Throughout the history of football, wingers have always been among the most exciting players to watch.
Full of pace and skill going forward, willing to take on defenders, but also there to give a helping hand to the full backs whilst remaining ready to break into a counter attack. These exciting players were once a common feature in the biggest football teams in the world, but they have become increasingly rare thanks to the emergence of attacking midfielders, playmakers and a range of different formations.
Are wingers exactly what modern football is missing?
No matter what generation you come from, you will remember having a specific winger who you loved to watch, whether it was the Brazilian Garrincha in the 50’s & 60’s, George Best in 60’s & early 70’s, John Barnes in the 80’s & 90’s or Irish legend Damien Duff in the late 90’s & early 00’s. These players were incredibly entertaining to watch and often stole the limelight in big games.
Garrincha will always be remembered for his international career rather than his club career. as he won 2 World Cups with Brazil. His country never lost a game when he and Pele were in the line-up. Garrincha loved to take on players down the wing, create chances and show off his incredible skills, which led to him being labelled the greatest dribbler ever. Have a look for yourself.
Just like Garrincha, Barnes, Best & Duff loved to take on players, make bursting runs down the wing, and swing crosses into the box for teammates. This is an exciting part of the typical football game that most fans now miss seeing, as attacking midfielders tend not to get stuck into midfield battles or defensive duties and would rather pass the ball to a teammate than take on a player.
A Change in Tactics & Formation
The evolution of wingers into attacking midfielders has seen a huge shift in the style of these players. Before, we were used to witnessing wingers make blistering runs down the wing and deliver crosses or bring players into the game. Now, we see attacking midfielders cut into a more central area when they approach the box so that they can create chances on goal or bring build up play towards the opposition’s box.
This style of play has become common thanks to a very successful Barcelona side which has dominated in Spain and Europe over the last decade. Their style of play which is referred to as ‘tiki-taka’ involves keeping the ball on the floor as much as possible, avoiding long balls by playing out of defence, and having a very quick pass and move style of play.
The success of ‘tiki-taka’ for Barcelona has resulted in this style of play being copied by many teams across Europe, especially in England where teams like Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool try to implement a similar approach.
This common style of play has led to wingers either becoming attacking midfielders or central midfielders. For example, James Milner was a success when playing as a winger for Leeds, Villa and Newcastle, but had to adapt to either being a central midfielder or an attacking midfielder during his time at City, as well as later when he arrived at Liverpool. Many would argue, that he would be more of a threat in a side that uses wingers in their formation, as he would have more space to dribble with the ball and would have more opportunities to deliver crosses into the box.
This change to ‘tiki-taka’ has caused a huge shift in formations in modern football. We were all used to seeing teams, especially in the Premier League, use a 4-4-2 system which had 4 defenders, 4 midfielder (2 central midfielders & 2 wingers) and 2 strikers. This straight forward formation created a more direct style of football and would make most nostalgic about Premier League football of the 90’s or 00’s.
Now, we see many different formations, but the most common would be 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 or even 4-3-2-1. The idea of these formations is to have two or three attacking midfielders supporting a striker, or have no striker at all and play with three attacking midfielders. These formations work successfully at Barcelona with Messi and Neymar playing just behind Suarez, or less successfully at Liverpool where they have attempted at times to play two attacking midfielders behind Benteke or just three attacking midfielders in attack.
The Last of the Wingers
Not every team in Europe claims to have wingers but every side claims to have attacking midfielders in modern football. Although, wingers aren’t extinct just yet. We have a few of them still knocking about, such as Jesus Navas for Manchester City.
The Spaniard is lightning quick, isn’t afraid to take on players and plays primarily from the wing while his teammates Silva and Sterling tend to be the ones who cut into a more central area of the pitch to create build up play or chances for themselves. There are very few wingers left in the Premier League besides Jesus Navas, Adam Johnson, Marko Arnautovic and possibly Theo Walcott on occasion for Arsenal. There are also very few wingers left in Europe besides Napoli’s Dries Mertens and Bayern’s Franck Ribery.