Football is very much like fashion. It’s constantly changing, with different philosophies and cultures shaping the game we love. Some affect the sport quickly, such as the advent of goal-line technology. Others influence at a slower pace, like the gradual erosion of rigid formations and systems identifiable with English club football. In turn, this has led to the decline in one particular position.
Gone are the days of the “all-out winger”. The type of player who would hug the touchline and drive at opposition full-backs. The type of player who could strike fear into the heart of a defence. Attacking forces such as Ryan Giggs, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo immediately jump to mind. But those type of wingers have all but disappeared. Changes in formation and the systems employed by managers have made that position obsolete. Instead, the modern-day fullback/wingback has emerged at the forefront of attacking play.
With the old 4-4-2 system that dominated English football from the mid-nineties, wingers were often the focal point of a teams chance of success. Fullbacks were more defensively minded and weren’t expected to contribute to a team going forward. However, as the Premier League acquired a more continentally cultivated approach, the roles of both positions began to evolve. Wingers were slowly replaced by players who were more accustomed to playing as centre forwards. Deployed out wide, these players would invariably drift inside which in turn created space on the flanks. A glaring example would be Arsenal who have found it difficult to include both Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the same starting 11. Consequently, the latter has had to operate out wide, which isn’t his natural position. Manchester United have encountered the same problem, with Messrs Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial vying for the one central striker spot. Subsequently, one of them has to perform their duties in the channels.
The only natural way to provide the width for which teams to stretch their opponents was to change the mentality of the wide defensive players. Given more attacking freedom, they were encouraged to push higher up the pitch. In essence, the position became a hybrid blend of winger and fullback, attacker and defender. As the central midfield area became more congested with ball-winning midfielders, box to box players and your typical playmaker, the battle out wide became more important. Overloads were easier to create than play through the middle, where space is constricted.
With that change in responsibility came the added physical requirements needed of such a player. Stamina, pace, acceleration and crossing all make up the DNA of the modern fullback. Defensive ability is actually sometimes second place to the ability of getting forward and creating. Of course, finding someone like this is easier said than done. Keeping them is even harder.
In the 2015/16 season, Tottenham Hotspur finished second in the Premier League. Many would point to the contribution of Harry Kane as the underlying factor for the success the North London side achieved. However, the form of both Danny Rose and Kyle Walker was arguably more important. Spurs employed a 4-2-3-1 formation, both Walker and Rose were charged with getting forward into those wide areas. When Walker left to join Manchester City in 2017, Tottenham never replaced the ex-Sheffield United academy graduate. They’ve suffered ever since.
There is also the argument that top players can’t be shoehorned into positions out on the wing. They need to be given the freedom to roam inside where they can be more effective. Eden Hazard is a prime example. Starting his career as a winger at Lille, it became apparent to Chelsea that his talent couldn’t be limited to the flanks. He was given freedom to work outside of the team’s tactical framework and became one of the best players to have ever graced the Premier League. The same with Gareth Bale. The Welshman started his career as a fullback. However, towards the end of his time at Spurs, he was given a free role – often playing as a centre forward. In both cases, locking a player down to a position that could be accommodated by a fullback would’ve detrimental to the overall team performance.
The stats also suggest that the game is evolving. Both Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are in the top five players in the assists table this year. Last season, both players again finished in the top five of assist makers. Liverpool normally play with a 4-3-3 formation, so there is plenty of space for these marauding full-backs to get forward.
It would be easy to argue that this is a biased example as both are top players and ended up winning the Champions League with The Reds, who finished runners up in the Premier League. Defenders such as Lucas Digne and Ben Chilwell, who played for teams towards the middle of the table weighed in with their fair share of assists. In fact, they assisted four goals, the same amount as more advanced players like Andros Townsend, Riyad Mahrez and Nathan Redmond.
So why aren’t wingers used anymore? Well, it’s a simple case of logistics. Why have two players out wide when one will suffice? It allows managers to utilise an extra player in the middle of the park to control the play. That’s why midfield playmakers like Kevin De Bruyne and Christian Eriksen often excel. Football isn’t one dimensional anymore. Teams often set up to control possession and pass through opposition lines. Wingers are often redundant as the traditional “big man up top” is easily cajoled by an equally big centre half. Strikers are now more nimble, pacy and tricky and work better in a team when not having to compete for crosses. They need players to run off them or to at least be close enough to retain possession.
As each year passes and the tides of football roll in and out, there are always changes. Time will tell whether we’ll see the return of the diminutive, tricky winger, harassing fullbacks as he powers the line. But with more inventive systems being introduced all the time, it’s likely that he’ll be confined to the footballing scrapheap.