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Bring back old fashioned wingers
Tactics evolve. It's time.
When I watched and wrote about the treble-winning Manchester United side of 1998/99 (which is in all its glory for paid subscribers here), what tactically struck me the most wasn’t quite the things the team has been remembered for. The two most celebrated players in that side are, I think, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. Keane is remembered as the hero of ‘99, his tireless drive powering the side through big games in Turin and across the continent. Scholes, meanwhile, has become a cause célèbre for a certain kind of educated football fan. The likes of Pep Guardiola, Zinedine Zidane, Andrea Pirlo, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta are all confirmed members of the Scholes fan club, ranking as one of the greatest and most technically gifted midfielders to ever play football.
Upfront, the side is remembered for almost the platonic ideal of a strike partnership. Andy Cole was a great poacher around the box, and Dwight Yorke’s excellent link-up play really brought the best out of him. The team relied a lot more than you probably think on Yorke’s ability with his back to goal, and he was really outstanding at bringing others into play. The partnership was a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
But no, what really struck me was how much Man Utd got it wide.
We’ve become so accustomed to seeing teams who want to play good football play it through the centre of midfield. But that’s not how Man Utd did it. Almost every time they had possession, they looked to build by getting it wide to David Beckham and Ryan Giggs (or rotation option Jesper Blomqvist). We saw the perfect contrast when they faced Louis van Gaal’s Barcelona. Barca played a more “modern” style and always wanted to play a possession game with their technical central midfielders, dominating this area with their 4-3-3 against Man Utd’s 4-4-2. They easily controlled the middle of the park. But it didn’t matter as much as it might have, because Man Utd controlled the wide areas just as easily. Football is a game of trade-offs, and Ferguson was willing to concede the middle to dominate the flanks. They always had options to switch the play out there, and the crossing quality of Beckham, in particular, meant they always had a route into the box. Beckham crosses to Yorke, who holds it up for Cole. Rinse and repeat.
It was much more basic than something like Guardiola’s post-Cruyffian model, but this was a genuine plan in possession. They would look to get the ball quickly to the flanks, exploit the spaces left open by compact defences, and stretch those back lines open with genuine width. What we call positional play, as a kind of evolved form of the similarly loaded term “total football”, is about all about space. “In all team sports”, claims Guardiola1, “the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope. You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak. And when we’ve done all that we attack and score from the other side”. His mentor worked from the same ideas, even if executed differently. “[Johan] Cruyff saw football as geometry, a question of space”, explained Simon Kuper2. “When Ajax had the ball, they made the pitch wide: he said wingers had to have ‘chalk on their boots’. When Ajax lost possession, they shrank space: several players would ‘press’ the opponent on the ball, aiming to win it back at once”.
In the old days, using wingers to stretch the game wide was vital to how sides would manipulate space. Admittedly they weren’t as compact as today, but have you ever wondered how a side like Ferguson’s Man Utd broke down low blocks in the old days? Well, that’s how. A compact defence would have to shuffle all the way across to deal with Giggs, giving Beckham all the space he wanted on the other side. At times, opponents would inevitably stretch themselves too thin trying to cover both flanks and leave themselves open in the middle. It’s a different religion, but it worships the same god as Cruyff and Guardiola’s football.
Quite a few things happened to change this. The first was that the dominance of 4-4-2 shapes in the late 1990s created acres of space between the lines. “Zone 14”, the space dead centre between the opponent’s midfield and attack, became prime real estate for creating chances. As fellow football newsletter-er (can we get on with a real word for that, English language?) Ryan O’Hanlon has written:
“The most important area of the field became the rectangle that sat atop the penalty area. Multiple studies found that the teams who won most often were the teams that played the most passes into this zone and the most passes from this zone. And the defining sides of this era all had players who flourished in this particular space: Zinedine Zidane for France, one of Andy Cole or Dwight Yorke as part of Manchester United’s striker pairing, and Dennis Bergkamp for Arsenal’s Invincibles.”
With this being the zone to attack, it made sense to have wingers drift inside to create overloads in “Zone 14”. Think Ronaldinho at Barcelona, or Robert Pires at Arsenal. If you asked those players, both would probably say their “best” position was at number ten. But, as right footers starting on the left, they ended up in that space much of the time anyway. You were suddenly getting more bodies in the most dangerous part of the pitch without significantly changing the plan.
The next thing to happen was about Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benítez flipping the template. Space was still the main currency, but this new wave of managers in the mid-2000s were interested in constricting the space of the opponent rather than finding it. Again, writes Kuper:
“Even Mourinho is a black sheep in the Cruyffian flock. In his last four years before becoming a head coach, from 1996 to 2000, he assisted Bobby Robson and Van Gaal in Barcelona. Barca were the first professional team he ever led in a training session, and he occasionally trained the B team and the under-19s. When Mourinho left Barcelona, he said he would ‘only ever coach Real Madrid to destroy them. I will never stop being a culer’. He absorbed the Cruyffian view of football as a dance for space. It’s just that whereas Cruyff obsessed about creating space, Mourinho cared more about shutting down the opposition’s space.”
