After scoring twice at Tranmere and impressing against Preston, the winger is finally stepping out of Matt Ritchie’s shadow. By Alex Cooke
Gary Roberts hasn’t so far lived up to Town fans’ expectations, or his big wages. Paolo Di Canio once angrily accused him of playing ‘tippy- tappy football’ and some Swindon fans have said much worse. Usually at high volume, and usually from the seat just behind mine.
However, Roberts’ switch to the right flank seems to have rejuvenated the former Huddersfield winger, and he has become more accurate in his shooting, more dangerous in his crossing and better at linking with those around him.
Against Hartlepool, he was unlucky to be denied twice by a ‘keeper in superb form. Against Tranmere, he scored an outrageous winner – and celebrated in deservedly demented fashion. And, against Preston, he provided probably the best pass of the match.
Is it possible that the simple shift in flanks has made the difference, or has something else changed in the way that Roberts plays?
Since the start of last season the right side has been the primary route of attack for Swindon. From the gloriously attacking triumvirate of Paul Caddis, Simon Ferry and Matt Ritchie, to Nathan Thompson’s more robust style, Town have lent heavily on their right side.
Wes Foderingham has also long kicked from his hands towards the superior spring of Ritchie and, when the ball has been rolled out of defence, it seems to slightly more often go up the right than left.
Part of the reason for this has been tactical: Rafa De Vita has provided a hugely effective additional attacker of in-swinging crosses from the right, scoring 14 league and cup goals in the process. Where he isn’t quite as effective is in taking on his marker and creating chances for others – including the right winger.
Also the left side of midfield has been mostly occupied by Tommy Miller, who under Di Canio had a brief to hold his position, not support the winger as freely Ferry does
Similarly, the left-back position has been largely given to the more defensive of the full-backs: Alessandro Chibbochi, Jay McEverley and Alan McCormack. The right full-back has often had far more freedom to attack, both by default and by design.
However, despite some early criticism about his work-rate, Roberts is physically able to cope with the demands of both positions. He tracks back well, but prefers to guide and jostle rather than dive into tackles as Ritchie did. This has resulted in him giving away around half the fouls of the Bournemouth man (22 to 40).
But make no mistake, the flank of a modern 442 can be a very demanding place to play. Far from merely dribbling at defenders, wingers must do so much more.
“Complete players” is the term that Walter Novellino, former Napoli and Sampdoria coach uses, saying wingers must be “very good in defence and attack. In fact, in my 442, they are the true attackers.” And his system was very close one used another by another Italian in the attacking and athletic demand placed on his wide-men.
In fact, the perfect illustration of this strain the wingers are put under comes in the amount of times in which Rafa De Vita seems to tire and require substituting in the second half.
As Roberts also demonstrates the days of wingers being free to solely drive to the by-line are long gone. Tele Santana, coach of the great Brazilian sides in 1982 and 1986, gave his wide midfielders no special dispensation.
“In my view wingers are players like any other and the fact that they have 7 or 11 on their backs in no way obliges them to stay glued to the line. Today’s attackers are called upon to move about endlessly”, he said, despite being a former winger himself. “Men must burst through on the flanks , but that doesn’t mean it’s the exclusive task of a special player.”
Roberts certainly has no fear of coming off the flank. In fact, he has a natural starting position deeper and slightly further infield than Ritchie did. He also tends to drift slightly more towards the centre, but stays further away from goal. While this means he doesn’t as often get into a shooting position, it does open the channel for Nathan Thompson to gallop past. In fact, the Hartlepool game was notable for the way in which Roberts cleverly used his own strength and patience, to make space by staying still and so opening gaps for Thompson to burst through.
Interestingly against Preston, Robert’s positional discipline was greater, staying wide and available throughout the second half – even if the team lacked to wit to find him.
Roberts is also less aggressive in when he cuts in-field. Where Ritchie would dribble in, to either commit the right-sided centre back or shoot, Roberts looks for a pass into the channel between full-back and centre-back. Again, the statistics point us in the same direction – 31 to 20 shots between the two men. And Roberts has half the assists of Ritchie (5 to Ritchie’s 10) although assists are a very subjective measurement.
At first, particularly against Crawley and Hartlepool, it seemed that the forwards didn’t quite read Roberts’ passing intentions, but against Preston, his played a beautiful ball inside the full-back, creating the best chance of the first half for Williams to cross for Miller to head on goal.
Where Richie’s goal return was far beyond most people’s expectation for his position, Roberts three league goals is meagre. Obviously Ritchie was more likely to shoot almost on sight, Roberts (Tranmere excluded) prefers to be far close in before letting fly. Interestingly where his predecessor would usual aims low and shoot back towards to right flank, across his body, Roberts aims for the top corner. Just as he did against Crawley.
Finally, and perhaps this is key, he seems more confident. Roberts looks happier knowing that the right side is his, and he is revelling in that certainty and security: he knows he has to play every week. He also knows that, whoever his boss is next week, they don’t have his replacement sat on the bench.
“I couldn’t imagine scoring a goal after the last couple of weeks where keepers have been pulling them, Roberts recently reflected. “Against Colchester he’s pulled it out of the top corner, the Hartlepool keeper’s saved one which I didn’t think he should save and I got one disallowed early in the second half (against Tranmere) and I was just thinking my goals have dried up.”
As his comment hints, he is shooting with greater certainty, control and regularity. He is also building an understand, at least with Thompson and Williams, that is certain to bear fruit. And, if Roberts can continue to show his greater willingness to play for the collective, to create, to pass, he might finally be able to do something his next manager won’t be able to do – escape the comparison with a certain right winger.
Picture credits: thisisstfc.co.uk