Alf Ramsey, as England manager, famously won a World Cup with a team of ‘wingless wonders’; a side that utilised its strong centre to hit the heights football’s motherland failed to reach with Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney, John Barnes and Chris Waddle and other wing commanders. However, Liverpool, the most successful English club, are failing on the pitch due to (amongst other factors) such on-field narrow-mindedness.

The dearth of creative and varied football at Anfield of late has been mainly because of the inability of either full backs or wingers to provide significant attacking input, overloading responsibility onto Steven Gerrard to feed Fernando Torres and leaving one key supply chain to be cut off and defended against.

This has less to do with Tom Hicks, George Gillett and the boardroom wrangles of the last three years than it has to do with the transfer decisions of Rafael Benitez over the previous six seasons: he either bought centrally inclined playmakers (Luis Garcia, Yossi Benayoun, Maxi Rodriguez) or centre forwards (Dirk Kuyt, Ryan Babel, Robbie Keane) and shunted them out wide to fit around his Gerrard-behind-Torres 4-4-1-1, limiting their usual effectiveness and narrowing the play as everyone crowds into the middle, into the arms of the waiting midfield enforcers that every modern side has to have (thank either Sam Allardyce, Jose Mourinho or Otto Rehhagel for that innovation). On the few occasions Benitez bought wide players, such as Antonio Nuñez or Jermaine Pennant, they didn’t perform, making Liverpool’s failed attempts to sign the likes of Simao Sabrosa, Ashley Young and Gareth Bale look much more crucial than they first appeared.

 

Wing-play is essential in the Premier League, with Manchester United (Antonio Valenica, Nani, Ryan Giggs, Patrice Evra), Manchester City (Adam Johnson, James Milner, David Silva), Tottenham Hotspur (Aaron Lennon, Gareth Bale, David Bentley, Niko Kranjcar), Aston Villa (Ashley Young, Stewart Downing, Marc Albrighton, Gabby Agbonlahor) and Arsenal (Theo Walcott, Samir Nasri, Andrei Arshavin, Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy) relying on it to unlock defences in tight matches, especially when the centre is congested with obstructive five-man midfields. Chelsea may be strongest down the middle, with Nicolas Anelka no natural wing-man, but they are augmented crucially by Ashley Cole’s line-running and Salomon Kalou’s line-hugging, and if it wasn’t for the crossing and incisiveness of Matthews Jarvis and Etherington respectively, then it is likely that otherwise limited Wolves and Stoke sides would have been relegated (such is their importance that Stephen Hunt and Jermaine Pennant were added this summer to relieve the creative burdens and double the threats).

At Anfied, Roy Hodgson inherited a thin squad made up of midfielders who laboured in the final third and cried out for a new wide player to be signed, but instead brought in Joe Cole, a playmaker often deputising as a winger, and Milan Jovanovic, a subtle striker asked to run down the flanks rather than work between the lines in the manner that caught Liverpool’s eye. It wasn’t necessarily Hodgson’s fault, as he was hampered this summer by the ownership scandal and signed both players on free transfers, but it has complicated an already messy tactical problem. It is an issue the former Fulham manager shows no signs of addressing, stating after Liverpool’s 0-0 Europa League draw away at Utrecht that "we don’t play with wingers".

It could be pointed out, in Hodgson’s defence, that several players at Anfield can be deployed in wide positions – Maxi Rodriguez often drifts in from wider roles for Argentina, Kuyt and Babel play as outside forwards in Holland’s 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formations, and Joe Cole has had some of his best games for England and Chelsea as a winger. But in each case there were caveats to their wide roles, be they a license to cut in (Rodriguez), the width provided from the other flank (Cole) or, as is often found in the modern game, the real wing-play is provided by the full-back.

Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan was as reliant on Cafu and Paolo Maldini/Marek Jankulovski/Kakha Kaladze as they were on the central hub of Clarence Seedorf, Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso, and Italy’s 2006 World Cup win was down to Fabio Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta’s forays from deep as much as the artistry of Pirlo, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti.

 

Ashley Cole, Maicon, Dani Alves, Sergio Ramos, Joan Capdevilla, Phillip Lahm, et al – all provided the width and running power that compensated for weaker wingers in front of them, an alternative outlet should the central playmakers be off-form or heavily marked. It is no coincidence that as the Claude Makelélés and Javier Mascheranos have become foundations of the best teams, traditional fantasistas as the font of the team behind the striker(s) like Del Piero and Totti have become rarer, forced to move deeper and wider and adapt in the manner of modern No. 10s like Mesut Özil, Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney and Kaka, thus the need for strong support out wide, and overlapping full backs to break down massed defences, is now imperative.

Left back has been a problem position for years for Liverpool, with Paul Konchesky little improvement on Emiliano Insua, Alvaro Arbeloa and his other predecessors, and though the Anfield side have the offensively strong Glen Johnson at right back, he is shackled by the defensive gameplans of Hodgson and previously Benitez, that rein in his rampaging forward runs, by far his greatest asset.

Hodgson’s naturally conservative tactics have neither shored up the defence nor helped an uninspired midfield, leaving the deadly Torres blunted, frustrated and isolated on the fringes of play – arguably the main reason the Spaniard seems off-form. This negativity has been the root cause of Hodgson’s unpopularity amongst the fans, an example of the on-pitch malaise feeding off-pitch ill-feeling.

The nub of the problem can be solved if Liverpool buy at least one high-quality wide-midfield player to make chances for Torres, keep hold of the ball in dangerous positions, help out Gerrard, provide the fans with exciting football and lift the gloom that hangs around Roy Hodgson’s side. It is possible to win without orthodox wingers, but it demands the use of box-to-box attacking full backs, and as Hodgson has shown no signs of adopting a more adventurous approach with regards to his use of full backs, so the need to buy the top quality wingers that Benitez didn’t will be vital in January if Liverpool are to recover from a wretched start to the season. The only thing Hodgson will win with Ramsey-esque disdain for wingers is the sack race.