ORTHODOX WINGERS..NO MORE!
When Jesus Navas captained Sevilla to their record 6th Europa league title, there was a sense of nostalgia. A player that primarily functions on the same flank as his favoured foot, moving up and down the wing in a box to box fashion with the basic objective of crossing the ball to a target man or finisher. Navas was widely renowned for being one of the rare modern.
But even he was eventually forced to adapt and found himself utilized as a right-back in the final – the only way he could remain relevant which brings up the question…why is it that the orthodox winger has become obsolete as a tactical concept? Football as we know it has come to a full cycle of sorts. Many old tactics have resurfaced, and many well-respected tacticians have refurbished old school systems in order to create the modern game we see before us - is there a possibility that the winger could once again become essential?
Perhaps the last top team to utilize dazzling 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, it was perhaps only the 2006 version of Manchester United and the 1994 vintage that managed to produce orthodox wing play on both flanks simultaneously (young Ronaldo and Andrei Kanchelskis proving worthy as Ryan Giggs partners in crime). These sides played two straight lines of 4 players with an emphasis on expanding the game as much as possible. The onus was on these wingers to play the perfect cross which was then met by the striker for the tap in or spectacular aerial efforts. The young Ronaldo did also cut in and score himself, but it was not a tactical instruction – more that he could not contain his sheer brilliance to just the flank and felt compelled to also go for goal himself.
The impact of the Ajax-inspired 4-3-3 on all modern teams is undeniable and in particular, it is the Dutch influence that has given us the more modified modern form of a winger. In a 4-3-3, the use of one sole center-forward would allow the team to achieve more possession, by bringing the second striker back into the midfield, thus making it easier to create passing triangles. But there was a potentially a major drawback to this as well i.e. if the orthodox wingers were to cross the ball into the box, there would only be one solitary forward at the end of it and he would be outnumbered, not just by the centre backs but also by the covering full back on the far post who also had no one to mark (with his winger stationed on the opposite flank). This means all that possession was essentially futile and crossing the ball would become a needle in the haystack exercise.
Thus in order to make use of that possession in a more positive manner, Ajax would deploy wingers as forwards in support of the target man. These wingers were considered ‘Outside Forwards’. Whilst the primary focus was the same (supply the perfect cross to the target man/striker), the methodology was modified somewhat. Owing to their positioning, the outside forwards would play closer to the goal and that would lead to an increase in low driven crosses that would end in easy tap-ins but a decrease in those whipped in low percentage crosses from close to the touchline. There was also a greater emphasis on goal output. With there not being a second striker sharing the goalscoring burden with the frontman, the onus was on the wide men who were the closest to goal in comparison to any of the central midfielders to get into the box and take responsibility for putting the ball into the back of the net.
This increased need for goal threat in the ‘Outside Forward’ positions eventually led to the creation and supremacy of inverted wingers - wide players who could cut in from the inside left/right half-space channels and shoot with their favoured foot – tilting the odds in their favour. Whilst the likes of Figo experimented with playing on both flanks, as did the likes of Pierre Littbarski – the inverted winger particularly became prominent with the rise of Ronaldinho, Arjen Robben, and Messi. These three players influenced the modern game to such an extent that it is now the norm to play with inverted wingers. Credit must also go to Cristiano Ronaldo who took it upon himself to transform from a predominantly right-sided winger to one of the greatest inverted wing-forwards of all time… in fact the greatest full stop considering his success and the fact that Messi has featured in a greater variety of roles.
With the rise of the inverted winger, the responsibility now fell to the full-back to provide a constant source of width. One advantageous side effect was that teams now had the best of both worlds. Heightened goal scoring threat, with three forwards capable of getting into the box and scoring, yet through their full-backs possessing the old school ability to put the ball into the box if all else fails. With a greater range of attacking possibilities at their disposal now, was there really ever going to be a chance for the orthodox winger to rise from the ashes?
The modern game keeps evolving but recently we have noticed a comeback of sorts of the old systems. Modified, of course, some tactical setups do tell their own success stories. The modern winger might not be remotely similar to the classic but there are signs of a revival. In Sevilla’s triumph in the Europa league 2019-20, Julian Lopetgui preferred fielding a very flexible 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 with one out and out winger in Lucas Ocampos and an inverted forward/winger in Suso.
Something equally similar has been key to Bayern Munchen’s recent resurgence under Hansi Flick. He used orthodox winger Gnabry on the right and modern attacking full-back Davies with inverted wingers Perisic/Coman in his favored 4-2-3-1 system that at times looked unbeatable. In the current season, he has been provided Leroy Sane on the wings who, arguably is the finest young orthodox winger in the game when in full flight and is much missed by Manchester City as a tactical alternative to their inverted winger approach. If Flick chooses to play Sane and Gnabry on the same flanks as their favoured foots and Bayern remain successful, it could herald the full-scale revival of the orthodox winger.