FIFA World Cup 2022: The positives and negatives of playing with wingbacks – tactical analysis
Whisper it quietly, but the 2022 FIFA World Cup has already reached its halfway point, with the group stages over and 16 teams confirming their places in the knockout rounds. Fans both in the stadiums and back at home have been able to watch each of the 32 sides who made the trip to Qatar and assess their performances, and one thing that has stood out is how many of them have opted to set up with wing-backs during their games. As a system, it has been growing in popularity in recent years, both at club level and on the international stage, with current Tottenham Hotspur and former Chelsea boss Antonio Conte and ex-Manchester United and current Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal just two managers who have based their tactics around it throughout their managerial careers.
However, it is a very dangerous way of playing, because having the wrong players in each of the roles involved will lead to a lack of balance around the pitch and will make it easier for opponents to break them down. Therefore, this tactical theory article will look not only at the positives that can be attained by using wing-backs in the right way, drawing on examples from the ongoing World Cup but also at how it can lead to teams’ downfalls, with some sides who have featured in Qatar unable to play to their full potential due to the way that they have got their tactics wrong.
In attacking situations, having wing-backs can be highly beneficial, as it enables teams to push forward at pace and with more numbers than might have otherwise been possible. As a result, goals have been scored that might not have come about if the team had set up in a different way.
The biggest benefit of having these extra players in advanced areas is that teams can leave one player out of the main action and task them with providing a “backstop” option (as it might be described in cricket), ensuring that, should the ball come through the middle of the pitch without being either turned towards goal or cleared, the attack can be kept alive.
Denmark are one team who have generally done this well, with this situation showing Leeds United right-back Rasmus Kristensen in possession on the far side of the pitch and preparing to send the ball into the middle. However, should any of the three players in Australia’s goal area fail to connect with it, left wing-back Joakim Mæhle, in the red circle, is in a position where he can move forward at short notice and control it before either sending it back into the middle or finding a teammate in another area of the field.
That is the key thing to note here because full-backs might stay further back in these situations whilst wingers might look to move into the goal area and try to get on the end of the initial delivery. Therefore, it is only with wing-backs that teams can have this protection when moving forwards, and that is one reason that they have been favoured by so many sides recently.
It is also important to look at how the positioning of those in the middle changes when wing-backs are in use though, and Serbia’s performance against Cameroon was a good example of how this works. Much like Kristensen and Mæhle, Andrija Živković has stayed out on the wing and is looking to deliver the ball into the middle, but what needs to be examined here is the positioning of Aleksandar Mitrović, as the Fulham striker has drifted out towards the ball and is looking to provide a short passing option, whilst former Southampton star Dušan Tadić has moved into the space that he vacated and has now taken up a false nine role inside the goal area.
The point to make with this is that having wing-backs enables those in the forward line to play with more freedom, as, with full-backs in place, Mitrović would have needed to stay in the middle as he would not have had the same level of support from the likes of Tadić due to the latter needing to stay wide and maintain the team’s width. Therefore, again, it is not just about what the system gives the team in wide areas that needs to be considered, because it also allows teams to rotate more in the middle and therefore make it harder for opponents to set up against them.
The added numbers also help teams to break out when moving up the pitch in transitions, as Denmark are demonstrating here in their attempts to use the spaces that Australia have left open. The European side did have some good phases of play in this game and were able to maintain a relatively good tempo as they tried to create opportunities, particularly in the first half, but what made that possible was that they always had two or three players in the same area of the pitch who could work together to form triangles and keep the ball moving, as is the case here with Mæhle, Jesper Lindstrøm and Manchester United midfielder Christian Eriksen, and it was details like that that made it harder for their opponents to intercept the ball and end the counterattack.
Again, none of this would be possible without the team having wing-backs on the field, as the alternative would be that either the winger or the full-back would have needed to move the ball up the field on their own and then wait for support to arrive, which would have invited the opposing side to surround and isolate that player and limit their options. Therefore, again, using wing-backs is a good way to approach matches if the focus of the team’s tactics is on creating numerical overloads and controlling matches.
However, their benefits are not just limited to attacking situations, with there being several major positives to them defensively too, and this next section of the analysis will explain how one of those is that it gives teams flexibility when deciding how they are going to set up at the back and look to keep the ball as far away from the goal as possible.
Serbia have generally opted for a flat back line in their matches when out of possession, with their aim being to stretch across the pitch and make it as difficult as possible for opponents to break them down. Brazil, in this case, have now been forced to move the ball towards the wings as they look to find a way through their opponents, and that is exactly what Serbia want to happen as it is always easier to defend against attacks coming from the wide channels than it is to defend against those coming through the middle. Therefore, by forcing Brazil to attack down the wings, Serbia have ensured that they have the advantage in this situation.
The other thing that comes from setting up with this organised line is that the defenders can now move to close down individual opponents whenever the ball moves into their area of the pitch, knowing that the spaces that they leave open behind them will be covered, and it was common to see Serbia’s defensive line constantly readjust as players moved around to each play their part in preventing Brazil from locating an avenue through which they could attack through. Therefore, whilst pressing the ball and staying organised at the back is tiresome and does require a lot of work on the training ground, it is effective when it works, and shows one reason that playing with wing-backs can help teams to make themselves harder to beat.
