Wingers in soccer

A Winger in Soccer: The Ultimate Guide

What is a winger in soccer?

Wingers are attacking midfield players who operate in wide positions or ‘on the wing’. Usually skilful and quick with good dribbling and crossing ability, wingers are often some of the most exciting players to watch.

What is the role of a winger in soccer?

The main role of a wing player is to create goal-scoring opportunities from wide positions. Wingers also usually weigh in with their fair share of goals. Although, in most teams, the main goal-scoring threat comes from the central striker(s).

In years gone by, wingers might have been afforded the luxury of just having to attack. However, in most teams, they now have to contribute to their team’s attacking and defensive efforts in equal measures.

Defensive responsibilities of a winger

If the opposition win possession of the ball whilst a winger is in an offensive position, it’s important that the winger or wide midfielders work back and take up a position behind the ball as quickly as possible. This really applies to all players (other than maybe central strikers who usually remain high as an attacking outlet if the ball is retrieved). However it’s particularly important that wingers or wide midfielders do this so not to leave space in wide positions for opponents to expose and outnumber the fullback.

Defensive role of winger in soccer

For a team to be well-organised defensively, wingers should be tucked in narrow alongside their neighboring central midfielder. This makes it harder for the opposition to break the team down by reducing the space in central areas.

Another aspect of a winger’s game is to support their fullback on the same side of the pitch defensively. The easiest example of this is when the opposition fullback and winger on the same side of the pitch mount an attack down one side. In this situation, the winger and fullback should work together to thwart the attack and prevent conceding crosses into their penalty area.

Attacking responsibilities of a winger in soccer

Creating and scoring goals are what every winger loves doing most. And this is how most wingers are going to evaluated on their performance.

Typically, assists from wingers come in the form of cutbacks or crosses into the penalty area for central strikers or advanced midfielders to latch onto. Good dribbling and off-the-ball movement usually allows them to create the space needed to play a dangerous ball into the penalty area for attacking colleagues.

There are many other ways wingers create chances for others though. As an example, it’s not uncommon for a left footed winger to play on the right wing (or visa versa). Rather than take defenders on and get crosses in from the dead ball line, these wingers tend to favor cutting infield with the ball. This opens up lots of options including shooting with their favored foot, slipping a through ball into a striker’s path or playing a wall pass with a striker or midfielder.

What formations include wingers?

Although now a little out of favor in the professional game, the classic 4-4-2 formation lent itself to fast wing play with many teams using two flying wingers to shape their attack. It should be said, however, that a 4-4-2 can be used with much narrower ‘wide midfielders’ as oppose to touchline-hugging wingers. This more compact shape is usually used by more defense-minded teams.

The 4-5-1 tends to be used for counter-attacking teams with a big target striker. In this system, the wingers are required to fulfill a disciplined defensive role until their team wins the ball, then they can use their pace to spring counterattacks or play off the central striker.

The 4-3-3 formation uses two wide strikers rather than traditional wingers, although there are many similarities to the role.

Soccer formations with wingers

How is a winger different from a wide midfielder?

Differentiating wingers from wide midfielders can be slightly confusing because, on a tactics board, they appear to occupy the exact same position on the pitch. To further muddy the waters, some players may even be described as both by different people in the game.

The difference essentially boils down to the attributes the player in question has and their style of play. Described as players who ‘get chalk on their boots’ from playing so close to the touchline, wingers are known for being very attacking, quick and skillful and like to dribble past defenders whenever they get the chance. Such attack-minded wingers often play in front of defensively solid full backs to balance out the skillset on that side of the pitch.

Wide midfielders, on the other hand, tend to stay tucked in, closer to their central midfield counterparts. They usually have an entirely different skillset, often with less pace but greater passing ability, and maybe the ability to cross the ball well from deeper areas (think David Beckham or Kevin De Bruyne). Many wide midfielders are more defense minded and industrious, which complements attack-minded full backs who leave spaces behind them when they get forward.

Best wingers in soccer

The world of soccer has been blessed with many superbly talented wingers over the years. As mentioned earlier, wingers are a little less common is the modern era so, naturally, some of the players we’ve picked have now retired.

  • Luis Figo: One of the greatest players of his generation and one of Portugal’s all-time greats, Figo formed part of the revered Galactico’s Real Madrid team of the early 2000s. The 2000 Ballon d’Or winner was a master dribbler and would take on opponents at will using his trademark step-over. He was also able to deliver perfect crosses for his team-mates who would make light work of converting them into goals.
  • David Ginola: The Frenchman was something of a maverick on the pitch. He didn’t respond particularly well to being heavily coached or tactical instruction. Instead, he was best left to play the game instinctively, utilizing his considerable natural ability. His pace and power were complemented by fine balance and agility. He scored many a contender for goal of the season so well worth a watch of his best moments on YouTube!
  • Ryan Giggs (early years): Giggs burst onto the scene at Manchester United as a teenager and immediately began tormenting opposition fullbacks who were regularly left for dead, unable to cope with his pace and trickery. He eventually transitioned into a central midfielder, but in his early years, he was every part the classic ‘wing wizard’ with pace to burn.
  • Cristiano Ronaldo: four-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo emerged as a highly talented but very raw winger at Sporting Lisbon and then Manchester United. In his early years, he was deployed on the right wing due to his blistering speed and vast array of tricks. With incredibly fast feet and speed of thought, defenders simply didn’t know how to deal with him. Once he added goals and a consistent end product to his game, he was soon considered to be one of the greatest ever players in the game.
  • Arjen Robben: A Dutch master! Despite being left footed, Robben was mostly used on the right wing, allowing him to cut inside and whip curled shots into the far corner of the goal with his favored foot. Robben had a unique dribbling style and had the ability to beat defenders on the inside or outside whilst travelling at speed.