Mourinho took one kind of expansive attacking style and turned it into a defensive tool. Benítez did the same with Arrigo Sacchi’s pressing principles. In both cases, it was about compactness – the antithesis of stretching the play – because constricting the space defensively was the main aim. This meant wingers needed to tuck in and give the side a narrow shape. With the ball, they usually favoured fast counter-attacking strategies that ignored a possession structure. They attacked teams straight down the gut.
It’s notable that the poster boy for inverted wingers, Arjen Robben, played for Mourinho’s Chelsea. In Mourinho’s 4-3-3, the wingers would alternate sides and take up fluid positions, sometimes wide and sometimes narrow. Robben may have been a compatriot of Cruyff, but there was no chance he was getting chalk on his boots. He was in the team to score goals as much as create them. During his often brilliant but often sidelined three years in the Premier League, he put up 15 goals and 16 assists, a near-perfect split. It helped that Didier Drogba upfront was sacrificing some of his own game to bring the wide men into play (and only later became the prolific scorer we remember).
Even Ferguson had been won over. With his assistant Carlos Queiroz, Man Utd played a much more compact counter-attacking style by the mid-2000s than we ever saw in the 1990s. It was all about the fluid attacking trio of Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. While Ronaldo was originally signed to replace Beckham, he came to lead a totally different way of attacking. And while he would often play on the right for Man Utd, it was after moving to Real Madrid and then working with Mourinho that he would permanently start on the left. That would really define him as the prototype for the modern winger: attacking fast into space, coming inside onto his stronger foot, and attacking the channels between full back and centre back.
For each of Real Madrid and Ronaldo’s great rivals, a similar thing was happening, albeit for different reasons. Guardiola was in charge at the Camp Nou and determined to reinvent the Cruyffian principles for the modern game. Lionel Messi was becoming the best player in the world, and really needed to be part of a narrow front three, be it as the striker or coming in from the right. When he would play on the right, he’d have Dani Alves overlapping from full back to allow him to come inside. When playing upfront, the very narrowly stationed wingers would run beyond him so he could drop deep. So much was built around Messi, and so much was built around attacking the “half-spaces”.
“For a little bit, it seemed like these guys had solved the game. If you couldn’t create from the central zone, then what could you do? You couldn’t sit back and counter against these teams because that’s what they were doing, and they were better at it than you’d ever be. Sure, you could try to work some space down the wings, but crossing was an inefficient strategy on the whole, and it was especially low-value against the kind of physical defenders these coaches built their teams around. The only way to beat a Rafa- or Mourinho-type team, it seemed, was to try to play the same way, but just do it with more talented players.
And so, what can be done in the face of a seemingly inevitable trend? As anyone who’s paid any attention to the dislocation of American society over the past decade knows, you move the lines. Pep Guardiola would no doubt hate that comparison, but that’s what he — and others, including current Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp — did. Rather than limiting themselves to three zones across the field, Pep’s teams roughly organized themselves into five horizontal zones: there were the two wings (same as they were before) and then they split that original central zone into three smaller ones. And although the most-central zone was still the prime real-estate, his Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City teams all dominated from the right- and left-centers, or as it’s become known: the ‘half-spaces’”.
No one on the pitch was better equipped to exploit the half-spaces than narrow wingers. It feels like a particularly German tactical concept, and Klopp is one of its biggest exponents. We saw it at Borussia Dortmund and we really saw it at Liverpool, where he borrowed the narrow 4-3-3 shape of both Guardiola’s Barcelona and Mourinho’s Chelsea. Roberto Firmino would play the false nine role, doing more with his link-up play and pressing than pure goalscoring threat. Sadio Mané, comfortable on either flank, would be a winger who wanted to run straight into the half-spaces and score himself. Have you ever seen Mané try to get to the byline and put a cross in? Initially, Philippe Coutinho was the third part of the trio, but he would soon be replaced by Mohamed Salah, the closest thing you’ll get to a modern iteration of Robben. Everything was built around hitting opponents right in the half-spaces.
It didn’t work.
Liverpool frequently hit the wall of deep blocks shutting down the space with old school English tactics. There was a famous game early in Klopp’s first full season away at Burnley in which Sean Dyche’s team got themselves ahead and then just never gave Liverpool any room to attack the half-spaces in transition. It was easy to stop Liverpool because they were trying to exploit a part of the pitch that sides could just close off. When you attack with narrow wingers, you’re sometimes limiting yourself to hitting teams straight up the gut. They know that and can deny you the space where you want it. A decade on from Mourinho, Benítez and Queiroz favouring narrow attacks, the trick isn’t quite so effective.
