployed on the right side and vice versa. The LM is now the LW, the second letter inverted in the same manner as the player's preferred foot. Inverted wingers leave the centre mid behind, playing closer to the centre forward.

The role of inverted winger

This is where things get interesting. Unlike the traditional winger, whose prime objective was to carry the ball up the pitch, then deliver it in the box, the inverted winger has multiple options in the attacking third.

  • He can cut inside to deliver an in-swinging cross with his preferred foot.
  • He can dribble inside and try to curl the ball into the far corner of goal.
  • By cutting inside, he creates space for an overlapping fullback like Valencia to deliver a cross like a traditional winger.
  • He can also drive to the point where the eighteen-yard box meets the end line. If he can't beat the defender, he can slot the ball across for the forward at the back post or lay off to a centre mid trailing the play.

In the 4-4-2 and its near cousins, wingers were critical to strikers. Their vertical approach also left room for forward pairings.  Inverted wingers tendency to cut inside would see them running into already crowded space with two forwards operating in the box. With fullbacks overlapping, inverted wingers attacking the near post, and central midfielders supporting the attack, there is only room for one forward to take up a position near the far post. Hence, partnerships and traditional wingers have become football's endangered species.

It should be no surprise many of the game's best players are inverted wingers: Lionel Messi, Arjen Robben, Eden Hazard, and Neymar have made their names as inverted wingers. Cristiano Ronaldo once did, as well, although he has transformed himself into a target man as his legs begin to fail him.

In the traditional system, they would all be forced to the outside, limiting their ability to impact the game. In modern formations, they are like kamikaze forwards driving into the middle, wreaking havoc. Some teams employ a 3-4-3, as Chelsea did to win the Premier League last season. Others set up in a 4-3-3. While each features just one centre forward, the inverted wingers are forwards, too. In one sense, an Alvaro Morata or Romelu Lukaku is now operating alone. In another, he has twice as much company.

Given most fullbacks play on their stronger foot's side, it is becomes more difficult for them to defend inverted wingers, who force them to their weaker foot by cutting inside. Inverted wingers are an adjustment to exploit fullback's vulnerability. The game is always about adjustments, of course. Will managers begin deploying fullbacks to their weak sides to neutralize the inverted winger's advantage? Only time will tell.

Zaid Pathan

A huge fan of Peter Drury's bombastic post-goal narration and an ardent football follower since his teens, Zaid believes the beautiful game is the best mode of escape from the daily hustle and bustle. He particularly loves to watch the Premier League and wants English clubs to dominate Europe again.

Life may or may not be beautiful, but football surely is.

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