The rise of the defensive winger?

Managers Rafa Benitez and Sir Alex Ferguson have recently deployed players in the wide positions for more than just the capability to take people on.

Before Liverpool’s recent goalscoring run, the sight of Dirk Kuyt on the team sheet on the right of midfield would usually have been proceeded by more than a groan or two. Thought not to be quite dynamic enough to be a winger and, if you ask the wrong people, not quite good enough to be a striker. But Liverpool’s goalscoring run has owed itself much to Benitez finding the balance between defence and attack, which Kuyt is an integral part of.

“I do not think people realise how important it is to keep the balance [between defence and attack],” says Rafa Benitez. “Because we are organised some people say we are not an attacking team. It’s so clear we are an attacking team and a very good attacking team. It means the team have a very good offensive mentality and we still keep the balance and defend well. That is important for winning.”

Benitez’s Liverpool is all about controlling space with the ball, that means having all players who are capable of creating chances and off the ball, in the form of systemised pressing. Kuyt’s willingness to run allows them to do that.

For Manchester United, Wayne Rooney has played on the left to nullify opponents attacks and give greater protection to the full back. When Lennon was coming out on top in his battle with Evra, Ferguson put Rooney back into midfield and his work-rate pinned the Tottenham winger back. Park Ji Sung has played out wide all season obviously less for his dynamism and more for his industry which in theory should bring more rewards.

Maybe none of these players are defensive wingers as such but increasingly both managers have stuck someone out wide for more than just their attacking threat. A less attack minded winger could be deployed to cater for specialists and individuals therefore allowing others to play with greater freedom (i.e. Ronaldo), a means for balancing the side or to give more protection.

A dynamic winger would be best to control the space in the wide areas but that may not be easy said as done. Ronaldo’s unwillingness to drop back with much urgency meant Ferguson had to find another way. While Liverpool tried to sign Quaresma but the Portuguese star opted not to join as Benitez wanted to instill a greater focus on his defensive game.

Former Ecuador manager Luis Fernando Suarez argues the physical development of the game and the packing of central midfield means that effective wing play could be the key. But the greater search for controlling space means that even his go-to place is becoming just a slight more complicated.

10 thoughts on “The rise of the defensive winger?

      1. have we forgotten about a player called Ray Parlour? A central midfielder by default wasn’t he stuck out on the right to give more balance to the team. And Parlour wasn’t the most gifted player either, hence his nickname ‘Romford Pele’ Come to think of it, isn’t Eboue just replacing Parlour on that flank?

    1. Eboué is probably better going forward than he is positioning himself defensively. I think Nasri would be probably do a better job if he were told to concentrate on that aspect of the game.

  1. Good points about balance. A lot of non-Liverpool fans don’t rate Kuyt, but in my book he’s a very important player with his work-rate, tactical awareness and ability to score important goals.
    My initial feeling was that Rooney was wasted as a “winger”, but increasingly I’m appreciating the balance he brings to the team in that position.

  2. I agree that industrious wingers are becoming ever-more prevalent, but there is a concern that if the wingers are persistently required to drop deep, it leaves the opposition with greater ability to push forward and implement high-pressure, whilst leaving the side with less opportunity to exploit over-commited opposition on the break.

    As such, at United, the defensive winger is complemented with more of a wing-forward in the form of Ronaldo.
    At Liverpool, both wingers tend to drop deep, but this is where Torres’ movement down the channel can be so pivotal in exploiting space.

    Ideally, our defensive shield would help support the full-backs, but at the moment, the cohesion doesn’t seem to quite be there.

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