The winger is traditionally a player who hits the by-line with pace and skills, who can find his striker with relative ease and will typically record numerous assists over the course of the system. Stanley Matthews was the archetypal winger who played far up the pitch and had little defensive responsibility.
However over the years this has changed. Someone like Ryan Giggs would still cling to the touchline and look to stretch the pitch but was pushed back into a 4-4-2 formation where he had slightly increased defensive responsibilities.
Few teams deploy a 4-3-3 with out and out wide men. Most sides adopt the Barcelona 4-3-3 where the two ‘wide’ players are in fact more support strikers who come inside to assist the striker rather than looking to hit the byline with deep crosses. A recent report by UEFA highlighted how out of 103 goals for strikers in last seasons Champions League only three were headed goals. This raises questions about why wingers are no longer creating heading goals and points to a clear shift in tactics.
Why has the role changed?
The role has changed for several reasons. The aerial aspect of the game has reduced in recent years with teams looking to play quickly along the ground. Holding onto possession has become key which means wingers increasingly need to come inside and get involved in general play rather than become isolated out wide.
The rise of the attacking full-back has been a key development in recent years. Rather than operating with a flat back four teams have began to identify full-backs as a way to start attacks for example Dani Alves who constantly looks to get forward and acts as an outlet ball for Barcelona. The consequence of this is that wide men are now inclined to defend a lot more than previously, as well as doubling up on their respective number they also need to track opposition full backs.
The defensive capacity is why many teams no longer operate a 4-4-2 with wingers. With the emphasis on possession play it is prone to leave sides open in midfield if they push their wide players up the park. There are two noticeable exceptions to this. Tottenham play expansive football which revolves around Lennon and Bale surging down the wings in the fashion of attacking wingers whilst still often only playing two inside. However they remedy the defensive problems by playing Parker as a screen, who will move across to fill in if wingers get caught out. Also Bale himself was a full-back so is naturally more adverse to his responsibilities than many other wingers.
Recently (not just after the 6-1 defeat) Manchester United have looked vulnerable defensively facing on average 19 shots per game. Part of the reason for this is the fact that they look to Nani and Young to hit the bylines as much as possible. This has left them parrticuarly light in the centre of the park as there is nobody to fill in for them when they get forward. One reason for this is United’s lack of a midfield destroyer, something that was made clear when Ferguson played Phil Jones there against Liverpool. Even with Nani and Young both look to cut inside far more than was traditionally expected of wingers. There pace, like Lennon and Bale’s is also a huge asset when breaking out of defensive. The emphasis however has simply changed.
The tendency to come inside also is a result of increased defensive capacities of teams. For example when Messi comes inside its difficult to assess whether the full-back marking him should follow him inside or whether a holding player should cut across to pick him up which can create great confusion.
The ‘inverted forward’
Even a player like Arjen Robben is not the typical winger. He now operates at times from inside as a support forward and we often see him on the right, not left. The emphasis on cutting inside and shooting or playing the inside pass has become increasingly common. One reason for this is that as stated the full-back is increasingly attacking, by coming inside wingers create the chance for their own full-back to get on the overlap by dragging their marker inside and creating space on the oustide for their fullback to surge into, in theory, unmarked. This has seen a rise to the ‘inverted forward’ which is arguably also a response to the fall of the midfield playmaker.
The inverted forward suich as Mata or David Silva are almost wing play makers. They look to cut inside and thread passes, but are also prone to hitting the byline to deliver a cross. With the decline of the ‘trequisitia’ attacking midfielder the creative flair has had to come from elsewhere. With their movement from outside to in wingers are increasingly difficult to mark making them better equipped to play the role, as well as their increased mobility compared to slower central players. Its difficult to say where the winger is going to be in the future but one thing is for sure the winger in the most traditional sense is a dying breed. The ability to bomb forward unchecked and cling to the touchline is no longer doable in the modern game where collective defensive responsibility is so important.
What we are likely to see more of is the winger coming inside as an inverted forward in the mould of David Silva or even Lionel Messi who is becoming increasingly central, or at the very least increasingly prone to moving into central positions from out wide.