The Netherlands are another team who have used wing-backs, with van Gaal, as mentioned, a huge fan of the system. However, they went for a slightly different approach to defending with five players at the back, as their focus was on remaining compact in the middle and trying to force crosses to be played further across the pitch, increasing the chance of a mistake being made. Against Ecuador, that was particularly important, as captain Enner Valencia had shown in the first game of the tournament against Qatar that he was strong in the air and would attack any ball that entered his vicinity.
Therefore, the Netherlands’ three central defenders, in the yellow circles, were tasked with controlling the goal area whilst the wing-back, in this case Inter Milan’s Denzel Dumfries, was used to press the ball and to force the cross to be overhit, as it was in this case by Bayer Leverkusen centre-back Piero Hincapié.
Therefore, whilst these two examples have shown two different ways of setting up defensively with wing-backs, both serve their purpose in helping to make teams difficult to break down, and having the ability and the players required to set up with them will always give them a better chance of keeping clean sheets and therefore picking up wins that they might not have gained with another system.
However, whilst this analysis has so far highlighted the many positives that come from the use of wing-backs, it is important to note that there are a lot of risks too, and a number of teams have ended up on the wrong side of scorelines at the World Cup due to not getting every aspect of the system right.
In order to make their wing-backs as effective as possible, teams need to have the right profiles on the field. The back three, for example, needs to be made up of players who are either good at playing out from the back or who can compete in both aerial and defensive duels, and not getting that right was what let the Netherlands down in their opening match against Senegal, as Bayern Munich’s Matthijs de Ligt started on the right side of the back three and was unable to contain Watford winger Ismaïla Sarr for large parts of the match.
This was noticed by fans and analysts alike as the game went on, and van Gaal obviously realised that it had been a mistake to play de Ligt in that role as he was replaced by the highly-rated Jurriën Timber for their final two group games against Ecuador and Qatar. Timber has so far proved to be a much better fit, with him able to move forward and track back as required, and he has also looked much more comfortable in 1-v-1 battles and has often slowed opposing attacks down in order to give his teammates time to get back into position.
When it comes to the wing-backs, it really is a specialist role that not every full-back or winger can operate in, and Belgium found that out in their opening group match against Canada when they started Atlético Madrid’s Yannick Carrasco at left wing-back. However, he struggled to adapt to the tactical demands associated with the position, and, as the heatmap indicates, he often didn’t track back as much as he needed to and therefore made it easier for Junior Hoilett, Tajon Buchanan and Richie Laryea to get behind him and create goalscoring opportunities in the final third.
Roberto Martínez obviously realised this at half-time, as Carrasco was taken off and Thomas Meunier was brought on in his place, with Leicester City’s Timothy Castagne switching to the left, and that gave the team a better balance in the second half and helped them to attack and defend with more confidence.
This situation shows how important it is that the wing-backs do track back when the team loses possession, with Canada’s back three under pressure here and needing to protect both the central and wide areas of the pitch in order to prevent Croatia from moving the ball behind them.
In the previous section, when Serbia and the Netherlands were under the microscope, they had players on either side of them and were able to press the ball and control how their opponents moved it around. However, here, Canada didn’t and were left exposed as a result, with Chelsea’s Mateo Kovačić now having two options to pass to and each giving them time to control the ball and run towards the Canadian goal.
Croatia had drawn their first match and were in need of a good result against the North American side, so situations like this were exactly what they would have hoped for before the game got underway. However, from Canada’s point of view, their naïve defending and inability to work hard defensively in this game were what let them down, and it showed how there is a very real danger of central players becoming isolated and easily beatable if the wing-backs don’t perform their roles well enough.
It is not just in defensive situations where teams with wing-backs can come apart. Here, Wales have looked to move the ball up the field with a long pass, which has been controlled by Neco Williams on the nearside of the field. He now needs to transfer the ball back into the USA’s goal area in order to keep the chance alive but has no teammates in a realistic position to run onto his cross, as the empty yellow square indicates.
Therefore, using a wing-back system to its full potential also relies on the team having a focal point who can stay at the top of the pitch and provide a passing option whenever the rest of the team need one, just as Serbia did with Mitrović and Tadić earlier in the analysis. Wales did alter this in the second half, with Daniel James coming off and Bournemouth’s Kieffer Moore being introduced, and that was the main reason that Rob Page’s side managed to get back into this match after being second-best before the break. Therefore, again, not getting all of the details right around the pitch can let teams down, and that is why some have thrived with this system and others haven’t.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked in detail at the positives and negatives of using wing-backs in the modern game of football, using examples from the ongoing 2022 FIFA World Cup to show how some teams have played well in this system and others have been undone by it.
What has been highlighted throughout the tactical theory article is that playing with wing-backs is a difficult thing to get absolutely right, and it does require a lot of practice on the training ground in order to show the strong levels of organisation required and to ensure that players fully understand what is expected of them, both in and out of possession. If one thing goes wrong, then it can make the whole system unravel and leave the team either lacking support in the final third or isolated at the back, and that is why it is not and will never be every manager’s or fan’s cup of tea. However, when it does work, it can look highly polished and very exciting to watch.