Inverted wingers have established themselves as the latest and hottest trend in football. The Europa League final featured two sides who both adhered to fielding inverted wingers (Fulham with Simon Davies and Damien Duff and Atletico Madrid with Simao and Jose Reyes) while the Champions League final had a side playing with inverted wingers (Bayern Munich with Hamit Altintop and Arjen Robben) and another that deployed two natural strikers in wide areas (Inter Milan with Goran Pandev and Samuel Eto’o) which leads to many of the same phenomena associated with inverted wingers. On the international stage World Cup runners up Holland played with the aforementioned Robben on the right and Liverpool workhorse Dirk Kuyt on the left while winners Spain often had a right footed player on the left side in the form of David Villa, Pedro, or Andres Iniesta.
The definition of an inverted winger is simple; it is the playing of a winger on the side of his weaker foot. Prominent examples in modern football include Arjen Robben , Nani, and Adam Johnson. Some attacking players who are not exactly wingers but nonetheless often find themselves on their ‘non favoured’ side include Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi. Clearly this is a tactic practiced by the best managers in the world at the best clubs with the best players, but why?
An inverted winger has some obvious consequences. He will usually cut in on his favoured foot making it easier to shoot. Arjen Robben, possibly the foremost inverted winger in the world, scores handfuls of goals for club and country by cutting to his left, beating the fullback, and striking with his immaculate left foot. It is also what made Villa so dangerous at the World Cup with a number of his goals coming off creating an angle from the left and striking with his favoured foot. The video below shows all of Robben’s 23 goals for Bayern Munich and it illustrates the advantage cutting in has (it also displays his set piece ability, change of pace, and movement which should dispel the notion he is a ‘one trick pony’). But to say that this is the main, let alone only advantage of an inverted winger is naïve. While Simon Davies may have scored for Fulham this weekend because his left sided role afforded him a better angle to strike with his right it is not what made Fulham so successful under Roy Hodgson last season.
Fulham made the finals of the Europa League last term beating the likes of Juventus along the way, all the while playing two wingers on their ‘wrong’ side. They were a side that had no business making it that far with the talent level they possessed but the side had many tactical nuances that allowed them to progress so far. Hodgson did a truly magnificent job and one tenet he stuck to was playing the right footed Davies on the left and the left footed Duff on the right. While Davies did score a beautiful right footed volley from his opposite wing in the final the true tactical value it served Hodgson’s less glamorous side was the narrowing of the pitch it provided. It is somewhat obvious to state, as the great Herbert Chapman once did in a roundabout way, that the central area of the pitch is the most dangerous. Width is often clamored for but the end game of creating width is to exploit the space it creates in the middle of the park. Inverted wingers naturally stay more central than their counterparts. This means they force the opposition wingers wide when they have possession and help protect the more dangerous areas. It is of course true that this means that the centre of the pitch can get congested but it is a tradeoff that Hodgson seemed fit to concede and no one can argue he put a hand wrong as manager at Craven Cottage.
When an inverted winger has the ability to naturally drift to the middle there are two things to note in regard to space. First it is plain to see that space is created wide on the inverted winger’s side. It is no coincidence that Alex Ferguson plays Patrice Evra behind Nani (and sometimes Park Ji-Sung) and John O’Shea supporting Antonio Valencia. Nani is adept at cutting in which leaves acres of space for the athletic and attackingly competent Evra. As Nani draws defenders to him into the middle of the field Evra rampages down the left hand touchline to provide the natural width vacated by Nani. On the other side Valencia is naturally right footed and he clings near the sideline. This leaves little room for the right back to exploit which means playing a conservative player such as O’Shea makes sense. O’Shea is often criticized for lack of creativity but he helps balance Ferguson’s formation, often providing cover to the backline of Manchester United when Evra springs forward as he is more than capable of playing as an auxiliary centre back. As the chalkboard below shows Valencia stayed much wider than Park versus Fulham, the chalkboard showing their passes. O’Shea was willing to offer a body for Valencia and play short passes to him while Evra was more prone to crossing in and providing genuine offensive spark. He could be afforded the space to do so by Park playing so centrally compared to Valencia.
The second, and final, thing to note is that a winger cutting into the middle of the pitch needs space himself, and this space is usually taken up by the striker. To create the space necessary the striker may need to drop deep, playing a false nine role (a term to be featured for another day). I remarked before Manchester City’s three-nil drubbing of Liverpool that if Roberto Mancini inverts Adam Johnson and James Milner he will win. He did and they did. The reason being that City’s striker, Carlos Tevez, drops extremely deep which leaves a giant hole where a classic striker would play. This space can then be filled by either a rampaging central midfielder such as Gareth Barry did on their first goal, or by one of the wingers cutting in. In this particular match and the way Liverpool set up City’s central midfielders found more joy in the centre of the park than Milner and Johnson did, but it will be interesting to see how Mancini’s squad continues to play.
Inverting one or both wings springs a set of problems for the other manager to deal with and can often confuse the opposing team. At the highest level it is now commonplace and the best in the world are no strangers to it, but I encourage managers and coaches at local youth levels to try it with their squads. It is something my friend and I often do when we coach that helps lead to success and broadens the minds of young players.