Return of the Wing-back: Modern Football or Blast from the Past?

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When Pelé calmly passed the ball to a streaking Carlos Alberto during the 1970 World Cup Final in Mexico, the thunderous goal that followed not only finished off the defending European champion Azzurri, it was the birth of the attacking fullback, known today as the wing-back.

Today the position is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, as variations of the 4-3-3, 5-3-2 and 3-5-2 that rely on width and flank-play have become trending tactics in leagues around the world. The traditional 4-4-2, once a go-to formation for top managers, is now for some a staple of defensive football. So what’s changed? Well for one, professional footballers are getting younger. That’s hardly breaking news, but it has led to a shift in identity as more teams rely on tempo, pressing and counter-attacking play. However, youth isn’t always the answer. Sometimes all you need are two difference-makers at wing-back.

During the Champions League semi-final home leg between Juventus and Monaco on May 3rd, Alex Sandro and Dani Alves were constant threats down the wings. Alves finished with two world-class assists and proved he’s still the most influential touchline player in the game. Sandro’s performance helped increase his transfer value and showed why he’s an unquestioned starter on one of the best team’s in the world. Juventus’s two Brazilians are prototypical wing-backs because they fit the position’s core profile:

  • Technically gifted on the ball
  • The skills and mentality of a winger
  • Comfortable in 1v1 situations
  • Solid defenders with advanced soccer IQ

There are so many great wing-backs around the world. Marcelo, Dani Carvajal, Hector Bellerin, and Kyle Walker are just a few that can hit a switch and defend like a fullback or attack like a winger. Players like Juan Cuadrado, who has featured at fullback/wing-back for Colombia and Juventus, and Victor Moses, who coincidentally was preferred over the Colombian at Chelsea as a wing-back, are two converted attacking players that have proved their worth through versatility and a willingness to defend.

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But we’ve seen all this before, right? In their prime, Roberto Carlos and Cafú were wingers disguised as defenders. Even Paolo Maldini, considered a brick wall with a classy left foot, didn’t just sit back and defend.

So, is the importance of width and skilled wing-backs a case of been there, done that—or are we witnessing a universal tactical shift in world football? What do you think?

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