Wingers have long been some of the most loved players in the English game, but as the likes of Emile Heskey and Dirk Kuyt proved, you don’t always have to be a winger to play on the wing…
It’s May 2001 and Sven-Goran Eriksson, the first foreign manager of the England national team, is preparing for a friendly against Mexico. With a number of regulars absent, he has a selection dilemma.
The problem is up front. Alan Shearer is a year into retirement and Wayne Rooney still in the academy, so it’s down to Liverpool to provide striking options for the national team. Too many of them, in fact: there’s Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and a player who The Guardian’s David Lacey will refer to simply as “their burly Anfield colleague.”
That burly player is the six-foot-two Emile Heskey, who — in the absence of both Steve McManaman and Nick Barmby — is actually going to play on the left wing.
“Heskey on the left wing?” Eriksson teases an assembled room of journalists. “He can do that with a smile. He is very good at attacking from deep positions on the wing and he can go either side.”
England win 4-0; Heskey (11) concedes a penalty.
Now it should be pointed out that the smiling Heskey of 2001 is a more mobile player than the target man he will become under Fabio Capello. That late-period Heskey will score very few goals, bungle some step-overs at the 2010 World Cup and come to epitomise a lack of guile, skill and pace in the national side. This Heskey is not that Heskey.
That being said, it’s still pretty hard to conceive of any Emile Heskey playing on the wing. His attributes – he had many positive ones – don’t obviously serve the role of ‘winger’, a role that usually demands trickery and pinpoint crosses.
But the Heskey situation isn’t as rare as it might be. Every now and again, a player will appear on the wing so seemingly ill-equipped for the role that you wonder if they’ve misread the chalkboard.
Andy Johnson, famed poacher and penalty expert? Stick him on the wing, yeah. Rory Delap? He’s basically David Beckham, isn’t he?
The unorthodox wing stylings of Dirk Kuyt
Needless to say, unorthodox wingers don’t always work, but every now and again a non-technical player will, through luck or willpower, take to the wing like a very big duck to water.
Another former Liverpool player, Dirk Kuyt, typified that phenomenon between 2006 and 2012.
Equipped with a modest amount of natural skill, the Dutchman was instead a genuine workaholic, running nonstop over 90 minutes and leaving no ball unchased.
Somehow, this winger with few winger attributes proved mightily effective. Over the course of his Liverpool career, Kuyt recorded a more-than-reasonable strike rate of a goal every four games, including that hat-trick against Manchester United, massively endearing himself to the Kop in the process.
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Others have played the unorthodox winger role with similar vigour.
Jon Walters, for example, spent much of his Stoke career on the wing, often reaping unexpected rewards from the position. And in 2017-18, the six-foot-three Collin Quaner — a player who once scored an incredible Tony Popovic-style own goal — jostled his way to four assists from out wide at Huddersfield.
There are more glamorous examples too. Nerds will scream ‘Raumdeuter!’, but when Thomas Müller plays out wide for Bayern or Germany, he’s essentially a rich man’s Dirk Kuyt, using his nous and athleticism to get into goalscoring positions with nary a step-over in sight.
Clearly, unorthodox wingers exist in droves. But why?
Tactics or novelty?
From a tactical perspective, it sort of makes sense to deploy one of these anti-wingers in your side.
Opposition defences are designed to negate an attack, which means — in slightly simplistic terms — that centre-backs must be tall to out-jump big strikers and full-backs must be nimble to deal with tricky wingers.
So when, out of the blue, a massive unit of a player appears on the wing, how does the opposition full-back cope? In physical battles, the unorthodox winger can often prevail.
The downside, of course, is that these players don’t always have the feet to deliver a killer pass, cross or shot once they’ve bettered an opponent, which can frustrate strikers and supporters alike. Kuyt scored some legendary tap-ins, but it’s hard to score a tap-in from the touchline.
For my money, though, tactical justification of unorthodox wingers is irrelevant, their raison d’être being far simpler.
In a game overpopulated with trick-savvy wingers in orange boots, the sight of a big, bruising player toiling away on the sideline is just great fun. The unorthodox winger is a gift from Sven, from Pulis, from Benitez, to you, the overcharged and underwhelmed fan.
Yes, the novelty factor is surely why Kuyt-like players keep turning up on the flanks.
After all, seeing a player in utterly the wrong place is rarely dull. It’s always brilliant when a goalkeeper comes up for a corner or when an outfielder has to play in goal. Harry Kane hat-tricks are great, but goalkeeper Harry Kane fumbling a routine free-kick into the Tottenham net? Much better.
If the player succeeds in the unfamiliar role, well that’s just a bonus.
The unorthodox winger is a less extreme case than the goalscoring goalkeeper, but it follows the same principle: the unexpected always trumps the expected. When those wingers play well, perhaps even grabbing a hat-trick against a rival, the joy they provide can be almost limitless.
This makes those players, in their own weird way, a beautiful thing in football: often incapable, occasionally magnificent, always interesting.
Heskey on the wing? Sven, I can’t think of anything better.