In recent years, soccer has become a very tactical game. Not only are there commonly used formations and positions, but there are now also distinguishable types of players within a position on the field. That is what I will examine today in my analysis of the winger position. Way back in the fall, I wrote a column solely on the goalkeeper, so this is the second article in a sporadically-occurring series that breaks down the aspects of a certain position.
Most soccer teams deploy two wingers, one on each side of the field. Typically, the wingers are the widest position on the field; all wingers need a strong command of the ball and the ability to make plays in tight spaces near the out-of-bounds line. Wingers are often short and quick, as a key quality of any winger is running past or around a defender. These are some common similarities between all wingers.
I define three key types of wingers; the first type is a more traditional wide midfielder. These players can be slower than the average winger. Their job is not to score goals, and only rarely do they provide assists. Rather, they serve as a passing outlet to stretch the opposing defense. They are often classified as a winger only because they play out wide, not because they possess other winger characteristics.
There are fewer and fewer wide midfielders in soccer, as many coaches eschew them in favor of other types. Still, some examples of effective wide midfielders include Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of Arsenal and Andres Iniesta, back when Pep Guardiola was the Barcelona manager. Oxlade-Chamberlain is not known for scoring goals or assists, but his speed opens up possibilities for Arsenal’s attacking midfielders like Mesut Özil. Guardiola deployed Iniesta, a natural central midfielder, out wide to squeeze even more technical passers into his passing-oriented team.
The most common type of winger is the attacking winger. Attacking wingers are most commonly used on either side of a lone striker in a 4-3-3 formation. Their job is to play further forward than a wide midfielder, get the ball, and take on opposing fullbacks. They are expected to contribute more goals and assists than wide midfielders. Above all, their goal is to supply quality crosses into the box for the striker to head into the net. Logically, these players often also take corner kicks and occasionally take free kicks. Speed is an important attribute for these players, as well as crossing ability.
Raheem Sterling and Theo Walcott are two examples of attacking wingers. Both the Manchester City and Arsenal players stick to their wings and create chances. Sterling clearly enjoys running at opposing fullbacks, getting into good positions, and crossing for Sergio Aguero to score. Walcott scores more goals than Sterling, but he still exhibits the speed and dribbling ability of an attacking winger.
The third type of winger is the inverted winger, which is growing more common in the modern game. These players love to cut inside from the wing and provide an incisive pass or curling shot. Almost all wingers that score plenty of goals are inverted wingers. Their job is less about crossing and more about speed and dribbling tricks. This is because defenses often will know that their opposing winger loves to cut inside; it takes skill to earn chances to cut inside even when the defense knows it is coming. Also, inverted wingers often favor the opposite foot from the side they play on. This may seem a minute detail, but when they cut inside, they now have the ball on their favored foot for a pass or shot.
Two examples of inverted wingers are Alexis Sanchez and Arjen Robben. Sanchez, who plays for Arsenal alongside Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott, is the team’s top scorer, a skillful dribbler with the eye for a key pass. Robben, who has had a legendary career for Chelsea, Bayern Munich and the Dutch national team, has become famous for his skill at cutting inside and curling a shot into the far corner of the goal. He is a left-footed player who plays on the right wing, which is why he is dribbling on his favored left foot when he cuts in from the right. For years, defenses have known of his proficiency at this maneuver, and yet Robben still pulls it off from time to time.
Next time you sit down and watch a soccer match, focus on one winger for a few minutes. Watch the runs that they make and what they do with the ball, and try to identify them as a wide midfielder, attacking winger or inverted winger. Of course, no analysis is complete; surely there are wingers who merge these categories or do not fit into any of them. In any case, wingers play a key role in a soccer team’s attack, and these are the three main types.