Real Madrid, Crystal Palace and analysis of using inverted wingers

Football is ever evolving, with tactics, formations and systems developing over the years.

One of the modern day crazes of the European game is the use of inverted wingers; wide players who operate on their unnatural flank with the purpose of turning in-field and onto their stronger foot.

This ploy appears to be the rule rather than the exception currently, with countless teams fielding left-footed players on the right wing and vice versa.

As such, wingers that stay wide and hug the touchline or get to the byline appear to be thin on the ground, with traditional wing play almost becoming outdated.

But, with opposition defences getting wise to the tactic, what are the pros and cons of using inverted wingers?

PROS

When used correctly, an inverted winger can be a devastating attacking weapon; both a provider and a goal threat.

Using the example of the top teams such as Real Madrid and Barcelona, the ploy has reaped real dividends.

For the European champions, having the world’s best player in the form of Lionel Messi is a blessing – but also a burden, as coaches must find a system to unleash his untold ability.

Although the left-footed Argentine has thrived on his natural flank, in the number ten role and as a false nine during his career, his most recent purple patch has been due to playing as an inverted wideman of sorts on the right-hand side.

Lionel MessiThis allows Messi to drift in-field onto his stronger foot to shoot or pass, with few defences able to cope with this threat over the last six months in particular. Similarly Neymar does likewise from the opposite flank.

When Messi moves in-field, opposition full-backs don’t know whether to go with him or leave him for a central player. If they go with him Dani Alves is on hand to benefit wide. If they leave him it creates imbalances centrally.

At Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo scored almost 50 La Liga goals last season from the left, his unnatural wing, while the devastating long-range shooting ability of the left-footed Gareth Bale is unleashed by having him on the right flank.

Any concerns of a lack of width are nullified by marauding full-backs at both clubs, while the potential encroaching of central midfielders’ space is overcome by tactical versatility and the supreme technique of the teams’ boiler room components.

The inverted system is clearly working for the Spanish duo, with opposition yet to find a solution to the world’s best cutting inside and delivering striking blows on their stronger foot.

CONS

Very few teams have a Messi, Ronaldo or Bale to call upon and as such the use of an inverted winger of lesser ability will not always prove successful – as has been proven.

The drawbacks are there for all to see and if the system is not used properly it can completely derail a team’s attack.

If the winger continually looks to drift in-field it can become predictable, while it also has a major impact on space – especially if the side’s central midfielders are not able to accurately play one-touch football.

If the side’s full-backs lack attacking ambition it robs the team of any width, and all of a sudden, especially if a striker drops deep, there are six or seven players from the same team in a restricted amount of space.

Without being too cruel on Tottenham, who used Bale as an inverted right winger in the past to great effect, the North London side showcased the bad elements of an inverted system in their 2-2 draw against Stoke on Saturday.

Wilfried ZahaWith Christian Eriksen and Moussa Dembele asked to play in wide roles but naturally central players, both spent the majority of their time cutting in-field to get involved in play.

This limited space for Ryan Mason and Eric Dier, who lacked the quick feet to get out of tight situations and as such coughed up possession too frequently.

With Kyle Walker having his hands full with Marko Arnautović and Ben Davies a defender first, the side’s full-backs rarely got forward and as such Spurs had no out ball or width.

On another day the system may well work perfectly for Tottenham, but this time it made their play predictable and gave Stoke easy targets to defend all in a built-up area.

What’s wrong with a team that has right wingers that play on the right and left wingers on the left?

Spurs have an old-school winger in the form of Aaron Lennon rotting in the reserves, with no consideration of the flyer to offer width or a Plan B.

Take Crystal Palace for example, who have improved markedly since the appointment of Alan Pardew.

The former Newcastle manager has employed relatively simple tactics that suit the players at his disposal – especially his options in wide areas.

Wilfried Zaha, Jason Puncheon and Yannick Bolasie have all thrived over the last six months and bamboozled opposition full-backs by attacking wide and direct.

With this tricky trio having joy in one-on-one situations and delivering quality to a powerful central striker, Palace have marched up the table and delighted their fans in the process.

VERDICT

Playing with inverted wingers can be devastating, but it depends on the ability of the player in question – hence the success of Ronaldo and Messi in the role as the world’s best.

However, for those not boasting a Ballon d’Or candidate on their flanks, dispelling the use of traditional wide players should be done with caution.

Spurs have Harry Kane, fresh from a 31-goal season, leading their line but wide players that want to cut inside and eat up their team-mates’ space.

Wouldn’t wingers that stay wide and supply their lethal striker serve the team’s collective interests better? It’s a simple game.

Palace have proven that employing traditional tactics can reap real dividends and as such wingers that get chalk on their boots should not be seen as a dying breed just yet.

By
I am a freelance football journalist from Northern Ireland living in Broome in Western Australia. I have worked for top media outlets such as FourFourTwo, goal.com, Soccerlens, Football Fancast and Here is the City. I am a lifelong and long-suffering Tottenham fan. Follow me on Twitter at @90MinsOnline
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