Wingers have been an iconic part of football for many years and in the process have provided some of the most memorable moments in the game as well. From Ryan Giggs’ special solo effort against Arsenal in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final to Gareth Bale’s tormenting of Brazilian full back Maicon for Tottenham in the Champions League – exciting wingers have the ability to get fans off their feet like no other position.
Although they do still exist, the days of the marauding wide player are becoming more uncommon in England’s top tier of football as the game continues to evolve, with less players who you would class as a conventional old fashioned winger whose game is based around the simple but effective playing style of beating the defender, getting to the byline and delivering a cross for the forwards.
There seems to have been a culture change in the Premier League with an emphasis on playing a more continental style of football, with more focus on attractive passing and possession play. The new obsession of younger managers such as Andre-Villas Boas, Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers who have a vision to play a style of football in the ilk of Barcelona would support this.
So what exactly is the role of the modern day winger? I think rather than calling it the end of the traditional wide player, a better way to describe it would be that the role has developed along with the natural progression of the game, and we now see far more variations of the position. Managers look for more than just pace, skill and crossing ability.
Old fashioned wingers with these qualities of course do still exist but are best suited to a 4-4-2 formation, a system which isn’t as commonly used anymore. Manchester United and Tottenham are examples of some of the top teams who seem strongest when deploying this style and do usually play with two out and out wingers, in particular Tottenham with Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon. Players such as Matt Jarvis, Antonio Valencia, Matthew Etherington, and Stewart Downing would be other examples of those who I would say are a throwback to past widemen.
Then we come to the likes of Andreas Iniesta, who is commonly played as one of the wider men in a front three for Barcelona. David Silva, and Eden Hazard would be others who I would categorise as this kind of player, who can play out wide but favour coming in field and getting involved with the play, very rarely hugging the touchline. These kind of players are the ones who I feel are becoming more common with the direction in which the game is heading in.
With the ability many of today’s full backs possess in getting forward, they often cover for the lack of width provided by the players in front of them. Jordi Alba and Danni Alves are both good examples of this.
I would say the ideal wide player for a manager today would be a hybrid of all of these qualities and the versatility of players who play on the wing is certainly increasing as a result of it. They are now expected to contribute more to general play, while also chipping in with a fair share of goals.
While I see why this can be good for the game, I think that because of football going in this direction, the basic fundamentals of a winger aren’t focused on as much and are to an extent being coached out of players, in a bid to turn them into a more complete footballer as they progress further into their careers.
I think this could be one of the reasons we see so many up and coming prospects in wide positions these days who struggle with their final ball and the consistency of it. You compare some of the wingers of today with those in years gone by and although there are still many excellent crossers of the ball, the same consistency doesn’t seem to be there with a lot of them.
The amount of emphasis on wing play obviously also stems down to the options available at a club for example if the strikers in the team are more suited to attacking crosses, or better off with the ball played into feet. A good example of a side coping and succeeding without a winger/striker combination would be Spain at Euro 2012. For much of the tournament they used no recognised striker, instead choosing to deploy Cesc Fabregas as the most forward thinking in a team packed with creative midfielders. Spain of course went on to win the tournament so can claim to have got their tactics spot on.
It also has to be remembered that the systems used by teams in the modern day aren’t as rigid than years gone by. It is common to see interchanging between players throughout matches, so they are often required to be versatile in their ability.
Although I would personally still like to see more players in the mould of the likes of Giggs in his prime, I would like to think that rather than the conventional winger becoming a dying breed in modern football, they are merely evolving in conjunction with the game they are a part of.