Swindon’s wingers are always cutting in instead of crossing from the by-line, Alex Cooke looks at seven reasons why.
‘Why doesn’t Matt Ritchie go down the line?’ ‘What is Ritchie doing crossing from there?’ ‘Why won’t he pass?’ You can hear the questions in the stands, read them on the forums and scroll quickly past them on Twitter.
For a player so highly rated at Swindon and by so many other clubs, Matt Ritchie’s play seems to, if not divide, then confuse.
Every time we don’t get a result, or he has a quiet game you can hear it: Why doesn’t he use his skill to beat a man, get to the line and put a cross onto the centre forward’s head? The answer can be found in the other comment that you so often hear in the stands: ‘Why doesn’t Paolo Di Canio put a left footer on the left and a right footer on the right?’
Ever since his arrival at Swindon, Di Canio has played what has become commonly called ‘inverted wingers’. It’s a fashionable term but all it really means is that instead of the wide players having their strongest foot nearest the touchline, they play with their strongest foot in on the inside. So, in Swindon’s case, the left-footed Ritchie plays on the right and the right-footed Raffa De Vita or Luke Rooney plays on the left. The result is that the two wingers are naturally drawn back into the centre of the pitch, instead of into the wide open spaces on the flanks.
As Jonathan Wilson points out it’s a strategy that is common throughout the world and dates back decades, but it still seems controversial to many at the County Ground, even if there at least seven good reasons why Swindon use inverted widemen.
1. Swindon don’t have the wingers
Traditional wingers need to be exceptionally quick or very skilful – to be effective they have to be able to beat a defender to get in a cross, or cross from deep – and none of Ritchie, Billy Bodin, Etienne Esajas, Rooney, De Vita or Lander Gabilondo have the sheer pace required to beat a man on the outside. But inverted wingers don’t need to be that swift or hugely talented. They do need to be able to dribble a little but they can cross without having to beat the fullback even once.
Traditional wingers also need to play high up the field so they can attack quickly from any break and cross balls into the on-rushing striker. Inverted wingers can start from a deeper starting position, as they don’t need to get behind the fullback. This allows them to support the central midfield more easily and protect their own fullback more effectively.
A winger looking to cut inside also doesn’t require the support of a striker when it comes to the counter-attack. Instead their natural tendency is to run on the diagonal towards goal, not away from it towards the corner flag. So they will naturally be more central and better able to shoot themselves. And in Ritchie’s case especially, this has proven an extremely valuable asset as he is so he keen to have a shot on goal that it seems to have become almost an obsession.
Di Canio already seems to be grooming Rooney to play the same role on the opposite flank with the former Gillingham man even commenting on it after his debut against Macclesfield. ‘Cutting inside is definitely something I like to do because I like to shoot, but obviously it is not all about that, it is also about setting up goals like I did on Saturday’.
2. Swindon don’t (currently) have the forwards
Traditional wingers who whip in crosses from the by-line demand tall, powerful, incredibly aggressive headers of the ball. None of the current strike force of Paul Benson, Lukas Magera, Alan Connell or Ronan Murray have such aerial strength, or desire. Certainly Connell is the closest but he lacks the height and bulk to crash man and ball into the net. Inswinging crosses, such as from an inverted winger, demand less neck-power as they already aimed almost at the goal and only need to be flicked, or diverted in.
3. Swindon don’t have the pitch
One of the many things Steve McMahon changed about the Country Ground was the width of the pitch. Ours is now pretty narrow at 70m, and so there aren’t great swaths of space on the flanks to run into. So no longer are the spaces are to be found outside the opposition fullbacks, they are located in front of them.
Were we to take the pitch back to the old width as one of the widest in the league it would certainly undermine Di Canio’s tactics. For the Italian’s plans rely on pressuring the opposition and compressing the play into a narrow band.
With a wider pitch, that wouldn’t work and our defence would be left exposed outside of the fullbacks, especially against a side such as Wigan’s whose 433 puts two wingers right up against our fullbacks. This system also give any team a spare man in the middle and with a wide pitch that would leave Swindon’s midfield two horrible exposed. However, with inverted wingers who naturally make the pitch narrow, these tucked in winger can more easily support the two central players.
4. Swindon do have the fullbacks
Paul Caddis is an exceptional attacking fullback: full of drive, energy and effort. He is also a good crosser of the ball and using an inverted winger in front of him gives him space to attack. For with Ritchie running towards the box, and hopefully taking the rival fullback with him, there Caddis is up against an isolated rival. He knows that he isn’t competing with Ritchie to get into the by-line, or risking becoming outnumbered as he bombs forward.
It also give the attack some variety as with Caddis delivering orthodox crosses from the by-line, and to a lesser extent, Callum Kennedy doing the same from deeper on the opposite flank, we have both in-swinging and out-swinging crosses going into the box.
The disadvantage is clearly that the box becomes more crowded as the wingers drive towards it. That is unless one of the centre forwards is intelligent enough to look for space outside it – something that Magera does by dropping deep and Benson seems to do by shifting into the right-hand channel.
5. The opposition are set up for it
While inverted wingers are increasingly becoming the standard worldwide, most teams don’t set up their players to counter them. Understandably most teams play left-footed fullbacks play on the left and right-footed ones on the right, partly so that they can continue to attack on the outside.
Except that a right-footed fullback on the right side is at a massive disadvantage against a right-footed left winger and vice versa. Straight away this fullback has to tackle with his wrong foot as the winger wants to go towards the goal, not the corner flag. It’s a problem that few have solved yet, although Morecambe did try swapping over their two defenders early on in the game. Obviously it didn’t work.
Interestingly there seems to have been very little research into if inswinging or outswinging crosses are the most effective. Even in Ken Bray’s highly detailed book ‘How To Score’, which looks at the physics of football and the statistics behind the game, crosses are only really discussed as part of corner taking. In that case, inswingers are proven less effective but only because of the lack of space from a corner to bend the ball out and in again – which is precisely the opposite of the deep position from which an inverted winger would cross.
6. Deep defending can’t stop it
‘Parking the bus’ stops traditional wingers. With no space to run into behind the defence they quickly run out of room to cross. However, an inverted winger already delivers their crosses from in front of the defence and so, if anything, a ‘parked bus’ defence actually suits them. Even if the back line isn’t that deep, the less physical nature of the modern game makes it easier for a player to shield the ball with their body, turning away from the corner flag and into the centre of the pitch to cross. The defender knows that getting tight to his man would prevent the inswinging cross, but being so close would leave them enormously open to having the ball pushed beyond them on the outside.
7. It works for Swindon
Raffa De Vita has scored six goals this season, the majority of which have come as the result of an inswinging cross from Ritchie. It has almost become a cliché that every scout must return home after a trip to the County Ground with the move circled in red – Ritchie crosses, Raffa sneaks in at the back post – but so few fullbacks seem able to defend against it. The quality of the delivery is such that while they must know about it, they seem powerless to stop it.
The same goes for Ritchie coming inside to shoot. He has scored ten League goals, and again, the majority have come from shots from a central position: Rotherham must have known it, Wigan would have known it and yet three times in that FA Cup tie the winger found himself in the centre of the pitch and three times he almost scored.
So, it doesn’t matter if it is the formation or a players’ own foibles that are forcing Ritchie, Rooney, Gabilondo or De Vita into the middle – so long as they keep doing it and Swindon keep scoring.