Saturday, December 02, 2006

Delocalized wingers

This may possibly be the most geeky sports column I have ever written or ever will write, but bear with me. Delocalized electrons are electrons in a molecule that are not directly tied to one specific bond, but rather shared over larger sections of the molecule (for a more complete definition, see the Wikipedia article here.) The classic example of this is benzene, a 6-carbon ring structure usually depicted with 6 single bonds and 3 double bonds: due to delocalization, the actual bonds are actually between double and single character, and spread evenly out over the molecule. This makes benzene incredibly stable.

What relevance to sports does this have, you may ask? Well, it perfectly describes the innovative style of football (soccer for those of you who insist on North American terminology:P) that Manchester United have been playing thus far this season. On paper, their regular lineup appears as the standard 4-4-2 formation (four defenders, four midfielders (two in the middle, two on the wings), and two strikers). However, the key difference this season is how they have been utilizing their wingers.

Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo are two of the best wingers in the game, and have been effective in previous campaigns with the standard winger tactics of deep runs down the sides. This year, they have taken things to a new level, via a delocalization process. Giggs usually plays the left flank, and Ronaldo the right, but this year, they both frequently move into the middle or even to the other's side of the pitch. In fact, frequently when watching United this year, Ronaldo and Giggs will combine on one side to form an attacking run, flooding one side of the defence much like the Canadian football or basketball tactic used against a zone system. This creates no end of confusion for opposing defences, and is one of the reasons that United are at the top of the Premiership table. A perfect example of this was United's second goal in the Middlesbrough match. The play developed off an attack down the left flank, but then Ronaldo darted in to the middle from his position on the right, received a cross in the box, came over to the left side of the goal and played a short pass back to Giggs, who delivered a perfect cross that Darren Fletcher headed into the net.

The other reason that this system works is the play of the wingbacks, or outside defenders. The typical problem that faces teams attempting a system like this is that when the wingers move to the same side, the width of the field is decreased, providing less attacking options. However, this is not the case for United. Wingbacks Gary Neville and Gabriel Heinze frequently step up into attack, often even at the same time, and fulfill the winger's role. This also helps when either Giggs or Ronaldo moves towards the middle, drawing the wide defenders with them: Neville or Heinze will then create an overlapping run down the open flank, which has frequently led to excellent scoring chances. Having the wingbacks press forward so aggressively means that attacks on both flanks can be maintained, even with the wingers moving into the middle or to the other side. This system is certainly unconventional, but it works very effectively. As benzene shows with its exceptional stability, sometimes delocalization can be the best tactic!

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