Football scouting blog

The history of the winger

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” ― Leon C. Megginson

To understand the future of footballs’ wingers, you must first analyse their past. In football, the role of the winger has been ever-changing and in the past few decades, the changes have been getting more and more progressive.

The traditional winger (1990s)

In the early 1990s, some of the world’s best wingers were very one dimensional and would mainly stay wide and bamboozle defenders and deliver crosses for their team-mates. The right footed wingers would stay on the right and the left footed wingers would do likewise. Players such as Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Luis Figo were among the best in this era.

Back then, it was all about using their skill to create some space and then delivering that well-timed and accurate cross. Wingers were usually the players who were expected to take the set-pieces because they were usually the smallest players on the pitch and were regarded to be of no use at the end of crosses.

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And, they were also expected to help the fullback with the defensive duties as well. But defenders begun to anticipate what these wingers were going to do so by doubling up on wingers and suffocating the area in the wide areas, this would stifle the wingers involvement in games. Defenders would also force the wingers to come into the inside areas, as many wingers in this era were one footed, it would force them on to their weaker foot and in most cases cause them to squander possession.

The goal scoring wingers and inverted winger (late 1997-2002)

This lead to a evolution in the wingers’ role with the likes Robert Pires, Rivaldo, Marc Overmars, Freddie Ljungberg, Ryan Giggs and Luis Figo leading the way. They were showing new ways of playing in the wide role in the late 1990s. No longer was the winger role just to stay wide on either flank of the pitch and support/create goalscoring chances, they were now a goal threat themselves. There was less emphasis on supporting the full back with the defensive duties but where still expected to contribute defensively. Wingers started to shifting between the right and left flank looking for which full back they could exploit. This lead to some of them having to be able to use either foot to flourish and with that was the the rebirth of the inverted winger. Rivaldo was possibly the best in his generation when it came to goals from the wing. Especially, his time at FC Barcelona were he went on to score 92 goals in 182 games. And, this was topped up by his performances in the 2002 FIFA World Cup were he scored an incredible five goals. Rivaldo was perhaps ahead of his time because he could also play the center forward role and also the inverted winger role. However, he did inspire the next generation of wingers.

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The flair wingers (2002-2006)

In the early 2000s, the rise of the flair wingers begun and possibly the most exciting time in football history for wingers. The winners of the FIFA World Cup tournaments have always been a good indicator of where the next generation of football is going to look like. And, Brazil’s World Cup winning team was no different, it inspired the classical and goal scoring wingers to add trickery and flair to their game. It was a short and important era in football in where wingers were given more freedom to attack in any way they wish and not have to be concerned with the defensive duties as much. The set pieces were still not forgotten by the wingers and they were still scoring and assisting from these although not frequently. Players like Ricardo Quaresma, Denilson, Jay-Jay Okocha, Pavel Nedved, Ronaldinho, Robinho and even Ryan Giggs were producing moments of genius almost every week.  This even inspired the “Joga Bonito” campaign lead by Nike which we got a brief glimpse to the next evolution of wingers in Cristiano Ronaldo and Ronaldinho part taking in great adverts. An era in which the legend Garrincha would have been proud of and flourished in. Ronaldinho was the king of this era and he also introduced a new way of playing as a winger. Many managers would double up on Ronaldinho in wide areas and use pacy full backs to counter his threat but he started to roam into central areas – such was his confidence and skill. He would drop deep to collect the ball and play in areas between the full backs and center backs which would inspire the next evolution of the winger.

The inside forward (2006 – 2010)

Ronaldinho’s influence on the game and the FIFA World Cup in 2006 played another important shift in this new evolution of the winger. It reintroduced the inside forward into the modern game. This style of play had always been in the game but many managers had preferred not to use it. For a long time, many managers felt having strikers and inside forward left the team defensively vulnerable. The modern game had become filled with teams who can counter attack at tremendous pace so it was risky to play the old 2-3-5 formation that the likes of Willie Moir, Harold Hassall and Nat Lofthouse flourished in decades before.

But players like Thierry Henry, Rivaldo and even Ronaldinho showed how effective this could be in the modern game. Its was an upgrade on the inverted winger and goal scoring winger; whereas the inverted and goalscoring winger would play wide as a creator and also chip in with goals, the inside forward is the exact opposite.

The inside forward does not operate in the wide areas they move in the channels between the full back and center back.

Thierry Henry was ahead of his time in this respect. Years before in the Premier League during the 2003-04 season, he showed why runs coming from the wing could be near impossible to stop when done correctly.

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Thierry Henry many would say has no place in the history of wingers but that is not true. He played a massive role in encouraging the reemergence of the inside forward. He was more than just a striker – he was the prototype of the modern day inside forward. He would provide assists and score goals and gliding in from either flank and into central forward areas to create havoc. To this day, he still holds the record for the most assists in a single Premier League season something if he was just a striker he wouldn’t have achieved.

His success would inspire the success of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. Jose Mourinho is a master tactician and student of the game. He noticed and capitalised on the importance of having inside forwards and with his wingers Robben, Duff and Joe Cole would dominate the English game. And with that, a complete revolution in the future of wingers in the Premier League would take place. Many teams worldwide begun to notice the dominance of English teams with these inside forwards and started to replicate that with their wingers.

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Top European teams started to put extra emphasises on wingers who could come in from the wide areas and score goals. None more so than Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona who were the arguably, the best club side of all time. Players like David Villa, Eto’o and Thierry Henry again would go and break goal scoring records that have previously stood for decades playing the roles of the inside forwards.

The complete winger (2010-2014)

Under all these changes, there was the emergence of two of the all time greats in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. During the next four year period, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi would become the most complete forwards to have ever graced the game. And, an intense rivalry between the two players pushed the evolution a step further. The two players battled each other looking to better the other and differentiate from each other in competition to be crowned the world’s best. Lionel Messi under Pep Guardiola was right winger who was changed and made into playing as a false nine. This was done in order to take advantage of space in between the center backs and the midfielders. As an inside forward Messi was not using his full potential and Pep Guardiola decided to transform him into more of a modern day trequartista.

This was very significant as it lead to Cristiano Ronaldo having to transform the winger role into the peak of its attacking capabilities to keep the rivalry with Messi on-going. Cristiano Ronaldo would take everything from the past decade and become an unstoppable force who would not only score but also create goals at the same time. He would perfect near every aspect of the winger role.

As the years past, he lost some of the flair and trickery from his game but he would improve his efficiency which lead to his last two Ballon D’or triumphs. He inspired many modern day wingers to alter their game and try to be more than just winger or an inside forward but an all round complete winger.

This has seen an emergence of the likes of Neymar, Marco Reus, Gareth Bale and Antoine Griezmann etc – a generation of players who have been greatly inspired by Ronaldo but this has left a big question mark on what’s the next step. With Cristiano Ronaldo coming to the end of his career and defences starting to learn to how to stifle these types of wingers, it won’t be long for a new evolution in the story of the winger.

  •  The future of the evolution of the winger (2014 – Onwards)




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