Tactics Tuesday: Natural vs. Inverted Wingers

Determining the best use of wide players has always been one of a manager’s toughest tactical decisions. The earliest wingers – attackers who played on their natural flank – stayed close to the touchline and rarely ventured into their own half, but Alf Ramsey, manager of England’s victorious 1966 World Cup squad, withdrew his wingers closer to the middle of the pitch, forming the first 4-4-2. Even as early as the 1920′s, Arsenal used wingers who cut inside. Their inward inclination flummoxed fullbacks and provided a passing outlet for their fellow midfielders.

The modern game is no less varied in its use of wingers. In our new Tactics Tuesday article, FFG compares and contrasts the two winger archetypes–natural vs. inverted–and makes suggestions and speculations for the USMNT.

Natural wingers

The first innate trait to look for in an effective winger is raw speed. Unlike a more central attacker who must often receive the ball with his back to goal and have the sturdiness to provide hold-up play, a winger spends much of his time running down balls played ahead of him, racing by fullbacks with the ball at his feet and, finally, tracking back down the flank to defend (Oh yeah, my OTHER job).

Second on the list of desired skills would be a consistent and poisonous cross. Since the pitch tends to end quickly once you blast by that fullback, you need a quick and accurate trigger foot to give your poaching strikers something to work with. Dribbling prowess is much desired, but there are cases of effective wingers who aren’t necessarily world class dribblers (i.e. Arsenal’s Theo Walcott). If you watch closely you find that for the great wingers it isn’t so much a matter of dribbling past opponents as it is passing it to yourself around them—hence the prerequisite intense speed.

Intuition tells us that, based on the above description, it would be logical to play a winger on his ‘natural foot’ (a righty plays on the right and a lefty on the left). Having the strong foot closest to the sideline would seem to afford a greater sense of control and, most importantly, makes the most sense for producing those deadly outswinging crosses.

There are several ideal examples of the natural-footed winger in full form this season. In the English Premier League, Tottenham fields an attack-minded duo of wingers of this mold in Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon. Both are extraordinarily speedy and consistently get behind fullbacks to place dangerous crosses. Both also happen to heavily favor their natural foot (Bale/left Lennon/right).

Both of Tottenham's wingers play tight to their sideline, forcing play around fullbacks to make crosses. Notice Bale's two assists from "natural footed" crosses.

Inverted wingers

In the EPL’s very direct style of play, use of the natural winger is GENERALLY the norm (please don’t accuse FFG of neglecting the exceptions!). Elsewhere in Europe, a slightly more subtle archetype is popular. Now and then you find a winger who possesses all the traits discussed above but who was born with the heart and golden finishing touch of a striker. In other words, they have a nose for the goal and love drifting across the 18 (space where forwards are allegedly waiting for the cross) with only one thing in mind: pulling the trigger. Since these goal-hungry wingers have drifted off their wing and are moving across the goal, it makes more sense to play them ‘inverted’ with their natural foot to the inside of the pitch.

If Tottenham currently plays it straight with two natural-footers, last year’s Champions League runners-up Bayern Munich pulled a complete reversal by often playing two inverted wingers. Dutchman Arjen Robben, a hopelessly one-footed lefty, played on the RIGHT wing. Frenchman Frank Ribery, a righty, played on the LEFT wing.

Feast your eyes on this dreamy inverted winger ‘drift and finish’ from Robben:

Real Madrid is a club playing with inverted wingers this season. The Special One has often played a 4-2-3-1 similar to Tottenham’s but with one major difference–he flips Cristiano Ronaldo (a righty) and Angel di Maria (a lefty) from their natural sides. Contrast the passing stats below for Ronaldo/di Maria with those of Bale/Lennon above.

Real Madrid's inverted wingers seem drawn to the goal box and are more likely to drift and shoot then cross. Notice Ronaldo's assist from a short ground pass.

Implications for strikers

Striker Peter Crouch is the ideal target man for a formation that employs natural wingers. Notice his finish on a cross from Bale.

If you look at each of these 4-2-3-1′s on their own merits, each manager’s choice to employ either natural or inverted wingers makes good football sense. In Peter Crouch, Tottenham possesses a classic target forward, powerful and effective in the air. Here are Crouch’s passes received from that same match. He obviously got a lot of crosses and received a lot of long passes from defenders and even the keeper. He’s a big target and takes the ball well.

