Wingers, the traditional kind that reaches and then crosses from the byline, are rapidly dying out in the modern game; perhaps only Antonio Valencia and Miloš Krasić of those on the books of European giants can be classified as such. The decline is due to the prevalence of single-striker systems, where classic wingers are simply less effective.
In traditional wingers’ wake modern full-backs are given more license to bomb forward and provide width. Since full-backs can pitch in on the flank, wingers no longer have to remain rooted to the touchline. Wide-men now more often cut in from the flank, providing room for full-backs to attack. Conversely, attacking full-backs force – or allow – wingers inside.
The immediate consequence for teams pushing wide-men inside is better maintenance of possession since there are more players in the centre of the park. After all, keeping the ball has never been more important in modern football.
The modern version of the winger is becoming more prevalent even in the Premier League where 4-4-2 remains the system du jour. We need look no further than Manchester United’s recent game against Tottenham Hotspur for an example. Sir Alex Ferguson deployed a 4-4-2 that became 4-2-2-2 in possession, with Park Ji-Sung and Nani both cutting inside.
Indeed, it was the presence of these two players that prevented United’s midfield from being overrun by Tottenham, who nominally started with an additional central midfielder.
Moreover, the modern trend is to deploy wingers on the ‘wrong’ flank – right-footed players on the left and vice versa – enabling attacking players to cut inside and shoot from a better angle. These ‘inverted wingers’ can also deliver inswinging crosses, which are a potent attacking weapon in crowded penalty areas where even the slightest deflection can end up with the ball in the net.
One immediate disadvantage of course is that the act of crossing is harder, assuming the wide player has to deliver with his ‘wrong’ foot. More technically astute players, such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have flourished in the role.
Nani epitomises the modern winger. No matter which flank the Portuguese international starts from, the player looks to cut in and attack the box. Nani’s wonderful touch, technique – especially when striking the ball – and improved decision-making means he has blossomed into a very important player for United over the past 12 months.
Having said that, it is no coincidence that Nani’s form has been deadly in past few weeks during where he has mainly been used on the right. Nani is two-footed – unlike Valencia – and has no problem dribbling and shooting with his left peg. Still, the player undeniably prefers to use his right.
When deployed on the left, the penchant to cut inside renders the former Sporting winger more predictable. On the right flank, defenders can’t pre-empt Nani’s movement by showing the player down the flank – he is comfortable getting to the byline and delivering a cross, or cutting inside and shooting as he did recently against West Bromwich Albion.
Not that Nani isn’t also a goal threat on the left, where he can either provide a cross or cut in and shoot and the development in his game is something the 24-year-old now recognises. It has brought a new level of confidence.
“As a player I think I’m close to being as complete as I can be,” Nani said recently.
“I can say I’m one of the top players in the world. I play for the best club in the world and my role in the team is as a decisive player, scoring goals or setting up and so the team can win.
“You have to believe in yourself and believe in your abilities on the pitch. Big games are for big players. I want to be one of the best. I’m not scared to play in the big games, they are the most beautiful in football – you play with very high quality.
“Beautiful football, that’s what everyone likes, and that helps lift my performance, too.”
Nani’s improved performances leave United with an interesting dilemma when Antonio Valencia returns. Valencia is a more limited player in that he is really only comfortable on the right flank. At the same time, Valencia is too good a player to leave out, especially after the former Wigan Athletic winger’s excellent first season at Old Trafford.
The other option, if Nani continues to improve and Javier Hernández cements his place in Ferguson’s side, is for Wayne Rooney to slot in on left-wing at the expense of Valencia.
Rooney, Hernández and Nani: mobile, skilful, pacey, two-footed players who can swap positions at will.
Remind you of certain times?