Width: The one player Liverpool and football, has never replaced.

Posted by JMarsh on January 24, 2005, 07:16:48 PM

Genuine wingers are a rare commodity in the modern game. So many squads, even at the top level, are packed with technically gifted midfielders, but all of whom are best suited to roles in the centre.

Liverpool has been a perfect example of this in recent years. Danny Murphy, Vladimir Smicer, Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Dietmar Hamann, Igor Biscan, Salif Diao, Gary McAllister have all graced the club, have all played at international level and are all best suited to the central midfield role. Even players such as Luis Garcia and Harry Kewell, in some people’s opinion are best suited to free roles. Antonio Nunez has played on the right wing so far, but even he has hinted that he prefers a striker’s role.

We’ve been starved of a player who can hold a position on the wing, giving us width, and when receiving the ball can actually carry the ball and go past players and, crucially, provide an end product.

Traditionally, in Liverpool’s best sides, we’ve had genuine wingers. Peter Thompson and Ian Callaghan were the best example of this. When both played, we could pull opposition teams from one side to the other. Steve Heighway followed, another who was a master at creating goals for others from wide positions.

And then, in 1987 came in my opinion one of the greatest wingers ever seen in the game, and one of Liverpool’s most talented ever players. It’s odd to believe that John Barnes’s most famous moment in football came 3 years before he signed for Liverpool from Watford for £900,000. He dazzled the Brazilian defence with pace, skill and close control on his way to scoring one of the greatest goals by an England player.

Ironically, Barnes never went no to show his true abilities at international level. Aside from Gascoigne, I haven’t seen another England player of the past 30 years who could change a game with the ball at his feet. But for Liverpool, Barnes was at times, unstoppable.

Unfortunately I never got to see Barnes play live during his best days. I did see him however once he’d lost a lot of pace, and simply converted himself to a holding midfield player…where he showed off his passing abilities for 2 or 3 years before he left for Newcastle United. However I’ve seen endless footage of his finest moments.

The classic Barnes strike was cutting in from the left hand side and firing an unstoppable right footed shot into the top far corner. It happened numerous times at Anfield and also at Goodison Park. Also, from dead ball situations, his left foot could often produce a curled shot of great pace which flew into the top corner. I also remember him scoring a spectacular overhead kick in 1994, as well as a couple of cheeky back-heeled goals in the FA Cup against Crewe, and in the Cup Winners Cup in 1996 against Sion. He was actually a great finisher for a midfielder, and it’s no surprise he scored 108 times in his 409 appearances for Liverpool.

But we all know what was best about Barnes. In a rout of Forest in the late 1980s, he was right by the corner flag on the left wing, Kop End. He had three forest players around him. He simply turned, pushed the ball between a defender's legs, then skipped to the side of another challenge before laying on the ball for Beardsley. John Motson could only gasp and marvel at the move.

On his day, he would pick the ball up seven to ten times a game, and turn to face the defender, a quick change of direction and he was away, it didn’t matter which way, his right foot was as good as his left. His pace and strength and close control on the ball would do the rest. The cross or shot would follow, and a chance or a goal would often be the end result. Ian Rush or John Aldridge, often the finisher.

Barnes won two titles at Liverpool, and one FA Cup winners’ medal, a Coca Cola Cup and 3 Charity Shields. During his first title year of 1987/88, Barnes scored 15 times and was voted both PFA and Football Writers Player of the Year. In the second of his title wins (1989/90) he scored an impressive 22 goals. He went on to captain Liverpool in the mid-90s, once he’d switched roles on the pitch, and eventually received an MBE.

In other positions on the pitch, one of the reasons why Liverpool had such prolonged success through the 70s and 80s, was how players were replaced. Keegan was replaced by Dalglish, for example. And even later, Ian Rush was replaced by Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler. In Fowler, there is no doubt in my mind we had a player who, injury permitting, could've gone on to break Rush's record. But one difference, Rush played in a team when chances were created for him regularly. He missed plenty, but scored a hell of a lot. Fowler rarely missed. But one player we've never even got closed to replacing, is Barnes.

For me, John Barnes is not just the type of player we’ve never replaced, but also the type that is extremely difficult to find in the modern game. I have no doubt that in Xabi Alonso, we have possibly found a player of Barnes’s class, and the type of composed passer that we desperately need. However, not just Liverpool but the game in general craves wide players.

Again, Liverpool are the example. The only players who I say appear to be most natural out wide are Riise, when he does play in midfield, and Nunez. The jury is still out on Nunez but his crossing has improved lately, although I have doubts about his pace and his ability to beat a defender. We’ll see. As for Riise, he continually fails to offer width high up the pitch. He reaches about 35-40 yards out and then that’s it, he plays the ball backwards or square. When was the last time you saw John Arne Riise get to the byline and make a decent cross? When in the mood and fit, Kewell can do it, although he’s clearly happier floating around the pitch and doing damage in various positions.

It’s no surprise to me that Chelsea are top of the league (aside from their money) and they have Duff and Robben, the two best wingers in the country this season. Manchester United are currently invincible, and this has coincided with the return of form of Ryan Giggs, in my opinion, the best dribbler of a ball since Barnes. Cristiano Ronaldo, hate him or not, he’s a very talented player and offers plenty of width, and can certainly beat a player.

How I wish to see the day when Liverpool have a quick winger on each side of the pitch, especially now in Morientes, we have a player who is quite fabulous in the air. Maybe Nunez can be a temporary solution to this, and if Kewell can ever find his form of old, maybe he can to.

So it is with this, that I end with a plea to Manchester City manager Kevin Keegan and anyone else who manages Shaun Wright-Phillips in the next ten years. Please, please please, do not convert this guy into a forward. He is a marvelous winger and if you take him from that wing, you are halving the player.

© J Marsh 2005

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