Despite the success of “inverted wingers” over the past few seasons, the more “traditional” wingers have not become redundant in the modern game. The recent form of Gareth Bale and Antonio Valencia demonstrates that players that can provide width are still a real asset to their team.
Over the past two or three seasons, teams have started deploying wide players on the opposite wing to their strongest foot, or allowing wide players to drift into central positions. This is what is meant by “inverted wingers”. Wide players who stay on their wing and don’t tend to drift but look to get crosses into the box are referred to as “traditional” wingers.
The benefits of having inverted wingers include being able to cut inside into shooting positions, drifting into central positions to make up numerical superiority in midfield and giving teams fluidity in attacking positions. However, they can lead to congestion in the middle, and the benefit of traditional wide players is that they stretch defences, making space for central players to exploit. In the first leg of the recent Champion’s League games between AC Milan and Barcelona, Barcelona’s lack of width meant they were unable to stretch a compact Milan defence and they were unable to score. In the second leg, they started with Cuenca, a natural wide player, and were more effective.
If we compare the recent form of Bale and Valencia, we will see how crucial width can be for a team. Bale’s recent form, and with it Tottenham’s, seems to have suffered due to a change in Tottenham’s shape. Bale has been playing less as a traditional wide player and more as an inverted winger.
In the two Champion’s League games last season when Bale made a name for himself, he played very much like a natural wide player. His pace, direct running and width made him unplayable, even against Maicon, one of the world’s best full-backs. The graphic below is taken from the second leg, and shows Bale receiving the ball in very wide areas, not really drifting from the touch-line at all.
This graphic from the first of the two games shows how (even though he swapped wings at times) he played passes almost exclusively from wide positions.
Since then, Bale has been a highly effective natural wide player. Before Christmas this season, Tottenham put together a great run of form, with Bale and Lennon as traditional wingers, stretching defences and hitting teams on the counter-attack. The graphics below, from Tottenham’s early season victories against Liverpool and Arsenal, shows Bale receiving the ball mainly in wide positions.
Since Christmas, their form has been less convincing, and since their 5-2 capitulation against Arsenal, their level has dropped off dramatically. Some have attributed this to the fact that Harry Redknapp was linked to the England job; however, it may have just as much to do with the different tactical shape Tottenham have started employing.
Although Tottenham have played with Bale in a more central role earlier in the season, it was particularly noticeable in the Arsenal game. The graphic below looks at how influential were the Tottenham players in the different parts of the pitch.
What was particularly noticeable in that game was the way Tottenham’s midfield was unbalanced. At half time, Tottenham brought on Sandro for Saha and Van der Vaart for Kranjcar and switched from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 in order to give more solidity in front of the defence and to match Arsenal’s 4-3-3 in the midfield area. Bale and Van der Vaart were the nominal wide players in Tottenham’s ‘3’, but neither provided any real width and Tottenham lacked ideas going forward: they neither stretched the play nor kept the ball, as Bale and Van der Vaart wandered into the congested centre of the pitch.
Van der Vaart is a player renowned for the way he drifts around the pitch, but when Bale started to do the same, Tottenham’s system didn’t seem to accommodate two players with such a free role: Modric had no one wide in space to spread the ball out to and the two holding midfielders, Sandro and Parker, were overrun in the centre. Tottenham lacked shape and structure in general, and were consequently beaten heavily. Tottenham’s Premier League form hasn’t been the same since then: out of 9 games, they’ve won 2, drawn 3 and lost 4 (compared to won 5, drawn 3, and lost 1 in the 9 games before Arsenal).
Since the Arsenal game, Bale has been playing in a similar role (see the graphic below from Tottenham’s 1-0 loss to Everton), and Tottenham’s form has suffered; they haven’t looked like the team they were earlier on in the season. It seems that Tottenham would be better off reverting to the system they employed at the start of the season, with Bale playing as a more traditional winger.
The recent form of Antonio Valencia has taken the opposite trajectory to Gareth Bale’s. In 17 Premier League starts he has 12 assists and 4 goals, meaning that on average he creates or scores a goal roughly every game. He also has an average of 2.5 key passes (passes which are crucial to his team’s attacking moves) per game. The most noticeable thing about Valencia’s recent performances is his discipline in staying close to the touch-line to provide width to Manchester United’s play. The graphics below from recent games against Blackburn and Wolves show how Valencia receives the ball in very wide positions and provides passes from those wide areas to great effect.
Valencia has been playing as a much more traditional winger, staying wide and providing passes from those positions. By comparing his positioning to the Manchester United player on the other wing, it is easy to see how important he is to the team’s overall play: he is the main player for providing width and stretching opposition defences. The graphic below compares him to Wayne Rooney (the nominal left winger) in the Wolves game, and shows how much more of a true wide player he was.
In that same game the main thrust of United’s attacks where overwhelmingly down the right, through Valencia:
Antonio Valencia has been highly effective as a traditional winger, while Gareth Bale as inverted winger has been less effective. It would seem therefore that the inverted winger is not necessarily always the best option. Width is still key to modern football, and the traditional winger is by no means a dead position.