Real Madrid, on the other hand, lacks a large target forward. Instead, they utilize one of the most effective poachers on the planet in Argentine Gonzalo Higuain. Not necessarily great in the air, Higuain relies on an uncanny finisher’s instinct to be exactly where he needs to be in the goal box. This makes him the ideal accompaniment to an inverted winger’s ‘drive and shoot’ mentality. Essentially, he can withdraw and become a passing outlet when the path to goal is blocked or he can poach a rebound from a winger’s shot.

Higuain doesn't need a great air game. Since he knows his wingers will be cutting in, he can receive passes outside the box. Notice the almost complete lack of crosses received.

Implications for the USMNT

The story told above suggests the most important element to implementing your winger strategy is to know your striker(s). Strikers with a physical presence, a solid air game and a knack for picking out crosses are best matched with natural wingers. Scrappy, poaching strikers content to withdraw and/or pick up the leftovers in the box are well-suited to playing alongside inverted wingers.

So just what type of striker is Jozy Altidore – target man or silky scrapper? Frankly, I don’t think we know yet. FFG has highlighted his unique – in some ways backward – evolution as a player. He learned to be a proficient target forward before figuring out how to poach goals – the reverse of most strikers. He’s not necessarily great in the air, but he is big and could make a nice focal point for crosses. Combine this with his current inability to poach (or plays as a false-nine) and we say he fits more the mold of a target forward. So with Jozy on the field, natural wingers may be the way to go.

Circumstances normally cause Bob Bradley to use a combination of one inverted and one natural winger. The USA’s best wingers – Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey – are both righties. Perhaps the left-footed Brek Shea will emerge as a natural option on the other flank.

Over the last few months, we have seen flashes of a more lively and scrappy striker in Juan Agudelo. He’s just the kind of quick, unpredictable forward that might pair well with an inverted winger format. Dempsey, who often plays as a withdrawn forward for Fulham, is another option. But if Bob Bradley elects to use two inverted wingers, he still faces the problem of finding a left-footed winger to play on the right flank. Shea almost always plays on the left for FC Dallas, and DaMarcus Beasley, USA’s most accomplished left-footed winger (and arguably the USA’s most accomplished winger period), rarely sees the field for his club, Hannover 96.

The lack of lefties is further compounded by a dearth of attacking left backs. Much of the above discussion applies equally to natural vs. inverted fullbacks. However, you’d never want to put an inverted fullback behind an inverted winger. They’d tangle with each other and leave that whole flank wide open. A natural fullback behind an inverted winger, however, does make a lot of sense. As the winger cuts in the fullback overlaps, giving yet another option to the drifting winger. In fact, most squads who use inverted wingers have rampaging fullbacks, and since the USA is still looking for an attacking left back, Bradley might shy away from using two inverted wingers, at least for the time being.

What’s your take, Gringos? What are Bob’s best options for natural vs. inverted wingers?

3 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Blake Owen says:

    As much fun as it would be to see Robben and Ribery-style wingers darting toward the box, the US simply doesn’t have two inverted wingers of their quality.

    Maybe Shea will develop that ability eventually, but until then we’ll probably have to be content with Dempsey/Donovan or Donovan/Holden. All three are great players but only Donovan could be considered a true winger, inverted or no.

  2. Adam says:

    This is great stuff, really bringing good international level thinking and history of the game to the US Soccer scene (something I would argue is required to evolve the game here – yay Jurgen!).

    My one qualm is that your qualification of a winger being first and foremost fast as hell. That is well and good when you are talking about players with the technical ability of CR, Bale, Robben or Ribery (hell even Theo Walcott). However, that type of thinking is everything that is wrong with American player development and how those players that are most physically impressive end up being shepherded to the top of their age-group. Then we end up with players like Robbie Rogers who just get brutally exposed for a lack of technical ability on the international level.

    Good stuff though, I am a new fan.

    • Blake Owen says:

      Thanks for the love, Adam.

      If I understood Ben correctly, he was implying that historically pace was the number 1 attribute for a winger, as they were almost always ‘natural wingers’ and needed to use their speed to get off crosses.

      You’re right, of course. Pace is certainly not the end-all, be-all attribute for wingers, whether natural or inverted.

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