Picture by Jon Whiles Photography
At the top level of the game the debate continues to rage about whether the traditional winger as we know it is dead. The success of Spain at international level with their unorthodox and much-vaunted 4-6-0 approach and the increasing popularity of the narrow 4-2-3-1 among Europe's top clubs have combined to push the old tried-and-true 4-4-2 well and truly out of favour – and with it everyone's favourite player: the winger.
But Oxford don't play at the top level of the game and they aren't one of Europe's top clubs (yet!), so emulating Barcelona isn't necessarily likely to bring results in League Two. Having won promotion from the Conference by utilising a direct approach that involved getting the ball up to the front three of James Constable, Jack Midson and Matt Green as quickly as possible, Chris Wilder jettisoned this approach upon the club's return to the Football League. Overhauling the squad in the summer of 2010, Oxford were set up with a continental narrow 4-3-3 formation and an emphasis on passing football and ball retention. The result was a side which played some beautiful football and finished 12th. Clearly a rethink was needed.
The sad fact is that at our level of football the players are too limited to make such a fluid approach work successfully. Instead the 4-4-2, for all its faults, is a system which all the players are used to and comfortable with and as a result they perform better. The intervening years between those early League Two lessons and now have seen a lot of tinkering and experimenting as Wilder has tried to hit upon the magic formula for success, and although there probably is no single approach that guarantees promotion one thing that has stood out in recent seasons is that good wing play can be a major factor in a side's success at League Two level.
Take Port Vale last season as a notable example. Lots of people pinpointed the impressive goalscoring form of Tom Pope as the reason for Vale's unexpectedly successful season, but he was only able to find the net so often because there was a steady supply of chances landing at his feet (or on his head or anywhere else really), most of which came from the wingers. Ashley Vincent and Jennison Myrie-Williams were a devastating force last season, as demonstrated when they were allowed to roam free during the 3-0 demolition they inflicted on us at Vale Park.
The importance of quality wide players was emphasised again on Saturday when Chesterfield ended our unbeaten start to the season. Of course, when you've assembled a squad like theirs it's easy to look good but as we're discussing style of play rather than personnel I think they still serve as a very strong example of how to play at this level. Chesterfield constantly look to stretch the play and get their wide players on the ball and as a result Gary Roberts and Tendayi Darikwa gave our full-backs trouble all afternoon. Most Oxford fans agreed that Chesterfield were the best side we're likely to come up against this season and part of the reason for that success is the way they use the flanks. Their goal on Saturday, for example, came from a ball in from the left.
Picture by Jon Whiles Photography
And then, of course, there's us. With Alfie Potter and Sean Rigg we have two of the best wingers in League Two within our ranks. When both are fit and we really utilise the width they offer they can be unstoppable – as they were at Portsmouth on the opening day of the season. Rigg's injury perhaps highlighted how fundamental the wingers are to our chances this season, with just one win from the four matches he missed (not including Torquay and Chesterfield, both of which he played some part in). We've already touched on this point when discussing Oxford's younger players, but by replacing Rigg with the naturally central Asa Hall our attacking potential was considerably reduced.
This lack of cover out wide – particularly if O'Dowda isn't considered ready for first-team football yet – is possibly my biggest concern about the team at the moment. Rigg and Potter won't play every match this season, and being wingers they won't necessarily play brilliantly in every match either, so we need more options that can come on and deputise to ensure that we maintain a wide threat. That could be the difference between the flashes of brilliance we've seen so far and a consistently strong season.