The position of winger is one that comes with possibly more variety than in any other position in soccer.
In fact, it might be better to understand ‘winger’ not as one position, but as a group of positions that are collected together under that name.
The different types of winger have different roles in the game and require different attributes and skills to be played well.
In this article, we’re going to look in detail at the different kinds of winger in the game and what players in these positions have to do to get things done for their team.
Table of Contents
Overview – What’s A Winger?
Sure, we’ve already said that ‘winger’ is more like a group of positions than just one, but they do have some things in common. First off, they play on the wing, or the outside of the pitch, either on the left or the right.
Their role needs them to move up and down these outside areas, coming into the center less often than players in other positions.
Some of the most important qualities for wingers are speed, dribbling, balance, and the ability to make quick, intelligent decisions in the game.
This is important because one of the main jobs of most wingers is to bring the ball forward quickly on the outside of the pitch.
Being able to race down the wing as part of a counter-attack and break away from the opposing defenders is a vital ability for a winger. It’s also useful for if the winger needs to get back into their own half of the pitch to help out in defense.
If you didn’t know, dribbling in a soccer context is the act of keeping close control of the ball as you run with it.
Wingers do more vertical running than any other position, and being able to use their control of the ball to get it past defenders is an important part of this.
This is useful in all aspects of the game, but is particularly important for dribbling.
A winger often runs at high speeds and might have to stop and start suddenly, using sudden movements to get past defenders. It’s no good trying this if you’re going to fall over every time, so balance is key.
Wingers are usually involved in getting the ball into dangerous positions in the final third of the pitch to help build attacks for their team. Good decision-making is vital for this.
A winger needs to know when to pass, shoot, cross, or hold on to the ball, and the right decision here can mean the difference between a successful attack or giving the ball away to the opposing team, allowing them to start a counter.
However, all of these skills can vary in importance depending on what kind of winger you want to be, and that’s what we’re going to look at next.
Types Of Winger
If a player is described simply as a winger, this is probably what they are.
There was a time when playing with two traditional wingers was standard for almost every team, but tactics have advanced a lot in the modern game and players like this aren’t as common as they used to be at the elite level.
However, they do still exist there and are especially common at lower levels of the game, where players usually have less technical ability.
The traditional winger’s main job is to carry the ball forward as far as possible and, if they can get into a good position, to cross the ball into the center so that a teammate can score.
This focus on crossing means that wingers need to have the same strong foot as the side they’re playing on (i.e. right-sided wingers need strong right feet whereas left-sided ones need strong left feet).
To play this way, they usually ‘hug the touchline’, meaning that they stay as wide as possible. Doing this allows them to avoid the center area of the pitch, which is more likely to be congested with opposing defenders.
When a winger gets into a good crossing position, the defenders have a dilemma – they can either stay central to block the winger’s teammates from receiving the cross, or they can go out to meet the winger to try to close them down and stop them from crossing.
Staying as wide as possible helps the winger here, as it means they’re likely to have more space (and therefore time) to make the right decision. If they don’t have much direct opposition from the defense, a winger might move closer to the center to give them more options for an easy cross.
This is where the decision-making comes in – choosing the best moment to cross and whether to move infield or not are all decisions that need to be made quickly. Getting into the crossing position in the first place requires great speed and dribbling skills to get past the defenders.
Also important for a traditional winger is supporting the full back (the wide defender) behind them when their team is on the defensive. This includes closing down and applying pressure to opposition attackers, particularly in wide areas.
Examples of great traditional wingers are Ryan Giggs, Stanley Matthews, and Leroy Sané.
This is a more modern spin on the traditional winger formula. Instead of staying wide and picking out crosses, the inverted winger often moves into the center to link up with their other teammates there.
This is often called ‘cutting inside’, and allows the team to quickly get an advantage of numbers in the central area of the pitch, overwhelming the defending team.
Once they’ve moved to a central position, they are now available to receive a pass from a teammate and then pass the ball to another teammate ahead of them.
Of course, this requires good passing ability and decision-making skills to get right, as well as the ability to intelligently read the game to know when teammates are going to make attacking runs.
Depending on the state of play closer to the center of the pitch, inverted wingers might also have the opportunity to run through and take a shot themselves. Inverted wingers generally score more goals than traditional wingers.
Cutting inside requires the inverted winger to have a strong opposing foot, meaning that inverted wingers that start on the right side of the pitch need to have strong left feet and vice-versa. As a result, inverted wingers tend not to cross nearly as much as traditional wingers.
Great players in the inverted winger position include Riyad Mahrez, Eden Hazard, and Angel di Maria.
These have more in common with inverted wingers than either of them do with traditional wingers, and inside forwards could be called a subtype of inverted wingers.
Basically, an inside forward is an inverted winger whose main focus is scoring goals.
Whereas an inverted winger will cut inside with the ball to create overloads and play passes in the center of the pitch, an inside forward is more likely to cut inside without the ball.
The creative work isn’t their main responsibility – they’re at their best when they move into the center on the edge of the opposition’s defensive line, ready to receive a pass, run in behind the defense, and score a goal.
In more traditional tactical setups, getting into central positions high up the pitch was usually the job of the team’s center forward, but having an inside forward do this instead has its advantages.
They’re usually paired up with a central player who, instead of spearheading the attack, drops deeper into the midfield.
This gives the opposing defenders a choice – they can follow the central player as they drop deep, opening more space for the inside forward to receive the ball and do their thing, or they can stay where they are, meaning that the central player is the one given more space.
It’s a lethal combination and is one of the most prominent tactics at the elite level in the game today.
Because of these attacking duties, inside forwards have less defensive responsibility than either traditional or inverted wingers. It also means that it is less important for them to be quick, and good at dribbling, though of course it does help.
A need for good goal scoring attributes like the ability to find space in the box, finish chances, and resist the challenges of opposing defenders is more important than for other types of wingers.
Great players in the inside forward position include Cristiano Ronaldo (in his time at Real Madrid), Arjen Robben, and Mohamed Salah.
So, now you know what the types of winger are, what they do, and what skills they need to do it well. A winger is a complex position that’s often one of the most important and influential in the game.
Learning how to play as these different types of winger will make you a useful,versatile player for your team. Of course, we’ve just talked about three types of winger here, but each player has their own style of play.
Different coaches all have different tactical setups too, and you might see wingers combining elements of different winger types in different games, depending on what’s needed that day.
Take a look at the wingers the next time you watch a game of soccer and see if you can see what we mentioned in this article. Then you can try doing it yourself!