Raffaele De Vita: Our Dirk Kuyt
What does Swindon’s number 23 share with Liverpool’s ersatz winger? Alex Cooke looks at the role Paolo Di Canio his given our recently converted striker.
It’s an ugly comparison: the nimble and neat De Vita against the angular and inelegant Dirk Kuyt, but in terms of Raffa’s new role, it is a closer match than it first appears.
For like the Dutchman, De Vita was bought to score goals based on a solid record abroad (21 goals in 40 games for Livingstone) albeit at a lower standard. Also like Kuyt, De Vita quickly found himself taken out of the firing line and shunted out into a wide position to take advantage of his industry instead of his incision.
The 24-year-old didn’t make a great start at Swindon, despite starting in his favoured position of striker: three goals were scored on debut League game but not one came from his boot. A close range tap-in in the 1-0 defeat at Cheltenham was too much tap and not enough in, and, against Oxford one intelligent run only ended up deflecting his team-mate’s shot over the bar. Only at Bristol City did he score when in the vanguard, and that was from the bench.
If anything De Vita’s failing up front stemmed from his ability and visibility. His willingness to work off the ball, to go out wide, to use his fine touch to create chances, left him open to complaints because of his lack of end product. But he didn’t hide. The fact that he kept getting into scoring positions only to offer gentle pokes or miss-hit wafts, rather than net-busting strikes, meant that some fans were calling not just for him to be dropped but to be sent back to Scottish football. Instead Di Canio kept him close to home but moved him into a wider position, where his attributes can be better used, and like Kuyt, his failings as a finisher could be obscured by his industry.
Earlier in the season the Swindon manager had used both his wingers in a more conventional fashion, aiming for the byline, carrying the ball into wide positions, attempting to isolate the opposition full-back and put in crosses. In the game against Rotherham, only Ritchie took on this role as De Vita was deployed on the left wing, and he has been there pretty much ever since.
It was a new role for the striker, but a traditional position in the game – inside forward.
From here De Vita can use his good close control and willingness to pass and move to create triangles around the opposition midfield. His job is to feed off the hold-up play of the main striker, just as he did for his goal against Barnet. In that move Connell had his back to goal but De Vita was close enough to slide a shot at the far post despite the narrow angle and being on his weaker foot.
He’s won a few headers at the back post too, including setting up Connell at Crawley but his role isn’t quite the same as envisioned by Egil Olsen who used a target man to attack the back post – famously putting the giant Jostein Flo there for Norway, bewildering then England boss Graham Taylor and his stand-in full-back Gary Pallister in the process.
In his current role De Vita makes little or no attempt to dribble or to cross. Instead he drifts from a wider position into the left channel, pulling the full-back in with him, allowing space for Kennedy to overlap.
The exception was against Rotherham, when he tried to carry the ball forward on his without much success, bar once although that was more by luck than skill. But then, as De Vita told the Advertiser soon after, he hadn’t had much warning of his new role: “I was told the day before the Rotherham game that I was going to be on the bench, but then an hour before the game I was told I was starting. At times it worked while at other times I struggled a little bit because I had to listen to what Callum (Kennedy) was saying to me, but overall I thought I did okay.”
This mention of his full-back partner also hints at another benefit: protection for the defence. Having a forward looking to attack keeps the opposition full-back engaged and prevents him moving up the pitch. And while an orthodox winger could do this same job, De Vita’s excellent discipline means he backs up Kennedy and his wide, but deep, starting position puts himself in front of any opposition wide midfielders.
At the same time his presence also stiffens the central midfield, covering the central pair as they seek to close the gaps in the middle offering solid tackling and neat passing.
De Vita admits that it has taken him time to adapt to the role: “I played wide right when playing three up front but that was a totally different thing because you just worry about going forward and do not have to track back” he told the Adver in the same interview. “Playing on the left of a 4-4-2 is an important role because you have to help out when we do not have the ball but also attack when we do.“
The positive side of the role is clear, as chances are being fashioned and sometimes finished, but there is a downside. With little or no left foot and not a vast amount of pace to create chances of his own, he needs support therefore increasing Swindon’s dependence on Ritchie’s creating and crossing.
However, Di Canio has a keen defender of using forwards in wide roles: “It’s funny when I see centre-forwards starting off in the middle against their markers and then going away from goal. Strikers going inside are far more dangerous, I think’, Sir Alex Ferguson told the Guardian. ‘When [Thierry] Henry played as a striker, and sometimes when Wayne [Rooney] does, they try to escape and create space by drifting from the centre to wide positions, when that actually makes them less dangerous.”
While his selection might be almost automatic, De Vita rarely gets 90 minutes. As was noted on The Washbag, De Vita is one of only three players to have started all 13 league games however, he’s also been subbed off on 8 separate occasion, and seemingly only once through injury.
But what is also interesting is who he has been replaced by. Instead of the adventurous Gabilondo coming on, or the steady Esajas, two full-backs have been pressed into the role – Chibocchi and Ridehalgh – indicating that Di Canio has no intention of returning to the more direct 442 he used against Shrewsbury, even when chasing the game. Which is a shame as we do have a supply of wingers who might be able to make a difference.
However, with De Vita in a wide role much of the terrace grumbling seems to have stopped, and if he can start turning hard graft into goals, and offer performance such as the one against Hereford, so will some of these ugly comparisons.