Formation trends making traditional wingers a rarity in the Premier League
Manchester City's 1-1 draw with Everton on Monday evening was the most tactically fascinating contest of the Premier League campaign so far, a tussle between Pep Guardiola and Ronald Koeman, long-standing friends who once roomed together on away trips when playing for Johan Cruyff's Barcelona.
The two managers repeatedly tinkered with their systems, attempting to outwit one another, with Guardiola switching centre-backs and then changing formation three times in the second half, and Koeman making the unusual -- but somewhat logical -- decision to jettison a centre-back for a midfielder when 1-0 up. Koeman was responding to Guardiola's switch from two strikers to one, and attempting to follow Cruyff's old guidelines that suggested teams should always have one -- and only one -- more defender than the opposition have attackers. The most fascinating tactical feature of the contest, however, was Guardiola's and Koeman's shared lack of interest in deploying proper wingers.
In particular, this cost Everton. In the second half, they invited too much pressure and eventually conceded an equaliser, as Raheem Sterling smashed home after Mason Holgate's poor headed clearance. Koeman's mistake wasn't the aforementioned change of system, but his failure to introduce a true winger to provide a counterattacking threat -- who could have exploited the fact that City were playing with 10 men and leaving enormous gaps at the back.
City barely needed to bother defending and could concentrate all their resources in attack. Koeman's wide players in the final stages were goal scorer Wayne Rooney and debutant Gylfi Sigurdsson -- both fine footballers, but neither is blessed with a turn of speed, and both prefer playing centrally. Meanwhile, Kevin Mirallas and Ademola Lookman, two natural wingers, remained on the bench.
Koeman's refusal to utilise their talents is symptomatic of the malaise currently being suffered by natural wide players. Indeed, Manchester City had started the contest in a 3-5-2 formation, with full-back Kyle Walker -- later dismissed -- on the right. Leroy Sane, a proper winger, was on the left but looked dreadfully uncomfortable in his wing-back role, making a crucial mistake for Rooney's opener. Sterling, another winger, was eventually City's hero -- but he was deployed centrally, rather than close to the touchline. It's a dramatic rethink from Guardiola, who arrived at City intending to always deploy two players on the outside of the opposition full-backs, stretching the play properly. But both Jesus Navas and Nolito returned to Spain in the summer.
The pattern has largely been repeated by the other Champions League challengers -- no proper wingers. On Sunday, Chelsea recorded a 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur with an impressively controlled, disciplined performance at Wembley.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte used a 3-5-1-1 system based around packing the centre of the pitch, effectively telling Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino that Spurs wing-backs Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies (in their 3-4-3) didn't have the necessary dynamism, in Conte's opinion, to cause problems down the flanks. Conte was spot-on -- Trippier, in particular, repeatedly turned down opportunities to reach the byline, and Tottenham's play badly lacked width.
Pochettino was surprisingly tardy in summoning Son Heung-Min, who is, if not a true winger, at least comfortable down the flank. Meanwhile, Chelsea's hero was Marcos Alonso, who opened the scoring with a free kick and then fired in the late winner. Alonso, a converted full-back who is impressive in a physical rather than a creative sense, is the new template for wide players in the Premier League.
At London's other title challengers, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is using wing-backs, although he has twice switched from a three-man defence to a flat-back four when chasing matches against Leicester and Stoke, a 4-3 win and 1-0 defeat, respectively.
Wenger's tactical approach has been interesting. Initially he used Hector Bellerin at right wing-back and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in a makeshift left-sided position, the approach he used in the FA Cup final win against Chelsea in May. But in the second half of the victory over Leicester, Wenger switched them, which suited Oxlade-Chamberlain -- who made inroads -- but left Bellerin in an entirely unfamiliar left-sided position. Peculiarly, they stayed there against Stoke. With Danny Welbeck and Mesut Ozil floating behind Alexandre Lacazette, there was again no room for an outside-right in the mould of Theo Walcott.
But the absence of wingers isn't entirely about formations. Table-topping Manchester United have failed in their pursuit of Ivan Perisic, the type of simple, up-and-down winger manager Jose Mourinho often likes, and instead have found a nice balance in their 4-2-3-1 between the directness of Marcus Rashford (or substitute Anthony Martial) from the left, popping up in centre-forward positions, and the creativity of Juan Mata from the right, drifting between the lines. One natural winger, Antonio Valencia, has found his home at right-back.
Therefore, arguably the only true winger played in his correct position among last season's top seven teams is Liverpool's Mohamed Salah -- a new arrival after manager Jurgen Klopp's side desperately lacked a player in his mould last season. He started well, scoring on his debut against Watford from close range and constantly offering a direct threat in an entertaining 3-3 draw.
Last weekend, he was surprisingly omitted for a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace, perhaps as Klopp focuses on getting through the two-legged Champions League qualifier against Hoffenheim. Salah still used his speed well as a substitute when Palace were, for the first time in the game, moving up the pitch because they now required an equaliser. Still, he was a substitute. None of last season's top seven deployed a true winger last weekend.
But width remains a valuable asset in football -- it's not unreasonable to suspect that Tottenham and Everton both dropped points this weekend because of their lack of it, with Arsenal arguably in that camp, too, having failed to stretch a narrow Stoke defence. At the start of this decade there was a noticeable shift away from the traditional "crossing winger," with wide players generally deployed from the opposite flank and instructed to shoot for goal.
But regardless of whether wide players are conventional or inverted, it's difficult to find many at top Premier League clubs at the moment. Tactical trends move more quickly than ever, and there might be a sudden re-emergence of wingers, but evidence from the opening two weekends suggests many will find themselves spending much of this season on the bench.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.