Over the last decade or so, it’s become one of the most important positions in the game, with many of the best teams in the world relying on their wingbacks to drive them forward.
In this article, we’ll be taking a look at the position of the wingback – its history, the duties associated with it, and how wingbacks are used in the modern game. Let’s go!
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Before we talk about wingbacks, we need to make sure we understand what fullbacks are. Fullbacks are the wide defenders in a team.
While center backs guard the central areas in and in front of their team’s penalty box, the fullbacks sit on the left and right flanks.
Traditionally, all teams have two – one on each flank. While they push forward more than center backs usually do, their duties are still very much focused on defense rather than attack.
This means that in traditional football tactics, the fullbacks were largely confined to their own half of the pitch while the attacking duties were left to the players ahead of them.
They were (and still are) typically deployed in systems that use two center backs, forming part of what’s called a back four (i.e., an arrangement with two full backs and two center backs in defense).
A few extremely defensive formations include two fullbacks with 3 center backs, though this is the exception rather than the rule.
As the game has developed over the decades, fullbacks have gradually been entrusted with more and more attacking responsibilities, meaning that they push further forwards and look for crosses and passes into dangerous areas.
This has led to the development of the wingback, which we’ll come onto now.
The wingback position evolved out of the attacking fullbacks that eventually developed as football developed.
Simply put, wingbacks are players that start in the same position as a fullback but have far more attacking duties, to the extent that they are sometimes considered to be midfielders rather than defenders.
Whereas full backs usually operate in systems with two central defenders, wingbacks usually operate alongside three center backs instead.
This allows the wingbacks more freedom to take up attacking positions because the three center backs can cover the back line between them. Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea team are a great example of this, with Reece James and Ben Chilwell as the wingbacks.
This isn’t always the case, however. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool team are a great example of how wingbacks can be used in a system with only two center backs.
Since the team’s most advanced wide players (typically Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané) often move into narrower positions, the wide positions on the flanks are filled by the team’s wingbacks, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.
What Does A Wingback Actually Do?
We’ve already said that wingbacks have more attacking responsibilities, but what does that actually entail? Well, to an extent, it depends on the exact team and system that they’re playing in.
One of the most common things wingbacks might do is make runs down the wings with the ball, in much the same way as a traditional winger would do.
The aim here is usually to get into a good position to cross the ball to a teammate located in a more central position to hopefully give them a chance to score or set up a goal.
Occasionally, this might even lead to goal scoring opportunities for the wingbacks themselves – the fullbacks in Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea team are as likely to score as the attacking players, for example.
They might also make runs down the wing without the ball, to provide a passing option for their teammates. This helps to build attacks by giving midfielders an option to move the ball to a wider area if the midfield area becomes too congested to get through.
In many systems, wingbacks (or, depending on how you consider it, attacking fullbacks – the line is definitely fuzzy) overlap with wingers or other wide forwards.
Overlapping is when the wingback runs past their teammate (in this case usually a winger) with the ball on the outside.
This allows them to either receive a pass, draw defenders away from their teammate in possession, get an opportunity for a shot or a cross, or create a 2 vs 1 overload in that area of the pitch.
This is a specialized type of wingback with an even more specific role. They’re most closely associated with the visionary manager Pep Guardiola, who famously used Phillip Lahm and David Alaba in the role in his Bayern Munich team.
Inverted fullbacks are wingbacks that move into the center of the midfield alongside another midfielder who’s already there, creating what we could call a “triple pivot”.
This is especially useful for creating far more passing options as a way of building attacks from deep in the attacking team’s own half of the pitch.
This allows the team to retain possession while the wingers provide the width that’s not provided by the now more narrowly positioned wingbacks. The more advanced midfielders ahead of the triple pivot are also freed up to move into more attacking positions.
As the attack progresses, the wingbacks will next often make under lapping runs (meaning that they run inside the player in possession, rather than outside as in an overlap).
This is a more natural movement since they’ve already moved into a central position. The team’s wingers, staying wide, will try to drag the opposition’s fullbacks out of position to create a gap between them and the under lapping wingback.
If this succeeds, then the wingback will be put in a great position to play the ball into the center for an attacking teammate, or else make an attempt on goal themselves.
You can see, then, that the position of inverted fullback is one that is a fine balance between attack and defense, requiring great positional awareness and footballing intelligence to read the flow of the game and know where they need to be and when.
There are several examples of great wingbacks. We’ll take a look at a few here, including a quick look at what they contributed to their teams.
The right-sided wingback for Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool team, Alexander-Arnold is already one of the world’s best.
Though he starts in the position of a right defender, terrorizes the opposition by drifting into dangerous positions in midfield and making incisive passes forward.
He also links up perfectly with Mohamed Salah on the right wing, providing Liverpool’s goal scoring machine with ample service.
The Brazilian legend was a hero both for his national team and for Real Madrid, and is often credited with shaping the modern iteration of the wingback position.
He was famous for making bombing runs down the left flank, overlapping with his more attacking teammates and sometimes even getting on the scoresheet himself.
His fellow wingback for the Brazilian national team, Cafu, was also one of the position’s greats.
Lahm was already well-respected as one of the best right-backs in the world before Pep Guardiola arrived at Bayern
Munich, but under his management, he became the model for the inverted fullbacks that would come afterwards.
With unmatched intelligence and reading of the game, Lahm was able to switch as needed between the right flank and the center of the pitch in both attack and defense.
Another brilliant Brazilian, this one a hero of Real Madrid’s rivals Barcelona. In particular, his partnership with the attacking prodigy Lionel Messi was almost telepathic, and an Alves assist for a Messi goal was almost a weekly occurrence.
Alves timing for when to make penetrating runs has rightfully made him known as one of the best wingbacks of his era, and perhaps ever.
Born to Moroccan parents in Madrid, Hakimi now represents the Moroccan national team and Paris Saint-Germain. Though young, he’s widely considered one of the best wingbacks in the world.
In addition to his speed and general athleticism, his ability to play accurate passes from deep positions makes his a terror to defend against.
So, there you have it, an explanation of the position on wingback.
It might be a position that’s only really come to prominence in the 21st century, but wingbacks have already made their mark on the game, and their role is still adapting as coaches come up with new ways to use them in new tactical systems.