Wingers: A Tactical History

Wingers: A Tactical History

By Amogh Sahu

The winger has been an integral part of world football for many years. The showmanship and the tricks of these players were highlighted in the oft-used 4-4-2 formation, which employed right and left wingers outside of two central midfielders.

Wingers used to have more of an effect on the game tactically. For example, in the late 1960s English game, wingers were the main source of creativity. The central playmaker so prevalent in modern football was much rarer.

The origins of the winger can be traced back to the very genesis of the game, in England. Formations like the 2-3-5 and the 3-2-5 — some of the most popular a century ago – relied heavily upon wide players who could both attack and defend their flanks. It was here that you could find an early winger, then called an outside-left or an outside right, on either side of a centre forward.

The role of these players was to cross the ball to a central forward who would then score, assisted by the two inside lefts and inside rights behind the forward. Soon, players like the esteemed Eddie Hapgood and Cliff Bastin made their mark on world football as Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal started to dominate the English game.

Of the aforementioned players, the latter stood out as a new type of player: the “inverted winger”. Cliff Bastin was the first known exponent of this position from the wings. He, however did not foresee the great revolution he would inspire, the aftershocks of which are still seen today.

In the 50s and 60s, wingers were relied upon as the deliverers of crosses, who beat their markers and got to the touchline before providing service to the onrushing attackers. But several great wingers of this era did not fit the bill: Garrincha, for example, is an exception. The Brazilian genius shot from distance or dribbled his marker, and shot. Shot. Shot. Shot.

In fact, Garrincha was so ahead of his time that the premise that wing tactics hinged on at the time: beating one man, mostly through pace and only getting a little bit ahead of him, almost did not apply to him, as he left his marker standing flat on his face most of the time, so superb was his trickery.This allowed him time to take a characteristically lethal shot with either foot. The same applies for Manchester United winger George Best. The Northern Irishman, however, had a game predicated upon link-up play and runs into the penalty area, as opposed to Garrincha’s style.

In the 70s, Ajax and Bayern Munich dominated world football, and installed revolutionary ways to play the beautiful game. Ajax introduced the 4-3-3 to World Football, with Rinus Michels its inventor. Here, wingers often played ahead of their strikers, cutting inside to dangerous levels with the center forward Johan Cruyff dropping back into midfield. It was a tactical change with the same impact of Garrincha — it changed the game, and its reverberations are still felt today.

Bayern Munich started off with a 4-4-2, which was the gold standard for years in world football. Munchen then had Franz Beckenbauer — one of the all-time greats — as a playmaking center back along with a more defensive center back in Georg Scwarzenbeck. Beckenbauer was adept at leading the Bayern attack from deep. Full backs like Paul Breitner attacked high up the pitch in a system that was slightly reminiscent of Herrera’s Catenaccio all those years ago.

After the German dominance of the mid to late 70’s, came the English (read: Liverpudlian) dominance of the European game, which started with the defeat of Borussia Moenchengladbach by a Kevin Keegan-led Liverpool side. Then followed two more triumphs for Liverpool, as well as Brian Clough’s consecutive victories with Nottingham Forest. Even Aston Villa won the European Cup in 1982! These English teams played a style with two hard-working engine room central midfielders, creative crossing wingers, and a target man-poacher combination. It worked brilliantly.

Later in the 80s and the 90s, Michel Platini’s Juventus and Sacchi’s AC Milan thrust Serie A into the world spotlight. The Italian style of football, a little bit in the 80s, but much more so in the 90s, used full backs as the main source of width, with wingers often tucked inside. This made using tucked wingers a little bit of a trend across Europe, where German sides use sweepers to great advantage (see: Borussia Dortmund and Matthias Sammer as well as Lothar Matthaus and Bayern Munich). Of course, the likes Roberto Carlos and Cafu triumphed in this era, with the width being provided from full-back.

In the 2000s and the early 2010s, teams use a variety of wingers. The Arsenal side of 2010 was a case in point: the usage of Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott in tandem exemplifies the usage of wingers. Walcott, hugged the touchline and made runs relatively traditionally and sometimes centrally. Nasri was a former attacking midfielder placed out wide and looked to utilise his goal threat and his creativity to get amongst the goals. The modern trend of attacking versatility has transferred to the wingers.

You can follow Amogh on Twitter.

3 thoughts on “Wingers: A Tactical History

  1. good post, in this topic i have a question, why do teams tend to switch sides between the wingers in the game, do they take that option for tactical reason or what? waiting for ur opinion.

  2. Hi gooner,

    A few possibilities;

    1/ switching sides so that the better wide player can exploit a weak full back. If the right back is not playing well then the quicker/trickier wide midfielder might be able to create more opportunities against him

    2/ traditional wingers stay wide in the flank of their stronger foot, to put crosses in. “Inverted” wingers play on the flank of their weaker foot, so they can cut inside to the inside forward position to create opportunities with their strong foot. If during the game the full back turns out to very one-footed then this option may be used to create more chances

    3/ exploitng the inverted winger effect part way through the game simply to give the defence a new problem to solve. You may feel the centre backs are strong in the air but susceptible to pace, for example, so switch to inverted wingers. Or simply they’ve got the measure of your wide men & you need to shake them up & give them a different challenge.

    There are probably lots of other reasons — maybe a full-back picks up a yellow card so you want a Walcott-type player (“velocista”) to run at him & terrify him.

    Hope this helps

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