The Premier League has seen an array of wingers in years gone by. But with managers willing to try different things to adapt to the modern-day game, we have witnessed the wingers performing different roles in different set-ups. Below we will analyse the distinct types of wide players, focusing on England’s top flight.
Firstly, let us define the role. A winger is an attacking midfielder who plays in wide areas, from where they can cross the ball and dribble past defenders. All in all, they are present to support the attacks from the sides of the field. Generally, a player playing in this position possesses pace to make runs in behind the defence, especially on counter-attacks.
The “yesteryear football” in England was predominantly about teams playing the 4-4-2 system with two wingers high and wide, crossing the ball on a regular basis with two strikers present in the box to attack those deliveries. Sir Alex Ferguson won countless trophies with Manchester United playing the flat 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1.
Back then the full-backs were defenders first, who would move forward if given the opportunity. However, the tale has changed in the modern game. The full-backs are like half-wingers themselves, hence they move forward whenever the team is in possession. It has made their job tougher in a positive sense, as they have to run up and down the pitch for the whole game, with a chance of making an impact at both ends of the field.
As a result, we see managers giving more license to their wingers to cut in and play closer to the strikers, enabling wingers to score more goals than they used to. A perfect example is Liverpool’s 4-3-3 or (more recently) the 4-2-3-1 system under Jürgen Klopp.
Klopp’s wide forwards
Last season, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané played as inverted wingers who were tucked in close to the number nine, Roberto Firmino. It allowed the two wide players to be in a goal-scoring position every time their team attacked. Furthermore, it freed up the full-backs to bomb forward whenever they had possession to create the width in attack. Thus, in a way, the Reds fabricated a threat from central as well as from wide positions.
The above image shows us the most important action points of the Egyptian in the Premier League during the 2017/18 season. We can see almost every vital contribution is either close to or inside the box. It is almost as if the 26-year-old was the striker of the team.
Switch to this season, and Salah is able to play as a centre-forward in most games, partly because he exercised himself as a goal-scoring winger last year and the positions he took made it easy to transform into a number nine.
This image depicts his action points from the last six matches. It also shows the action points of last season played a huge part in enabling the manager to deploy him as a striker in the 4-2-3-1 formation.
Hence, we can say Klopp’s system of a narrow front line provides a different headache to the defenders, because of the flexibility in the movements of his front players.
Pep’s peppy wingers
Moving forward, let’s talk about someone who has a slightly different way of thinking. And, when talking about tactical innovations, Pep Guardiola is a master.
However, the Manchester City boss has changed the way his fullbacks play, rather than tweaking the way the wingers ply their trade. The Spaniard is making a different use of wingers and fullbacks compared to Klopp.
Pep deploys the fullbacks to be dummy midfielders when the team is in possession. They are the inverted wingers in attack and orthodox full-backs in defence. The original wingers stay wide to stretch the opposition defence and their wide partners work in the half-space.
In a way, the wingers are operating how such players used to, but with more threat as they have support from the full-backs. The width created by staying as wide as possible either leaves the winger in space or allows an easy run in the channel for the full-back.
This doesn’t deter from the fact that the former do not arrive in the box when the opportunity is there. When the ball is with one winger, the player on the other side will have a chance to be in the box for a far post cross or pass. Leroy Sané is a perfect exponent of this art.
The above image shows the German’s action points from the last half dozen matches, which clearly depicts that he is there to do the job of hugging the touchline, but also present himself in the box when required.
Riyad Mahrez, especially when at Leicester, gives us a reason to talk about a type of Premier League winger who was a mixture of old and new style. The former because staying wide and putting crosses in the box was the Algerian’s main work at the King Power stadium.
However, he had the liberty to cut inside and allow the fullbacks to foray forward, epitomising the more modern style. As a result of his goal threat when cutting inside, he easily played as a number 10 for the Foxes when required to. As shown here, Mahrez was able to create chances from wide as well as central areas.
Strikers as wide men
We have talked about different types of Premier League wingers. Now, due to the tactical flexibility of the managers, we are able to see strikers play as wide attackers as well. For instance, both Marcus Rashford and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can play as a number nine or on either wing.
The above image shows the attacking actions points of the latter, which clearly depict a flexible player. Some of his actions are like those of an attacking midfielder, partly due to the back three system deployed by Unai Emery, which allows the front players to be flexible.
It is all about the freedom given by modern managers to their attackers. Never has football been in such an advanced stage in every aspect, and the tactical nuances of the managers keep evolving. The metamorphosis of Premier League wingers is just one part of the narrative that is getting more and more versatile with every passing year.