At V24, we do not hide the fact that we want to create a generation of footballers in Leighton Buzzard that can comfortably use both their left and right foot. So in the lead up to our return from UK Lockdown 3, we asked some of our coaches ‘who is - or was - the most two-footed player that they’ve seen?’
The five players:
Kevin De Bruyne
I'm guessing that we're all in agreement that is a great group of players - a group that would no doubt make an excellent five-a-side team. There almost certainly wouldn’t be a need for a goalkeeper as they would never lose the ball. However, there would be one problem... Apart from Kevin De Bruyne - we’ll get to him later - all of these players play central midfield.
When we positioned this question to the coaches, there wasn’t an obligation to pick a ball-playing central midfielder. They all had the pick of any footballer, from any club, from any time, and finally, any position.
Still, no strikers, no centre-halves, no fullbacks… Only central midfielders.
But it is one positional omission that is most troubling. Where are the wingers?
I’ll admit, the term winger is somewhat outdated. In the modern era of a lone striker flanked by two advanced forward players, the old-school traditional winger simply doesn’t exist. Not since Leicester City’s title-winning season in 2016, have we seen a successful team use a 4-4-2 approach, utilising a traditional left-sided and right-sided winger.
Growing up, I became accustomed to the idea that a right-footed player plays right-wing and a left-footed player plays on the left-wing. They would hug the side-lines and then cross the ball with their ‘preferred’ foot from the corner position. Think David Beckham and Ryan Giggs.
But not anymore....
The modern wide player plays much closer to the striker and spends far more of their time infield. They also have much more responsibility for ball retention and defensive cover - tactical and situational awareness is now more important for them than ever. These players are a joy to watch and are really smart. But the biggest difference between the old-school winger and the new advanced forward? Right-footed players almost exclusively play on the left, while left-footed players do their best work on the right.
The advantages of playing a right-footed player on the left are plain to see. Cutting in creates better angles for shots; it allows crosses to be fizzed into towards the goalkeeper; and it also allows more room for the overlapping fullback to run into. Link up play with strikers as well as the number 10 is also much easier because they are in closer proximity. Players like Arjen Robben, Riyad Mahrez, Son Hueng-min and Gareth Bale have all had excellent careers playing this way.
The glaring weakness to this modern way of wing-play is when an attacker is faced up with a defender out wide. Being so one-footed can make players predictable. Defenders know that these players are going to try and cut in, and so they adjust their body shape accordingly - this comes with risk too, as full-backs know that they would be horribly exposed should the wide player go against the norm and make for the by-line to attempt a cross with their ‘non-preferred' foot.
Imagine, the choices the defenders would have to make if they were faced up with an attacker that could go both ways. All of sudden, they have to defend four potential outcomes: the cut in and shoot, the cut in and cross, the cut in and pass to an overlapping fullback and then finally the run to the by-line and cross. Even a prime Paolo Maldini would struggle with such a proposition.
Having a wide player that can go both ways also allows for more defensive stability. No longer would a team be reliant on a fullback to provide true width. Keeping that extra defender back makes recycling the ball easier, and leaves a team far less exposed to counter attacks.
Two-footed players also allow for a lot more fluidity. By designation, Kevin De Bruyne is a central player in the number 10 mould, but it is his ability to play - and cross - the ball from all different angles which grants him the freedom to roam the pitch as he pleases. It is also what makes him a truly frightening player to go against.
We are beginning to see instances of wide attackers who aren’t scared to cross with their ‘non-preferred' foot. Bukayo Saka at Arsenal is a perfect example of this. Since a switch to the right side earlier in the season, he has been a constant menace to full-backs with his ability to cut in and play outside. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come and coaches are finally realising the benefits of encouraging players to play with both feet from an early age.
Hopefully, when we ask the coaches the same question in five years, there will be some wide players mentioned.