How has the role of the winger changed in soccer?

The rise in popularity of the 4-3-3 formation has seen winger style players occupy what would now be classed as wide striking positions. Players such as Raheem Sterling, Eden Hazard and Jadon Sancho would all likely have been used as wingers in 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 formations had they began their careers 20 years ago. But these formations are seldom used in the modern game.

Instead, these players, equipped with very much the same arsenal as traditional flying wingers, are deployed further forward as wide strikers, allowing them to weigh in with a greater amount of goals.

As already touched upon, more detailed defensive tactics and the reliance on collective tactical cohesion rather than a dependence on one or two ‘flair players’ to win games has meant wing  players have to fulfill defensive duties just like any other player. This means that even tricky attack-minded wing players must have a considerable work ethic and tactical understanding.

What skills & qualities should a winger have?

While there are different qualities and styles of play among the great wingers in the game, there are some essential attributes that they’re generally required to possess:

Speed

Wingers need some degree of speed to be able to beat a defender and run in behind defensive lines.

Dribbling ability

Carrying the ball at speed and negotiating their way past players is what wing play is all about!

Skill and trickery

Wingers don’t necessarily have to have fancy tricks and flicks in their locker, but they do need some level of skill. A lot of wingers use nimble clever footwork to bamboozle defenders rather than step overs and flip flaps.

End product

For all their forays down the wing, dribbling past defenders, wingers won’t affect the game at all unless there is a good end product. This means quality crosses, cut backs or picking out team mates in crowded penalty areas.

Shooting

Wingers are expected to weigh in with a decent amount of goals, so being an accomplished finisher is very useful.

Tactical

An understanding of positioning specific to their team’s tactical strategy in and out of possession is a must in the modern game.

Work ethic

Tracking back, filling holes left by overlapping full backs and bursting forwards on counter attacks all require a solid work ethic and an appetite for the game.

How to play as a winger in soccer: top tips

  1. Be positive when receiving the ball, especially in the final third of the pitch. Unless your team are 2 or 3 goals up with 10 minutes to go, make attacking your first thought and don’t be afraid to make mistakes – there is an element of risk to wing play that is generally accepted in the game.
  2. Final product is key! The better the quality of cross or pass, the easier it is for the receiving player to score. Picking out the right player in the right moment or crossing the ball into dangerous areas for others to attack will help create more clear-cut goal-scoring opportunities for the team.
  3. Know when to take risks and when to play safe. As pointed out already, wing play involves a degree of risk. Giving the ball away in dangerous areas can lead to counter-attacking opportunities for opponents, so there are times when keeping things simple is the better option, especially if your team are protecting a lead in the final minutes of the game or are a player down due to injury or a sending off.
  4. Build a rapport with your fullback. A good understanding between winger and fullback aids more fluid forward play, especially if the fullback likes to push upfield.

Tips for coaching a winger in soccer

Here are a few tips for coaching wingers in soccer:

  • Know your player! Like the earlier example of David Ginola, some wingers are more like artists and have a unique natural ability. You often can’t coach them too much as much of what they do is highly intuitive. Making them think and analyze what they are doing simply doesn’t work due to information overload. Ginola, as an example, produced his best form under managers who didn’t burden him with too much defensive responsibility, simply allowing him to go out and express himself each game.
  • Wingers won’t be effective unless they regularly receive the ball in attacking positions so spend some time on the training pitch working on attacking plays that result in wingers getting plenty of the ball in the opposition half.
  • As we’ve already mentioned, effective wing play requires an element of risk and not everything will come off – so allow wingers to make mistakes here and there. Ultimately, they won’t ever improve if they don’t try new things!
  • Crosses into the penalty area don’t always have to pick out a player. Some of the most dangerous crosses hit the area in between opposition defensive line and the goalkeeper for strikers to attack. This type of cross (often along the floor) is a nightmare for defenders and often results in own goals.
  • Encourage wingers to arrive at the back post if a wide player on the opposite side is crossing the ball into the penalty area. This is almost guaranteed to boost a winger’s goal tally for the season.

SHOW WINGER ARRIVING INSIDE OR NEAR THE BACK POST AS CROSS COMING IN FROM OPPOSITE SIDE

Errors a winger could make

  • Missing good opportunities to cross or pass the ball in attacking situations.
  • Attempting to dribble the ball past players deep in their own half.
  • Failing to track back and help their team out defensively.
  • Showboating without substance. Doing lots of fancy tricks won’t help the team unless there is an end product!

Soccer drills for a winger

  • Any individual dribbling drills or those that focus on carrying the ball at pace over longer distances are valuable.
  • Crossing drills.
  • Drills that focus on attacking play in wide areas using wingers and full backs provide game like practice of creating scoring opportunities from wide areas.