DOWNING : WINGER OR DIAMOND

Be honest. Who thought at the time Stewart Downing was an expected signing for Middlesbrough?

Many of us felt we desperately needed another striker with last summer’s transfer budget, rather than spend the 5½ million on a 31-year-old winger.

Speculation arose that the signing of Downing was SG’s decisión, and not Karanka’s – it looked like the beginning of some tension when it manifested itself last Month, when Karanka deliberated his walk out – personally, I reckon the reports that they were divided are far from the truth.

It was a gamble by Karanka, putting all the eggs in one basket, but we are now reaping the benefits of finally having a big squad – and we’ve gone from one extreme to the other as far as striking options are concerned!

The issue here is, people expected him to come in as our Number 10 after his performances for West Ham the previous season, However the formation was different then with Downing playing at the point of the diamond in a 4-3-1-2 formation. It made you wonder if perhaps he’d been held back all his career, stuck out wide by Steve McClaren, Martin O’Neill, and Kenny Dalglish in rigid 4-4-2 systems. Brendan Rodgers even had him playing at left back! (Downing had 0 goals and 0 assists in the season before West Ham signed him!)

Downing’s delivery of corners and free kicks has always been without question. So how was it that by playing in a new position, Downing even managed to deliver better set pieces? – it can only be confidence and momentum?

The diamond formation, as it’s dubbed in England, requires a ‘number 10’ at the point of the diamond, with the other three midfielders tucked in more central. Downing thrived in that role. The width was provided by the two forwards, and, of course, the number 10, who pulled out wide whenever they felt it was required, and that calls for a good understanding between the three of them, aswell as a good reading of the game. Downing, Sakho, and Valencia pulled it off to a tee.

When Sakho went wide, either to the left or the right, Valencia moved into the centre more, and vice-versa. At times, it can look as if you’re playing without a centre forward, and then suddenly you have 3 in the centre forward position – a nightmare for central defenders, especially for some British defenders, who haven’t been brought up to face such mobility.

In the diamond formation, the full backs, with no wide midfielders/wingers in front of them, also have a lot more room to push forward and link up with the forwards or the number 10 down the wing, and that’s why the formation can be a very attacking one – full backs playing almost like wing backs.

You can wonder whether Nugent or Rhodes would fit into 4-3-1-2; whether they have enough tactical nous or mobility to pull out into those wide areas and open up the space in the middle for the number 10 to move into, but Karanka would never change his sytem and has Stuani, Adomah and Downing on the “wings”.

Stuani has never looked that great on the ” wing”, but in the air, he’s probably one of the best at the club at the moment?

As long as we don’t become dependent on the long ball up to Rhodes then having that option is fine – the ball in the air should always be just an option.

4-3-2-1 has been the main formation used in Argentina, and also often in Italy, Spain, and Germany too, for the last 30 years. It looks like the team is playing without strikers, such is the interchanging, roaming, and pulling out wide of the front free. That’s the beauty of the system.

With three central midefielders behind him, the player at the point of the diamond is not required to track back as much as midfielders in 4-4-2, something which British fans have had problems understanding, or adjusting too – the number 10 is the thinking player, the one who should be postioning himself as an outlet when his team are not in possession, ready to receive the ball when they regain it, in any space he sees opening up, rather than thinking about defensive duties.

The problem with the defintion of the ‘Number 10’ position in England is that, unlike other countries, British football vernacular has never had a proper name for the role, mainly because the position never really existed here until recently. Some pundits, wrongly, refer to 2nd strikers like Rooney or Sheringham as playing in the number 10 position, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Abroad, it’s a clearly defined role, the attacking midfielder, at the point of the diamond, who plays in a free role. It got dubbed ‘number 10’ in other countries because invariably those players, like Riquelme, Baggio, Totti, Socrates, Zico, Zidane tended to wear that shirt, but there are proper terms for the position abroad eg, ‘Enganche’ in Spanish, ‘Trequartista’ in Italian, which are as much part of their football parlance as full back or centre forward.

One wonders how much English players like John Barnes and Chris Waddle were held back, especially at international level, where they were pigeon-holed as wingers, and instructed to stick to the flanks?

In 1991, England manager Graham Taylor said he had sat down with Barnes, and was fascinated by his knowledge of international football. Barnes had pointed out that all the most skillful and creative players at international level operated from more central positions, so, as a result, Taylor tried Barnes in the number 10 role for a friendly vUSSR in May 91, but he reverted back to 4-4-2 at half time, and never varied from it again, claiming the rest of the team didn’t understand what was required.

Waddle, as a radio pundit, has always been scathing in his criticisms of English football, especially the national team. He found a new lease of life, playing in the number 10 role at Marseille, and has been ranting away about the inflexibility of British football, and British managers, ever since.

Who wouldn’t have liked to have been a fly on the wall, during those discussions between Karanka and the board back in May. I would have loved to have heard the tactical debate; how they proposed to provide the fans with more attacking and entertaining football this season, but I doubt there are any of us who thought the result would be (or ever will be) 4-3-1-2, with Downing at the point of the diamond?

Heres Downings comments from an article in Fourfourtwo on performance and training…….

“When I was first at Middlesbrough, one of our coaches would say, ‘You’re just going to use your right foot for the next 10 minutes.’ This forced me to improve my weaker foot. If you rely on using your favoured foot, it’s easier for the defender to mark you – he can shut the line off and show you inside, where you’ll run into more bodies. You’re harder to stop when you can shift the ball both ways and use either foot. Get over the fear of using your weaker foot with plenty of practice.”

“If I’m playing with an aerial striker, I try to hit an area I know he’s going to attack. If I’m playing with  finisher, I find his feet. If you put the ball in the right areas and no one gets on the end of it, strikers will hold their hands up and say, ‘I wasn’t there’. Don’t try and whip every cross. Focus on getting your body around the ball and making good contact. Make sure you’re stable when you strike the ball; if you’re off-balance you won’t put in a decent cross.”

“Out wide, you can come short, spin and run in behind the full-back. When you play at the top of the diamond it’s different. You have to find angles, because you’ve got midfielders and central defenders around you, waiting to hit you with a tackle. You have to get used to receiving the ball side-on, so you can turn and run forward. You also have to think about the movement of your team-mates and how it alters now you’re in a different position.”

“When I was coached by Teddy Sheringham he said to me, ‘It’s no good just playing in the position; you’ve got to get goals and create – that’s your job’. It’s not just about playing well; you’ve got to be effective. My way of thinking has changed. When you’re there to make a difference in the final third, you’re going to lose the ball sometimes. Through balls will get cut out, but it only takes one to get through to set up a goal. Don’t fear this. Have confidence, be brave and keep trying.”

“As a winger you’ve got to get inside the back post and get goals. In a central role it’s different. When we cross the ball into the box, defenders target the striker and try to block him. I look for gaps and space around him. It’s about timing. When you’ve got a chance, you must not rush. Teddy says, ‘You don’t always have to whack it – you can place it and put it in the corners’. That’s what I’ve been trying to do – place it in the corners and hit it low and hard.

“It’s all about making the right decisions in the right areas. A lot of players, especially when they’re younger, have unbelievable ability but they use it in the wrong areas. When I was younger and I cost the team a goal by losing the ball in the defensive third, the manager would say, ‘There’s your lesson’. Take chances in the final third – not near your own goal. If you lose the ball further up the field, the opposition still have to travel 60-70 yards before they can harm you.”

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