The Evolution of the Winger
Max Lindon | 27 March 2017

Currently in football there is a trend leaning towards thenarrow style of Barcelona, where the vast majority of attacks are passing moves, executed through the centre of the opposition's defence. Therefore one could be forgiven for suggesting that the winger is as outdated as the traditional tall centre forward. This view could be justified by Spain's much talked about adoption of the 4-6-0 formation during the recent European Championships. The 'wingers' in that formation were actually creative midfielders, Andres Iniesta and David Silva, who were stationed on the flanks merely to avoid central congestion. They certainly didn't play as traditional wide-men either, attacking their full-backs with the aim of delivering a cross for the striker. This approach would have been pointless, seeing as Spain used Cesc Fabregas, yet another creative midfielder, as a false number nine.  As well as causing several pundits' heads to explode, this meant that there were no targets in the box, should a cross bedelivered. Instead, the duo played just as they usually would, as attacking midfielders and, upon receiving the ball, cut inside to continue the team's tiki-taka passing. The players who acted most like wingers in this formationwere actually the full backs, Alvaro Arbeloa and Jordi Alba - this was highlighted by the latter's goal in the final against Italy.

 

Although this might well be how many football teams will play in the future, an obituary to the winger would be extremely premature. Many sides continue to use wingers as an essential part of their tactics. While teams like Stoke City still use them in very traditional roles, many more progressive sides swear by them. Arsenal (which is considered by many to be the closest thing English football has to Barcelona and Spain) also uses wingers inthe 4-2-3-1 formation that is becoming increasingly prevalent in the game. Arsenal's front line is not rigidly fixed, however, with players frequently swapping positions in order to find space and to pose different challenges for the opposing defenders. This means that their wingers have to be versatile and able to play several different positions during the season, or even during one match.  A common Arsenal front four would be Cazorla, Gervinho, Podolski and Walcott. At first sight it can be difficult to tell which players are in which positions, because they are all able to assume at least two different roles.

 

Modern wingers need to be versatile as they are sometimes required to play on the 'wrong' side of the pitch (e.g. a right footer playingat left wing).  However, some teams employ wingers who are specialists at this, the most obvious example being Bayern Munich, which has the mercurial combination of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery - affectionately referred to as 'Robbery' by the Bayern faithful. The irrelationship off the pitch hasn't been brilliant to say the least, but on the pitch they are nothing short of deadly. Their preferred modus operandi is to cut inside onto their stronger foot, to shoot or (rarely in Robben's case) topass.  By doing so, they force their fullbacks onto their weaker foot and gain an advantage. They are also skilled at running to the by-line and crossing to the likes of Mario Gomez, Mario Manzdukic or Claudio Pizarro.  This makes the pair truly unpredictable and their brilliance has contributed hugely to Bayern's recent Champions League Final appearances.

 

So there you have it, the modern winger hasn't died out; the position is merely evolving and whilst superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale continue to terrorise defenders, it will remain an integral part of the beautiful game.

James Routledge 2016