End of season analysis on Middlesbrough central midfielder Lewis Wing.
Lewis Wing is a special case. The former Shildon central midfielder has caused a rupture within the fan base: those who believe that he is a talent that the club should keep hold of and those who think he is a liability and should be moved on. This argument goes to the very foundations of what Middlesbrough fans want and expect from their midfield: defensive security versus offensive proficiency. This article is going to consider both of these arguments explaining why the player should remain at the club next season and why he should be given an integral role within the squad.
It is little surprise that Middlesbrough fans appreciate a defensively resolute team. Industrial areas are consistently associated with defensively strong sides in the shape of Stoke City and Burnley. Middlesbrough is also among these clubs and they have consistently built from the back with sturdy defences with midfielders that can ‘muck in’ and contribute defensively are rightly highly regarded.
On the other hand, Lewis Wing is notably weak in these areas of the pitch. Yet he is often deployed in a deeper role where defensive abilities are usually expected of a player and he appears to be a defensive liability. A weak link which opposing players can target to overcome the midfield defensive structure. While his defensive positioning is usually decent and he rarely gets dragged out of position, he rarely makes defensive actions and they are usually haphazard attempts to retrieve the ball. This is an undeniable concern with Lewis Wing but a solution can be found in how Rotherham United used the player: in a central midfield role. The revelations that came from him playing this role indicate that he could be more important to a Neil Warnock side than first thought, but more on that later.
He makes up for his failings defensively through his ability in other areas of his game. The most notable of which is his goalscoring. Goalscoring midfielders are a highly valued breed within football as teams need to find goals across the pitch to target the top end of the table. This is particularly important as it relieves the pressure off the clubs forwards as forwards typically score in fits and starts. Lewis Wing’s goalscoring talents were well known to Middlesbrough when he joined the club. He has had a solid return since he arrived at the club too by scoring 12 goals in 80 appearances for Middlesbrough. Furthermore, he isn’t reliant on one method to score these goals as the player frequently uses different techniques from outside the box to beat the man between the sticks. His free-kick ability, particularly from central areas, i.e. from directly in front of the box, should not be overlooked. He is consistently a threat from these areas. While Middlesbrough does have a free-kick specialist in McNair, who produced several impressive deliveries from wide dead-ball situations, they often struggle to make the most of chances from central areas which would be maximised with Wing’s involvement. To summarise his shooting ability, Lewis Wing finished last season with 1.89xG last season but he managed to score 4 goals showing that the player far and away exceeded the number of goals that would be expected of him last season. This means that Lewis Wing was more prolific from the opportunities that he had than the average player. It is this type of player that Middlesbrough needs in its squad.
Yet his passing ability should also be considered when analysing the player as he is one of the best passers of the ball in the Middlesbrough squad. This may sound like an over-exaggeration to some Boro fans but he can do it all from short distance to long-distance with comfortable ease which is impressive for a player that still has limited experience at this level of English football. The variation in length is also supported by variation in height as the player can pick out a player with short and long lofted passes with relatively frequent success. This really came to the fore during his time on loan at Rotherham United where he became the integral lynchpin to the side, replacing and improving on Barlaser who had, up until that point, had a good season.
Finally, there were instances during his time with the Millers where he would engage in an individual press, pushing a defensive player to his own corner flag. He would impose himself on him in these situations and make it difficult to find a way out, often resulting in Lewis Wing coming out with the ball.
How does he fit into the system?
There is no secret that Neil Warnock prefers to deploy his sides in a 4-3-3. He favours a side with a solid back four with a steady balance between attack and defence for the fullbacks. A single pivot in front of the back four, most probably Jonny Howson, with a midfield pairing just ahead of them. Then two typical wingers are expected to hold the width in attack and a physical striker that offers an aerial threat. It is the central midfield pairing that is of interest when considering Lewis Wing. This pairing usually works best with two players who have different but overlapping roles. For example, Leicesters 3-man midfield of Ndidi (No. 6: Ball-winning midfielder with solid distribution), Youri Tielemans (No. 8: Central midfielder with a creative and defensive touch), and James Maddison (No. 10: Playmaker with an ability to get involved with distribution in deeper positions). In Middlesbrough’s case, Jonny Howson plays as a single pivot, defensive midfielder, while he can distribute and instigate attacks his main role is to screen the defence and begin periods of Middlesbrough possession. While Sam Morsy has played a role in central midfield, Warnock may opt for him to become cover for the ageing Howson next season but he does remain a key option in central areas. On the other hand, Marcus Tavernier may be picked in a wide role. This means that George Saville, Marcus Tavernier, Lewis Wing and possibly to a lesser extent Sam Morsy.
Marcus Tavernier is the playmaker and, if he isn’t picked in a wide role, will play in the midfield duo (in the Maddison role). This primarily leaves Lewis Wing and George Saville to fight over the final position in the side. This decision is largely predicated on how Warnock wishes his side to play. If Neil Warnock wants the side to play with a focus on width then Wing should be the favourite for his consistent ability to find wingers with passes out wide. While his threat from outside the box means that he can open up space for these wide players to work within. Alternatively, Warnock may wish to press the opposition to catch them in transition. If this is the case then George Saville, as the best box-to-box player in the side, fits best into this philosophy. Both of these players are goalscoring midfielders and this adjustment may change from game to game and so they may alternate during the season. Either way, moving the player on in the summer may be both short-minded and detrimental to the clubs aims for the upcoming season.