#3 Where have all the wingers gone?

Tactical

Chalk on yer boots

Wingers feature heavily in my early memories of watching the professional game. Ryan Giggs on the left. Andrei Kanchelskis on the right. Fast counter attacking football with wide players who stayed…wide. They had oodles of pace, skills and dribbling ability in abundance and would regularly take on the opposition full-backs down the outside – onto their preferred foot for a cross, cut-back or angled shot. It was exhilarating to watch.

Looking back through the history of the game, some of the most revered players made a name for themselves through wing play: Stanley Matthews; Garincha; George Best & Johan Cruyff (arguably a striker by trade, but as part of the total football system employed by the Dutch he would often move onto the wing to find space to exploit). Moving closer to the modern period you could talk about John Barnes, Marc Overmars, David Ginola, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo (particularly his early career before moving more central). You could also talk about players like David Beckham and Luis Figo, who may not have had the blistering pace of many of those named above, but who could create goals from the wings through great delivery and technical play.

There’s still something stirring about seeing a winger size up the full back on the wing... The defender, who is isolated and only has the touchline for protection, scuttles backwards as they try to anticipate which way the winger is going to go. The winger, with ball in their domain, teases, drops a shoulder to the left, and then to the right; their body weight shifts rhythmically from one foot to the other as they coldly, stealthily, ruthlessly assess the weaknesses of their victim and the space that lights up behind them. The defender seems to consider throwing a foot at the ball and momentarily their body weight shifts. They hesitate. The crowd seem to collectively hold their breath. For a moment, time slows.

Everyone knows what is about to happen. There is a feeling of inevitability. The only question is how?

In a flash of touches, the winger explodes away from the helpless defender – who is left tumbling to the turf with their arms flailing in some desperate, final attempt to impede his fleet footed opponent. He can only look on though as the winger, now in full, glorious flight accelerates away from the approaching central defender (who was hoping he could stay out of this one), and fizzes the ball into the box for the on rushing forward to send a bullet header into the goal.

Yes, it’s fair to say I enjoy some good old-fashioned wing play. But that’s the question I suppose, has traditional wing play gone from the modern game now? And, if so, why and will it ever return?

“There was nothing in their game that surprised us.”

To put this in context, whilst I was studying the games in the 2018 World Cup for a series of tactical vlogs, I noticed just how few out and out wingers there were. When I say out and out wingers, I mean players that don’t just start on the flanks but wilfully stay out there without moving inside. And when they receive the ball, they don’t just immediately turn inside with it. Now there has been a gradual move away from wingers (‘with chalk on their boots’) in the modern game for many years now but something about the high frequency of games and global focus that comes with a World Cup really got me thinking deeply about this topic. A game that stood out was Argentina vs Iceland. Iceland, with their compact shape, work-rate and anticipation, were doing a fine job of frustrating the Argentinians – who were finding it very difficult to break them down. What should (on paper at least) have been a total mismatch became a compelling contest.

Iceland were able to form two defensive banks and shut down the central spaces for their technically stronger opponents. As is the norm in the modern game though, the wide players for Argentina kept coming in off the wings to pick up the ball more centrally. Yes they still had their full-backs – but they were not as high up the pitch as a winger would be, and arguably do not have the same attacking threat either. It meant that the central area of the pitch became heavily overcrowded – playing right into Iceland’s hands.

For several reasons, it seemed a strange tactic from the South Americans. First and foremost, Argentina had Lionel Messi playing centrally. One of, if not the best player in the world against the smallest nation to ever appear at the tournament. Surely Iceland’s only hope (they elected not to man mark him) was to try and crowd him out of the game – and they were ably assisted in this by the Argentinians themselves! Another issue comes when you consider this from the point of view of the Icelandic defence.

As you can see from the diagram, when the wingers move inside they make it easier for the opposition full backs to keep them and the ball in view – allowing them to stay more compact centrally. This allows the whole Icelandic defensive unit to work together, close gaps and cut off passing lanes.

After the game ended 1-1, Iceland’s Manager Heimir Hallgrimsson declared,
“There was nothing in their game that surprised us.” Are Argentina just one
example of how teams are becoming too predictable?

 

Party in Zone 14!

All this got me to thinking, what are teams trying to achieve when they adopt these winger movements? One idea that sprung to mind was relating to zone 14 – the sweet spot for creating and scoring goals. Often referred to as ‘the hole’, it’s that central area just outside the opposition penalty box, between defence and midfield, where statistically speaking, successful teams have created most of their goals. Interestingly, the majority of goals from this area came from through balls, shots and the result of set pieces won in that area – not balls played to the wings from zone 14. So are teams like Argentina trying to manipulate these stats by getting all of their creative players into this golden zone?

At first, this might seem to make a lot of sense. However, on consideration, the findings of the zone 14 statistical studies (based on teams such as the successful World Cup winning national side of France and Man Utd in their pomp) could be deceptive for modern sides trying to interpret them. After-all, perhaps the original results were largely down to the fact more sides had wide players that stayed wide and didn’t flood the central area? Maybe the act of staying wide and stretching opposition defences is what originally led to the high quantity of goals from ‘the hole’, and in trying to mine the area further, coaches have added new variables to the experiment and changed the outcomes?

