Tactics Tuesday: The Left Wing Conundrum

Jan Kruger

Despite (or perhaps because of) a wealth of options, Andre Villas-Boas has not settled on a first choice left winger. Who are the candidates and what are their strengths and weaknesses?

I've written a fair amount about Spurs right wingers this season. This is largely due to the emergence of Andros Townsend, a divisive figure among Spurs fans. Though we all wish him well, there remains a tremendous amount of disagreement over his value to the team; some believe he's been our best attacking player while others believe he's been a net negative. That he has, until recently, kept Aaron Lennon and Erik Lamela out of the team also contributes to the disagreement that surrounds him.

Arguments about the best player to slot in on the left are far less heated, seemingly because the candidates to fill the role simply haven't done enough for anyone to form a strong opinion one way or the other.  Nacer Chadli, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Aaron Lennon, and Erik Lamela have all started at least one game on the left wing. That Spurs have not had a real left back since Danny Rose incurred an injury has only complicated matters further. Here, I take look at the case for and against each of the contenders.

The Natural: Nacer Chadli

The case for Chadli

As the only "natural" left winger in the squad, the position should be Chadli's to lose. Despite being right footed, Chadli has spent most of his career prior to joining Spurs in the summer at left wing.  He scored 19 goals in 27 appearances last year for FC Twente, an excellent return for a winger, even if it was in Holland.  Prior to the season, former FC Twente manager Co Adriaanse described Chadli thusly:

I have rarely seen such a complete player like Nacer. I really do not know what he cannot do. Nacer is creative, strong, fast, has a great free kick and he turns excellently. Everything is beautiful in him, even his face.

In case you're wondering, I didn't even make the last part of the quote up; Adriaanse actually said that. Seriously.  In addition to being beautiful, Chadli is huge for a winger and he's a useful target on goal kicks and set pieces, as demonstrated in Saturday's match against Sunderland.

The case against Chadli

Aside from his aerial threat, Chadli has not demonstrated any major strengths  this year. He rarely takes his defender on, has failed to combine with his teammates, and hasn't been a goal threat in any of the Premier League matches he's started this season.  As a player new to the Premier League, he deserves more time before we pass any final judgments but the returns so far have been underwhelming.

The Goal Scorer: Gylfi Sigurdsson

The case for Sigurdsson

Sigurdsson has shown a greater goal threat than any other player. He plays more like a second striker than a left winger, constantly looking to get in dangerous positions, and this is reflected in the the 3 goals he's scored in his 6 starts on the left wing. Despite constantly drifting into central positions in attack, Sigurdsson is a diligent defender.

The case against Sigurdsson

As I wrote earlier this season, Sigurdsson is a bit like a left wing Jermain Defoe - when he's not scoring goals, it's easy to forget he's playing.  In the match against Newcastle, for example, he completed only 11 passes.  His tendency to drift centrally can make the field very congested, especially when he's played opposite Andros Townsend.

The Misfit: Aaron Lennon

The case for Lennon

Aaron Lennon is Spurs' best defensive winger. His positional awareness, speed, and tenacity make him a great option when the main concern is protecting the leftback.

The case against Lennon

Aside from playing against Manchester City, I can't think of another time when protecting the leftback will be the primary concern.  Other than his defensive chops, Lennon does not have much going for him when he's played on the left. He is far more indecisive than he is on the right, as reflected in this GIF.

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When played on the left, he neither looks to cut in and shoot with his right foot nor beat his man to the outside and cross the ball with his left. Instead, he typically heads down the line before switching back and crossing with his right foot, making it easy for centerbacks to cut out his crosses. Basically, I would be happy if we did not see Lennon at left wing for the remainder of the season.

The Playmaker: Erik Lamela

The case for Lamela

The argument for starting Lamela at left wing is twofold. First, he is the most talented of the left wing candidates and possibly the most talented attacking player in the squad. If Villas-Boas is intent on keeping Lennon on the right wing, and Holtby/Paulinho/Eriksen at center attacking midfield, then playing Lamela on left wing is the only way to get him on the pitch.

Second, Lamela is the most creative of the candidates. In a Spurs side that can at times look devoid of ideas, this is invaluable.  In the midweek match against Fulham, Lamela put in a decent shift from the left wing, showing a willingness to combine with others and run at defenders.

Erik Lamela vs Fulham (A) 13-14 By TB7productions (via Tb7productions)

The case against Lamela

The main argument against using Lamela on the left is that it means he's not playing in his nominally best position on the right wing. While it would be nice to see him used there more, Villas-Boas's reluctance to break up the Lennon-Walker partnership is understandable. Having a right sided combination with familiarity provides a bit of cohesion in a Spurs line-up that has seen a lot of chopping and changing since the start of the season.

On a related note, it is unclear that Lamela can't thrive on the left wing for Spurs. As our own Kevin McCauley has pointed out, Lamela has played on the left before and done very well there.  David Silva, another left footer who likes to drift centrally, has thrived on the left wing for Manchester City, even thought it might seem like he would be at his best as a right-sided attacking midfielder.

The other downside with using Lamela on the left wing is that he is not as diligent a defender as some of the other candidates and can sometimes switch off, as he did for Manchester City's third goal in the match on November 24.

The Dark Horse: Andros Townsend

The case for Townsend

Until Saturday's match against Sunderland, all of Townsend's appearances for Spurs this season came on the right wing. Townsend made the most of his opportunity, putting in two good crosses and taking a shot on target from a dangerous position. Moments after coming on, he put in this cross.

Minutes later, he followed up with this one:

It's worth noting that these crosses occurred when Sunderland were chasing the game and playing Seb Larsson at right back. Even so, it's hard to see any of the other left wing candidate making those plays.

With Danny Rose injured, Townsend could provide some much needed width on the left. A move to the left might have the side effect of curbing Townsend's frustrating habit of shooting from outlandish distances, as he will no longer be able to cut inside on his stronger left foot. He'll still have opportunities to shoot, though, just from more reasonable areas.

The case against Townsend

The main issue with arguing for playing Townsend on the left wing is sample size - Townsend simply has not played many minutes as a left winger this season. With no one else staking a strong claim for the position and Townsend acquitting himself well on Saturday, however, he certainly deserves another chance to make the position his own.

Concluding thoughts

One possibility for Villas-Boas is to balance an inverted winger on one flank with a traditional touchline hugging winger on the other. The traditional winger (Lennon on the right, Townsend on the left) can stretch play and make dangerous runs in behind the defense while the inverted winger (Lamela, Chadli, Sigurdsson) can create overloads in the center of the pitch and look to slip through balls in behind. So, for example, Villas-Boas could try a combination of Lennon on the right and one of Chadli or Sigurdsson on the left. Or he could pair Lamela on the right with Townsend on the left.

Whatever combination he chooses, Villas-Boas is surely aware of the importance of solving the left-wing conundrum. After all, it could mean the difference between Spurs playing in the Champions League or the Europa League next year.

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