We’ve seen a lot of “reactive” teams suffer this problem. Mourinho himself, who ushered in the reactive era, seems to hit a brick wall against teams happy to just sit in and defend. With this narrow counter-attacking, that hits teams through the gut, it’s very difficult to find a solution to simply being denied that space.
Typically, it took a Dutchman to solve the problem. Liverpool already had the pieces, but a touch of creative thinking from assistant Pepijn Lijnders gave the answer. The midfield three would give up attacking the box almost completely.* The reason they had to do this was because the full backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, would take up ludicrously advanced positions to make the attack a genuine front five. Liverpool were attacking the flanks and the half-spaces at the same time, turning positional notions of full backs inside out in the process.
*I have no information on this, but I’ve long had a hunch that this rethink influenced Liverpool abandoning interest in Nabil Fekir last minute. Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played this role previously, but Liverpool since moved away from it dramatically
That’s all well and good for Liverpool, who solved the problem while keeping their deadly inverted wingers intact. But they have the ideal players for this system. There isn’t a right back in the world better suited for this role than Alexander-Arnold. Not every team should be looking to do the same thing. How many clubs would be making a huge mistake permanently shackling their central midfielders in this way? Imagine a Manchester United where Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba are instructed to stay out of the final third and recycle the ball with five-yard passes. No one wants that.
Other teams have opted for a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 shape with wing backs. This honestly isn’t that far removed from Liverpool’s approach. The wing backs attack the widest areas, and then you have a narrow front three occupying the centre and half-spaces. Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea are the most obvious exponents of the shape right now. This solves the problem, but again, not every side has the right players for this.
The other answer is the one everyone used for decades.
The simplest way to exploit the wide areas is to have wingers stationed there. You can use central midfielders breaking forward to get your extra bodies in the box. You can do all sorts of things to have players breaking into the half-spaces. But you need to get natural width somehow, and this is often the best way. The team I think did this best in the modern era was the Manchester City side of around 2017/18. They used Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané wide on their natural footed sides and attacked the half-spaces through the “free eights” of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. The full backs offered solidity in defence and midfield rather than bombing on. Guardiola has drifted away from the template a little, which always feels like a shame.
Sané, in particular, hasn’t quite looked the same player outside of that system. In researching an article I never ended up writing last season, I took a look back at some of his performances for Schalke at the start of his career. This was Sané playing as an inverted winger from the right, but he really ended up everywhere. He was a young player at the time so I don’t want to suggest his decision making is still this erratic, but for all his quality, he drifted around in a way that caused problems for the side’s structure. When Sané started working with Guardiola, he was immediately glued to the left flank, providing all the width on that side as Fabian Delph or Oleksandr Zinchenko came inside. It was tactically thrilling and perfect for Sané.
Upon arriving in Bavaria, it was clear they saw him playing on the right. As a left-footed winger who can really strike the ball well, the comparisons to Bayern legend Robben were obvious. It was something Sané wanted. “I usually played on the left at City”, he explained, “but as a youth player and at Schalke, I played on the right. My favourite position is on the right wing. I feel most comfortable there.” But he didn’t look like he was most comfortable. Sané’s game is about dribbling off his left foot and shooting straight across the face of goal with power. As his new manager Julian Nagelsmann has said, “On the right, Leroy often has the situation that he wants the ball in his foot and then has to play with his back to the goal — he doesn’t have the best quality there. When he plays on the left, he has a little more depth, the game often in front of him, it is easier for him”.
Sané is the most obvious example, but I feel as though a number of current wingers have been shoehorned into playing on their inverted side because it’s the thing top players do, and not because it maximises their quality. An excellent inverted winger typically needs to thrive in tight spaces, such is the compactness of modern defences. A natural sided winger sometimes needs more quality on the ball, yes, but has more space to run into and doesn’t need to be so cute with their footwork. As with everything, it’s just about different players having different skillsets.
There is no innate value in certain tactical structures. It’s all contextual. Inverted wingers became valuable as a means to differently exploit space on a football pitch. Where they gained in terms of scoring themselves, others inevitably lost out. As space contracts in the half-spaces and opens up in the wide areas, that’s where teams must put more emphasis. Football solved this decades ago with the existence of natural footed wingers, and as these things turn, their value is becoming relevant again. It’s time to make it 1997 again, but through tactics rather than science or magic.
Perarnau, Marti (2014). Pep Confidential. Great Britain: Arena Sport.
Kuper, Simon (2021). Barca: the Inside Story of the World’s Greatest Football Club. UK: Short Books.