Modern football is dominated by inverted wingers – a left-footed right-winger or a right-footed left-winger. These players traditionally prefer to collect the ball, cut inside and get away from their marking full-back to take a shot or deliver in-swinging crosses. The likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Mo Salah, Riyad Mahrez, and Lorenzo Insigne are the type of wide players who would cut in from the inside left/right half-space channels and shoot with their favoured foot, tilting the odds in their favour.
A few decades ago, however, we used to witness ‘orthodox wingers’ such as Ryan Giggs, Luís Figo, David Beckham, and Andrei Kanchelskis who would predominantly take on the full-back, run through the flank towards the by-line and deliver crosses in the box for the striker(s) to score.
Why is it that the orthodox winger has become almost obsolete? Football has come a full cycle of sorts. Many old tactics have been dispersed, and we are now experiencing many peculiar features in the game which were not customary amongst the prominent tacticians in the past, particularly, the evolution of wingers in modern football.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s Old School 4-4-2
Perhaps the last top team to utilise the glamorous orthodox wing play was Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson. Whilst Ryan Giggs was a career-long exponent of the art of orthodox wing-play, he partnered the likes of Andrei Kanchelskis and David Beckham in the 90s and a certain Cristiano Ronaldo on the right in the latter half of 2000s.
These sides played two lines of four players with an emphasis on expanding the game as much as possible. The onus was on these wingers to play in the perfect cross which was then met by either of the two strikers for a tap in or an aerial effort. The young Ronaldo did also cut in and score himself but it was not a tactical instruction, rather more of a freedom that he could not contain his sheer brilliance to just the flank but felt determined to grab many goals himself.
Cristiano Ronaldo had a big influence in the modernisation of wingers; he had many attributes of a forward even when he played as a right-midfielder/winger in a 4-4-2. The sheer class of coming inside the box and grabbing the opportunities to score a hefty amount of goals was something very rare.
So came a new term for the modern or “inverted” wingers – “outside-forwards”, because of their major emphasis on loading the central third of the field to grab goals.
The rise of the wingers as outside-forwards
The increased need for goal threat in the wing positions eventually led to the creation and eventual supremacy of inverted wingers. Whilst the likes of Figo experimented with playing on both flanks, the inverted winger particularly became prominent with the rise of Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben and Leo Messi. These players influenced the game to such an extent that it has now become the norm to play with inverted wingers. Cristiano Ronaldo took it upon himself to transform himself from a predominantly right-sided winger to one of the greatest outside-forwards of all time.
With the rise of inverted wingers, the responsibility now fell on the fullbacks to provide a constant source of width.
Consider the tactical picture of a right-footed winger playing from the left, supported from behind by a left-footed left-back. Should the winger carry the ball forward and turn to dribble inside, they would be attacking the opposition fullback’s weaker foot as well as creating space out wide for the supporting full-back to overlap and attack should they receive a pass. In contrast, if the winger is left-footed and engages in a 1v1 with the opposition fullback, they would be forced to try to beat the fullback on the outside in a footrace. The option to pass inside at this moment would be denied due to the screening position of the fullback.
These inverted wingers heightened the goalscoring threat, with three forwards capable of getting into the box to score, yet having their fullbacks possessing the old school ability to put the ball into the box if all else failed, hence forming a five-man attack in transition. But this would eventually lead to the risk of facing a counterattack and conceding goals given the spaces left behind for the opposition forwards to take charge of the attack.
Impact of the Dutch/Ajax brand of football.
The impact of the Ajax-inspired 4-3-3 on all modern teams is undeniable. It has given us the more modified modern form of wingers. In a 4-3-3, the use of only one striker allows the team to achieve more possession by bringing the second striker back into the midfield, thus making it easier to create passing triangles.
In order to make use of this possession in a more positive manner, Ajax would deploy wingers as forwards in support of the solitary target man. These wingers were considered “outside-forwards”. Whilst the primary focus was the same – supply the perfect cross to the striker, the methodology was somewhat modified. Owing to their positioning, the outside-forwards would play closer to goal, which would lead to an increase in low-driven crosses that would end in easy tap-ins but a decrease in those whipped-in crosses from close to the touchline. There was also a greater emphasis on goal output. In the absence of the second striker sharing the goalscoring burden with the front man, the onus was on the wide players who were the closest to goal in comparison to any of the central midfielders to get into the box and take the goalscoring responsibility.
In modern football, cutting in with the ball on the safe side of the defender and a view of the goal in sight has become a priority asset for the modern greats of the game.