In recent weeks, Mark Bowen has opted to use different variations of the 4-5-1 formation, a change from the 5-3-2 we saw in the first half of the season.
Naturally, one of the main changes this has brought is the use of wingers in the side. Previously, it was mainly the job of the wing backs providing the attacking width. However with Chris Gunter coming into the team, this was no longer a viable option. Bowen has seemed to have chopped and changed his wingers, possibly having not decided who is best suited to play out wide.
Let’s take a look at the options we currently have out wide.
One player who has played on the wing ever since the formation change is Yakou Méïté, and the Ivorian international seemingly has a strong grip on his position on the right-hand side. Whilst you would normally associate wingers with elegance and grace, whilst beating the opposition full back, these are certainly not the qualities that come to mind when referring to ‘La Brute’.
Instead, he is a bullish winger, who utilises his ability of being a strong target man. Notably, he’s been the target of many Rafael goal kicks and continues to be a valuable player in both boxes. He also possesses the great quality cutting in from the right, evidenced by his goal against Fulham at the Madejski Stadium earlier on in the season. This is something which he nearly replicated against Sheffield United in midweek. He has 11 goals this season, despite playing wide for a large portion of the campaign. This is impressive.
The other player who started as a winger when Bowen began playing the 4-5-1 formation was Ovie Ejaria. He certainly has the trickery required to beat a full back, and did this to great effect to set up Charlie Adam’s goal at Craven Cottage.
Another benefit of starting Ejaria on the wing is that it allows three other key central midfielders to start - namely John Swift, Pele and Andy Rinomhota. However, what makes Ejaria such a threat to Championship defences, is when he gets on the ball in a dangerous position. When out wide on the left flank, it is much harder for him to go on the dazzling runs we love to watch, and it becomes much easier for opponents to mark him out of the game.
Also fancied down the left flank in this formation is Jordan Obita. The 26-year-old academy graduate has recently returned from a lengthy spell on the sidelines, after suffering a serious knee injury against Hull City back at the end of 2017.
This has resulted in him losing some of the pace and fitness he had prior to his injury, possibly making him less suited to playing as a winger. However, he certainly hasn’t lost his ability to deliver a good cross, which set up the late equaliser at home to Nottingham Forest. The left-sided player has been impressive since returning, and playing him higher up allows the also impressive Omar Richards to play at left back, where Obita has reverted back to recently.
Let’s stay on the subject of academy graduates! Making his mark down the wing in recent weeks has been Michael Olise. The 18-year-old has been fantastic since becoming a first team regular, showing maturity of someone much older than his current age. He looks at home in the first team, and has excellent trickery to beat opponents.
The French youth international can also swing in dangerous crosses for the likes of Méïté and Pușcaș. We have already seen this from his assist for Jordan Obita at Bloomfield Road, as well as his cross that lead to Reading winning a penalty in midweek.
He is quick, can pick a pass and is gaining valuable minutes at the same time. Despite this, there are a couple of issues with Olise’s performances at the moment: he is still developing, can be shrugged off the ball at times, and hasn’t always had the best decision making. However, if he can continue to put in excellent performances on a consistent basis, he could become a key player for the Royals next season.
Garath McCleary is another winger who has returned from the squad after his pre-season exile from the first team. He hasn’t played that regularly under Bowen, especially not as a starter. But, off the bench this season, he has had an impact. He may no longer be that ‘take it to the byline and cross player’, but he still has pace, especially against tired defences. There’s no doubt that he still can deliver crosses, and has good composure. Just take a look at his goal against Luton Town for example.
However, the Jamaican’s decision making hasn’t been as good recently, and with his contract up at the end of the season (and his best years possibly in the past), Bowen has been looking at a younger option in Olise.
In our current 4-2-3-1 formation, the wingers I would like to see start for the foreseeable future are the same as the ones that the manager has played in recent weeks - Yakou Méïté and Michael Olise. Meite’s strength and aerial threat is key to this team, and he always gives 100%.
Meanwhile, Olise is someone of real potential, and giving him more senior minutes will be key. His quality on the ball means that he can beat a full back, and his youthfulness provides the team with a much-needed injection of energy.
The two complement each other well. Therefore, we can still have the benefit of Obita delivering great crosses as a fullback, as well as Ejaria creating chances in more dangerous areas, albeit at the cost of another central midfielder.
Garath McCleary can also be used as an impact sub, giving the team pace against tired defences. There’s plenty of options for us - let’s use them.