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A Look at Football’s Inverted Winger

One of my pet peeves in the modern game of football these days is the so-called inverted winger. Football, in a way, is not unlike fashion in that trends are established by way of innovations being copied. The inverted winger is one of these.

For the benefit of those not so familiar with the technical and tactical sides of football, the winger is the attacking player who plays wide, i.e. close to the sidelines to offer the team what in football terms is called width.

In the old days, wingers were told to get some lime onto their boots, a colourful way of saying that they should play as close to the line as possible.

Classical and Inverted Wingers

However, for every Arjen Robben, there are inverted wingers who can put in cross after frustratingly bad cross and never get in a decent shot. These make one wonder why they are not deployed in their natural flanks.
Because traditional wingers play out wide, they attract opposing defenders away from their preferred compact positions in front of goal. The spaces that are created as defenders stray farther away from each other can then be exploited by other attacking players.

Traditional thinking was that one played a right-sided player on the right wing and a left-sided player down the opposite flank if one could be found. Easier said than done, of course, being as it is that an estimated 81% of people are right-footed.

The inverted winger is the opposite of this thinking. That is, a right-footed player is deployed to play on the left flank and vice-versa. Let us examine the thinking behind this.

The winger as a player becomes a threat to the opposing goal in two ways. First, indirectly, by providing the crosses from which teammates can score. The second is as a more direct threat if the winger can get into a more central position to take advantage of a cross from the opposing flank or from taking the ball inwards to create a shooting chance for himself.

By deploying an inverted winger, a coach implicitly makes a statement of attempting to draw more from the winger as a threat the second way rather than the first. That is, the winger is being used more for his ability to cut inside and find shooting space rather than the crosses which traditionally one expects from such a player.

Natural Sides

Players in the modern game, it is said, have to be two-footed. Truly two-footed players, however, are a rarity even at the highest level. Most players have a preferred foot but can use the other so-called weaker or less-preferred foot up to a certain extent.

Most players at the developmental stage can be taught to use the weaker foot to create a condition that is called forced laterality. In other words, the weaker foot is being taught by repetitive motor skills training to do what the strong or preferred foot can normally do.

Many right-sided players can attain as much as, off the top of my head, 70% efficiency with the weaker left foot. Very rarely can a right-sided player’s left foot become as good as the right.

For reasons I have yet to discover – and this next statement is based on my own 30 years of experience training and coaching high school players – left-sided players are more difficult to force to use their right feet. Essentially, many of the left-sided players who trained under me remained one-footed players.

Let us now examine the application.

Winger v Fullback

A classical winger pushed the ball forward, attempted to out-sprint the opposing fullback and headed for the by-line to be able to deliver a cross. From the defensive perspective, the ideal way to counter a classical winger was to have a fullback who, all other things being equal, was of the opposite preferred foot to the winger.

In other words, the left-sided fullback was the perfect foil for the right-sided winger; and vice-versa. A left-sided fullback turns quicker to his left than to the right, crucial in denying the winger the fraction of a second that he needs to get into a position to cross the ball.

This is arguably the inspiration for the inverted winger. Because a left-sided fullback turns fractionally slow to the right, this is where the inverted left-sided winger can attack him more.

By doing so, however, he allows the defence to collapse into a more favourable compact formation, thus negating the efficacy of the ploy. Moreover, modern defending dictates that midfielders track back to assist fullbacks and block spaces inside which wingers can exploit.

When inverted wingers are forced outside with no recourse but to cross, they do so with the weaker foot. Also, when inverted wingers dribble, they naturally do so with their preferred feet.

Unfortunately, this shows the ball to the fullback. In contrast, a classical winger dribbled with his body between the ball and the fullback, which meant that he was by default already protecting the ball.

In Conclusion

This, in a nutshell, is why I am not enamoured with the inverted winger. What, ultimately, ought to be a glorious opportunity to put in a telling cross more often than not turns out to be a dud.

In fairness, the ploy can work, especially since the width that classical wingers used to provide is now being provided more and more by overlapping fullbacks. However, for every Arjen Robben, there are inverted wingers who can put in cross after frustratingly bad cross and never get in a decent shot. These make one wonder why they are not deployed in their natural flanks.

I suppose the point of all these is that inverted wingers should be deployed if one has the right players who can carry out the role to fruition, instead of something that is done because it is one of those fads in the modern game.

In college, I was deployed as an inverted winger not as a tactical move but more because there were two of us right wingers and the other one’s left foot was a piece of furniture to prop up the rest of him. I was deployed on the left because my left foot had some use.

While I appreciated it that I was playing, it was also frustrating to not be able to deliver the crosses that I knew I was capable of delivering with my preferred foot. It was not until I was deployed on the right flank that I really started to enjoy myself and play the football that I knew I could.

Acknowledgment: Top photo from en.africatopsports.com.

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