Are wide-forwards doomed to a self-hating semi-existence?

Arsenal's Theo Walcott sits on the pitch shortly before being substituted against Fulham

The False Nine’s Simon Smith looks at the curious case of the wide-forward. Why does nobody like them, and not least the players themselves?

The wide forward has long been something of a misfit within English football. They play an important role in the increasingly popular 4-3-3 formation, but don’t sit easily with the 4-4-2 we continue to think in terms of.

Are they doomed to a self-hating semi-existence?

The cases of Theo Walcott, Daniel Sturridge, Demba Ba and Luis Suarez have all recently illustrated both an insistence by supporters that these types of players are often wasted wide. More importantly, the players themselves seem to agree.

Why is this the case? One answer can be found in how we understand their roles on the wing. Television punditry continues to tell us that a 4-3-3 employs a “lone striker” up top, as opposed to the striker partnership we allegedly all secretly crave a return to. This is not the place to get into a technical debate about the difference between a 4-5-1 and 4-3-3, but if we think of them as the same thing the two wide attackers in a 4-3-3 become wingers in the traditional, Pulis-esque sense.

Basically in the Premier League we like to count on our wide players to beat their man and get a cross in and we like our forwards in the middle to get on the end of them, or certainly Alan Shearer does. Unfortunately this means players like Sturridge have an identity crisis – which of the two boxes does he fit in?

I would hazard a guess that Sturridge would not be a subject of positional debate if he had grown up in, for example, Spain. Neither is he a winger or a striker, he clearly occupies the grey space between. This is not only acceptable, but highly useful: an adaptable player who can drift from the channel to the flank slots perfectly into Brendan Rogers’ system.

Pedro is a great example of a player who uses his pace to get in behind but isn’t necessarily expected to either beat his man with the ball at his feet or get about the box. The difference is of course that the continental model, the 4-3-3 we now try to emulate ourselves, accepts these wide forwards as part of a front three. England on the other hand retains a classic stiff upper lip mentality where 4-3-3 is just the Dutch name for playing “one up top”, the modern jargon for five-man-midfield. To us, two of the front three are just wingers.


It’s a shame, because this bipolar understanding has clearly stifled Walcott in particular. Heir to Henry’s shirt, he clearly sees himself as a centre forward and the longer his contract negotiations rumble on, the more his acquisition of this role seems more inevitable.

The narrative of Henry’s transformation from a winger to a striker is as well known as it is exaggerated. Certainly he altered his positioning and often occupied central positions as the line leader, but as a very specific type of striker. What I mean is he did not become Alan Shearer.

Is Walcott strong enough to be the lone striker? Can he improve his hold up play? Does Sturridge have the right mental characteristics to fulfil this role? These are the sorts of questions we are bombarded with over these misfit players. It isn’t that they are unworthy questions, there are certainly aspects of truth in all three, but it does miss the point somewhat. How many headers did Henry win?

Alongside the more central Bergkamp, he often drifted wide to use his pace on the counter and was adept at working the left channel. With the pacey Freddie Ljunberg on the right wing it isn’t such a stretch of the imagination to call this a lopsided 4-3-3, despite it being listed as a 4-4-2 on the team sheet. Nonetheless, the unrelenting media gaze has long insisted that Walcott develop into one of two clearly definable categories, and the time constraint of the contract saga is the catalyst to finally determine which it shall be.

Sturridge is another anomaly to the English dislike of the unspecifiable position. Used as a wide forward rather than a true winger, he was instructed to stay high and not track back under his best Chelsea spell, the Andre Villas-Boas era. Despite his stellar half season there he still sees himself as a central striker, so his arrival at Liverpool creates somewhat of a selection headache for Rogers.

Daniel Sturridge of Chelsea

One of Sturridge or Suarez will need to occupy the right flank of the front three, and while Suarez has excelled their this season in adding goals to his undeniable trickery, it is Sturridge who has the better chance conversion rate at 15%. I for one hope that the inclusion of both in the same side will shake up the tired and outdated terms used for the positions a little, because both players have shown that they can play as a wide striker, scoring goals and creating chances.

Suarez in particular has provoked a degree of hysteria about the “gamble” of moving him out wide: surely positioning him where he has had the most prolific season of his career  – at Ajax – and continues to score a number of goals for Uruguay is hardly a gamble?

But of course that would involve us all waking up to the notion that a wide forward is not necessarily the same thing as a good old 4-4-2 Matt Jarvis-alike. Fortunately Suarez has repeatedly proven himself to be out of touch with the English fans and media during his stay at Liverpool, so presumably he can recreate the role without succumbing to the pitfalls of our minimal English understanding.

It remains to be seen whether Liverpool will be able to work Borini into the same side on the left, or whether the cutting inside whoever plays on the right will inevitably do – Stewart Downing – might necessitate a player more comfortable with chalk on his boots. Raheem Sterling’s importance could be underlined once again.

It’s a shame that none of these players enjoy playing wide because if done correctly they can be devastating when deployed there. The fact that it has been a large issue in Walcott’s contract, Sturridge’s transfer and Ba’s incompatibility with Cisse demonstrates the strength of feeling the three have over the issue.


I can’t argue with the logic behind the decision; all have proven their credentials to be selected there in the past and certainly none of the three are going to have a successful spell wide in a 4-4-2. But I do find it perplexing that some of the best wide forwards (from an admittedly shallow pool in comparison to other major leagues) are so desperate to change position while so few central attackers express a desire to play wide.

Admittedly there is a degree of glamour involved in the switch, but surely the atmosphere of the supporters has played a large factor. The message at Arsenal has certainly become “Theo, it’s time to learn to cross or learn to score” and given that ultimatum there really can’t be any surprise in his desire for a central role.