An evolving game… 

In terms of game evolution, you could look at the English game and the way it has changed from largely 4-4-2 formations and a direct style of play, to many teams playing out from the back, overloading the central midfield to build possession and favouring one central striker: consequently the 4-2-3-1 formation has become one of the most popular. Does one less out and out striker in the box and slower build up play make it harder to be an out and out winger now then? Is there is a defensive transition consideration too? With sides like Liverpool and Dortmund finding success with their quick counter attacking styles, does it encourage opponents to be more guarded about leaving players high and wide in case they lose possession and get stung?

Another consideration is that of the modern full back: in some ways they are now akin to wingers of old, and a prerequisites of the position now seem to be speed, high technical ability and incisive deliveries. To demonstrate this, you even have wingers such as Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young being converted into full backs now. However, with full backs having to start their runs from deeper and often now being alone on the flanks (as their winger has moved inside), it is difficult for them to have the same impact as a winger might across a full 90 minutes. For the most part they just seem to offer width from deep to free up the wingers to move centrally. (One of the reasons Gary Neville was so effective in the past was that he was a great foil for Beckham. They worked together. Yes Neville could whip a good cross in, but it was his overlaps that dragged opponents around and gave Beckham the opportunity to regularly put world class deliveries into the box).

Moving more to the individual then, maybe we need to consider it from the modern wide players’ point of view. Is the disappearance of classic wingers also down to players wanting in on the action? Is getting to the touchline and creating chances for others not enough for some players? If teams are playing out from the back, is it down to impatience on the wingers’ part as they don’t want to be isolated and on the periphery of the game when they could be part of the build up? Besides, moving inside potentially puts them into better shooting positions too.

Scripted Improvisation

I’m sure I am not the only coach who has to ask his wingers to be more patient and stay wider for longer? So many of them now want to play on the opposite side to their strongest foot, (often referred to as ‘inverted wingers’) and want to move inside early in attacking transition.

An interesting story that relates to this comes from an interview I watched involving Thierry Henry. He was talking about his time at Barcelona under Pep Guardiola. Barcelona appeared to play free-flowing, unrestricted passing football – and it was often a joy to watch. Henry though gives you an insight into the disciplined, almost scripted work players had to do off the ball to ensure their team mates found the spaces to play.

As left winger, early in attacking transition he had to make runs in behind the right full-back – as if offering for a through-ball or ball over the top. However, he knew full well that for every 10 of these runs, he might only be played in 1-2 times. His run was really about freeing up space for Iniesta on the inside left of midfield. After not receiving the ball, Henry would then drift back in (likely from an offside position) and now look to get involved in the next phase of play. With Barcelona it was all about the team – so even an excellent player like Henry would be expected to do a lot of his work off the ball to help others. Credit to Henry, who had been used to being one of the star players in the Premier League, that he saw the logic in Guardiola’s instructions, but you have to wonder how many top wide attackers would be patient enough to play supporting roles to others (at least in the early phases of play) in the modern game?

Striking a balance

A lot of this analysis so far has considered winger movements off the ball. An extension to this would be the tendency of modern wide players to receive the ball and turn inside with it as opposed to attacking an opponent down the outside. There are lots of understandable reasons for doing this – one being that, like I mentioned above, it is now quite common for left footers to play on the right, and right footers to play on the left. They can turn inside onto their stronger foot (and opponents’ weaker side) and potentially be within shooting range or in a position to slide a through ball in for a team-mate. They can also look to whip a cross to the back post. However, it does feel now that this movement inside with the ball is the default setting for most modern wide players – to the point where it has become predictable. Opposition central midfielders then look to shut down this space and you end up feeling like the pitch is smaller than it is.

Consider it this way, what impact does a movement inside have on an opposition defence? You would expect they would need to tuck across, close gaps for through-balls and potentially close down a shot. At all times, the whole defence would be able to keep their eyes on the ball, and most of them on the player they are marking too. Now consider the affect on a defence when a winger drives to the goal-line for a cut-back cross. The whole defence would need to make significant movements towards their own goal – and whilst doing so it would be very difficult to keep track of both their opponent and the ball. The keeper would move towards his near post. The midfield would be dragged in to track runners too. Suddenly, you are forcing a whole defensive unit to make substantial movements to deal with the situation.

I can therefore see real benefits to wingers mixing up their play between turning inside and taking on defenders on the outside. If wingers stayed wide in the first instance, it would make it more difficult for a defence like Iceland’s to remain as compact. With switches of play gradually opening gaps between defenders and wingers that have the attributes to turn both inside and out, you have to feel it would become a lot more unpredictable for a lesser technical team to contain a stronger opponent through central compactness.

As defenders are dragged out into wide areas, that zone 14 area opens up again for your creative central players to exploit - a delayed movement inside from a winger, behind instead of in front of the opposition full back, can then be lethal too! And if there is a worry about not being able to maintain possession, or being exposed to counter attacks due to wingers staying wide on both sides, you could look to Guardiola’s recent use of his full backs. Instead of them staying wide too, you can often see them moving into the sides of central midfield – not in the way of zone 14, but in a deep central position to build possession and link midfield to the wide attackers in an attacking sense – but also to offer good recovery positions if possession is lost.

The modern game will no doubt continue to evolve – but sometimes developments can be cyclical - perhaps more teams will start to find a happy balance between the classical, chalk on the boots winger and the modern wide forward? After-all, in an age designed for comfort, it is still nice to be on the edge of our seats from time to time.

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