Written by Tiki Taka Style
Unpredictable forces, wizards of the dribble, electricity personified. Wingers have traditionally been seen as a lovable commodity and the primary source of entertainment for football romantics. A museum piece. Capable of lifting thousands of fans from their seats and making the whole crowd roar with a combination of excitement and laughter after having witnessed the humiliation of an enemy through a piece of individual skill or a spontaneous trick. Neymar, Jadon Sancho, Dembélé. Synonymous with uncertainty and craft in the purest form of street football turned into a profession.
However, like birds, teams need wings to fly too. In the modern game, wingers have evolved from a mere luxury into an indispensable figure of any coach’s set-up. With the systematic development of tactics and occupation of spaces, wide men have taken a starring role in the manager’s aim to retain possession and win it back as fast as possible. The winger is no longer what it was – what does it take to succeed there now?
With the evolution of strategies and the introduction of complex and revolutionary ideas such as Cruyff’s Total Football and Kloop’s Gegenpressing, every single region on the pitch has experienced a massive change. Football used to be a simple game, with the quick and little players on the flanks, the left-footers on the left and the right-footers on the right. The defence was one thing and attack another. They were two worlds apart, by no means interrelated. With the tactical tweaks and innovations, the wingers are back and their importance has risen. Attacking and defending are heavily dependant on each other, and one cannot be executed properly without the accurate implementation of its counterpart.
The winger has a starring role in these two related phases. Being capable of retaining possession, being vertical when required and contributing to the pressing is what most managers demand of them. Pace, stamina and athleticism used to be the main qualities to look for in a winger; attributes that have been replaced by spatial awareness, decision making and reading of the game. The death of the traditional winger has carried many consequences.
As Herbert Chapman (1878-1934) foresaw, inside passing is ‘more deadly, if less spectacular’ than the ‘senseless policy of running along the lines and centring just in front of the goalmouth, where the odds are nine to one on the defenders’. Attackers are not isolated any more thanks to the creation of inverted wingers, who are deployed on the opposite flank to their preferred foot. While they can be predictable in some cases by continuously cutting inside and shooting, this allows the pitch to open up, generates more passing options in the middle and forces the full-back onto its weaker side.
Each case is different, but Guardiola’s is one of the most curious to analyse. Pep has always been characterised by his willingness to dominate from midfield and he actually acted as a deep-lying playmaker during his time as a player, yet it’s also through the wings that the Catalan boss bases most of his game and efforts around.
Ribéry, Robben, Douglas Costa, Kingsley Coman, Sterling, Sané…Guardiola has worked with countless electric forwards in the last decade, but his work during his spell at Barcelona is particularly interesting. “The winger is the only player that has the right to lose the ball, basically because he’s obliged to have one-on-one situations as much as possible. If he loses it, the risk of suffering in the counter is limited and, furthermore, it allows the team to start pressing near the opposing box”. These were the words used by the current Manchester City mastermind to describe the task of wingers. “As long as they stretch the field, everything is easier. Even if they don’t touch the ball”.
In Barcelona’s positional attacks, every single square metre is gold. Pedro, Tello or Isaac Cuenca were the gold diggers. With less glamorous names, Pep asked them to have deep knowledge and understanding of his methods. The idea was not to move the ball but to make the rivals move. Wingers provide the width and ensure that the opposing full-backs have to keep a close eye on them, meaning that their backline expands and thus more spaces are created in the centre. They make little noise, but extreme intelligence is compulsory to understand when to retain their wide position near the sideline and when to make a diagonal run to unbalance a defence.
While the art of flying wingers may be dying out, fun will continue to be provided by the flair and imagination of these unnatural attackers, at the same time a new dimension is added to possession football through the tactical configuration of such collective figures. By doing their silent work on the flanks, wingers allow action to happen in the middle. From being viewed as selfish and free-spirited individuals to representing the definition of a team player. Wingers symbolise the unconventional evolution of football.
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