Monday, September 01, 2008

Michael Kightly for Wolverhampton Wanderers (vs Nottingham Forest), 30th August 2008

They play in different leagues, so perhaps the comparison isn't valid, but two different results and contrasting styles of play caught my eye this weekend:

Wolverhampton Wanderers stormed to the top of the Championship table with an utterly convincing 5-1 defeat of Nottingham Forest at Molineux on Saturday. It was a game notable for the impact made by two genuinely flying wingers: Michael Kightly and Matt Jarvis. England U21 International Kightly, picked up for a nominal fee from Gray's Athletic late in 2006, scored two goals and Jarvis, signed from Gillingham in June 2007 for an undisclosed fee, was named man of the match. Both players are 22 years old, both are two-footed, both are English and both are out-and-out wingers. Last season, due to injuries, the two players did not manage to play in the same lineup. This year, they're both fit and have been a crucial part of Wolves' early season form. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Molineux pitch has been lengthened by five meters this year to better accommodate the flying wingers and to give them room to work behind opposition full backs.

A rather different tactic was deployed by Rafael Benitez at Villa Park on Sunday afternoon, where his Liverpool team took to the field with a stifling 5 man midfield featuring two strikers signed for a combined £30m playing on the flank. Redoubtable players they may be, but for all their manifold other talents, Dirk Kuyt and Robbie Keane are patently not wingers. I saw an advert for the new season's Liverpool shirt in the window of a sports shop over the weekend. "This isn't a badge," it trumpeted, "it's a family crest". Liverpool fans are rightly proud of their history, but this heritage also seems to have convinced them that they have some sort of divine right to the title and that this year.... every year... will be their year. With a spine of players that includes Reina, Carragher, Gerrard and Torres, they certainly ought to be competitive.... and far be it from me to criticise a manager as succesful as Benitez, but even I can see that they lack the genuine width that surely would make them harder to defend against. Yesterday's formation seemed to stifle Aston Villa's creativity, it's true, but it's not as though Liverpool came up with much either, Keane scuffing their best chance, and the result was a fairly dull 0-0 draw.

As Paul Doyle pointed out in the Guardian this morning, the Anfield pitch is 101 meters long and 68m wide. The minimum required pitch dimensions in the Premier League are 90mx45m, so in theory Liverpool could afford to shorten their pitch by 11m and reduce the flanks by a further 11m on either side. If they persist in playing in the narrow way that they do, perhaps they should consider it.... unless, that is, they're happy to remain the fourth best side in the top four.

As for Wolves....well, it might not be fashionable for clubs in the top flight to buy English talent from the lower divisions, but if they both maintain their form and fitness, surely it won't be long before Kightly and Jarvis are turning full-backs inside out in the top division. Ideally that would be with Wolves next year, but if they somehow manage to finish in their customary 7th position, then I'm sure someone else will give them their chance.

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