So is the wide forward destined to a life of partial acceptance in England? For now it seems so. The media obsession with the striker in the traditional poacher sense has created a debate about whether wide forwards can develop into this or instead become wingers. Players like Hulk on the other hand, so long admired by Chelsea, are understood to be strikers even when deployed wide with such regularity. Until this dialogue changes it seems the Walcotts of this world will have to conform to a specific model rather than develop into something else naturally.

Follow Simon on Twitter: @smiffysi

Follow The False Nine on Twitter: @The_False_Nine

3 thoughts on “Are wide-forwards doomed to a self-hating semi-existence?

  1. Excellent piece. Barcelona are a great example to follow with no centre forward. The hardest thing to do in football, as a team, for me is to create a goal-scoring opportunity against an organised defence who are settled into their shape long after the turnover of possession has happened. When a defence is in this shape, the middle of the pitch (where the traditional centre forward is situated) is very congested. This means that often these players are in positions where they have absolutely no influence on the play. Even world class centre forwards like Robin Van Persie and Radamel Falcao can find themselves unavailable to receive the ball and effect the play.

    What I like about Pedro is that his position at what I’ll call a “right forward” enables him to not only be constantly be involved in the play, but another important feature is when, say, Xavi is on the ball in midfield under no pressure, Pedro can make a quick diagonal burst in behind from his position on the right and latch onto a clipped ball over the top. This has been a source of several of Pedro’s goals.

    While Pedro’s threat of running in behind is present, the opposing defence has to drop. This enables Lionel Messi to drop short away from the congested space (now situated deeper) and work his magic as a false nine. It’s then easier for Barca to keep possession because of the sheer volume of players in the middle of the pitch, not to mention their supreme intelligence and technique.

    Because Pedro is also regularly in a position to receive the ball, Barcelona can keep possession more easily and maybe wear the opposition down through attrition. This is why I think the role of the stereotypical centre forward (Alan Shearer’s favourites) is dead, or certainly less prominent. As I’ve said, Pedro’s role enables him to perform two functions: Be available to receive the ball and run in behind when the opportunity presents itself.

    Andres Iniesta on the other hand on the left hand side, is more of a left midfielder whose roles vary between becoming a 4th centre midfielder or stretching the opposition out wide whenever is necessary. He’s therefore very important in helping Barcelona keep possession and gradually move forward up the pitch and force the opponents backwards. His role is different because it only requires one player to run in behind in order to create a one-on-one chance to score with the goalkeeper. Common in England would be the assumption that two wide men are in the team to perform exactly the same functions. However, Barcelona have shown that the two “wide men” in the 4-3-3 can perform very different functions but still to devastating effect.

    Players like Theo Walcott and Daniel Sturridge could excel in this type of role, but English attitudes and approaches to formations will change as slowly as the overall structure as English football finally looks to overseas for some inspiration. Against Pep Guardiola, some unenlightened may use the line that “loads of managers can win with those players”, but is this an evolution in tactics that he has begun?

  2. Thomas I completely agree, the role of players like Pedro and Sanchez at Barcelona is underrated because they are often at their best when doing seemingly nothing, while in actual fact their pace and positioning allows the more creative ball players breathing room. Contrast the use of the false-nine by Barca to Spain, who very often play much more of a 4-5-1 due to the cutting inside of the midfielders such as Iniesta, and you can clearly see how one has managed to create a strikerless formation through use of a wide forward and the other has a more patient style because they lack a direct penetrative threat. This is why Spain can often appear to be a little sterile in the first half of matches: the opposition can close them down faster than they would dare do against Barcelona because there isn’t always runners in behind the defensive line to worry about.

    I do think there are a few exceptions to the different style of wingers rule though in England. Arsenal prior to Nasri’s departure are a good example, with Walcott stretching the play on the right and hoping to get behind while Nasri played narrower to offer a passing option on the left – it amazes me more teams don’t allow their formation to lobside in this manner for the sake of balance. For defenders it’s a nightmare when choosing where to place the line, because a deep line allows the fourth central midfielder to come in and use the time and space, but attempts to close the space with a high line leaves you vulnerable to the direct threat on the other flank.

    Benitez has at times tried to achieve that strategy this season, effectively deciding that Oscar, Mata and Hazard cannot all occupy the same formation. While it is a shame to leave such a talented player on the bench, and interrupt the brilliant positional rotation they have created, the team has a tendency to get far too narrow and encourage the defense to show them the line endlessly. With the versatile wide forward Moses starting or Ramires pushed wide, the direct option is available and even if it is not used the fear that it might be encourages opponents to sit deeper as a precaution, creating the space Hazard and Mata need to operate at their best.

    Glad you liked the article – a follow up could be in the pipeline.

  3. Excellent read.

    Being a QPR fan, its very frustrating to see how many of our fans are still stuck in the 1970s ‘wingers get down the line and get crosses into the box’ mindset.

    Even in the recent matches vs Chelsea and Spurs when we’ve played Taarabt as a false9 with SWP and Mackie running beyond him, I’ve still seen plenty of complaints that the wingers weren’t getting good deliveries into the box. To who, exactly? Taarabt can’t head, and SWP isn’t exactly an ideal targetman for Mackie to aim at.

    The same thing is happening now that we seem to have signed Loic Remy. Complete confusion as to where he should play. ‘Stick him up top, we need goals from him’. ‘Don’t play him on the wing, I’ve read here that he can’t cross’. I hope Redknapp knows a wide forward when he sees one, as Remy strikes me as an ideal foil for Taarabt’s false9 position (if Mackie and SWP could finish, Adel would already have 10+ assists this year).

    And everyone is already banging on about who will ‘play up top with Remy’, even though we’ve played a front two in maybe 20% of matches in the last five years, spanning god knows how many matches.

    Thank god idiot fans aren’t picking the team.

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