Monday, 15 Apr 2024

The Art of Wingplay: Celebrating the Best Wingers in Football History

Picture the scene: a tense, focused defender stationed out wide, jockeying an attacker by the bright white touchline. But in a flash, the speedy, technical forward they’re up against conjures a moment of magic and skill. Their clever footwork takes them past the defender and into a dangerous position. As a supporter of the attacking team, it can be one of the most exciting moments in football. And there’s one pivotal player behind it—the winger.

In association football, wingers tend to be some of the most entertaining players on the pitch. Their unique skill sets allow them to consistently produce special moments that get fans off their seats. The role of the winger has evolved and changed over the years, but one thing remains the same—the best players in this position are often celebrated and cheered more than any other player on the soccer field.

In this article, we’ll dive into some of those culturally important sporting figures, providing you with a list of the 9 best wingers of all time and explaining why each of those stars has made it into our final list. But before we discuss the world’s best wingers in more detail, let’s explain what this position involves, guiding you through all the key skills and responsibilities that are wrapped up in this role.

What Is a Winger in Soccer?

In football, different teams attack in different ways. Some work the ball through the center of the pitch or hit the striker with long, lofted balls from deep positions. Others build using the wide areas, finding space in the channels and creating chances from there. Wingers play a crucial role in both strategies, but they’re particularly vital when it comes to the latter tactic.

Wingers are essentially wide midfielders stationed on the right and left-hand sides of the pitch, typically with plenty of license to roam forward, but also with certain defensive responsibilities. Traditionally, formations such as 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 would rely heavily on fast, powerful wingers capable of getting into space and crossing the ball into a center forward. While this aspect of the winger’s game is still important, the role has evolved over the years.

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Today, many coaches have adapted the traditional winger to play the role of a more inverted forward or wide midfielder. However, this position—with its focus on attacking prowess and dynamism, speed and acceleration, and technical ability—can still be seen widely across the beautiful game.

The Key Skills of a Winger

A variety of different physical and technical attributes are needed to become an effective winger in football.

Speed

Wide midfielders tend to be some of the fastest players on the pitch because, on the flanks, acceleration and pace can make all the difference. Making a killer run that gets you beyond a back four or a quick sprint after a one-two to find space to receive the ball is what most wingers will always be looking to do. Speed is essential when it comes to completing these kinds of tasks.

Ball Control

While it’s common to see wingers pick up the ball in extremely wide areas with plenty of space around them, they will also consistently receive the ball in tight spaces and be expected to control, dribble, and distribute it when under pressure. In these positions, an excellent first touch and confident ball control are vital.

Dribbling

This goes hand in hand with the previous point, but it’s worth fleshing out in more detail. A big part of the winger’s role is dribbling, whether it’s tight, mazy meanders in-field or fast, direct runs down the touchline before delivering a cross into the box. Carrying the ball from deeper areas into the final third is an important element of a winger’s attacking contribution.

Crossing

All that clever, technical, physically powerful buildup play isn’t worth much if the player in question can’t deliver the ball properly at the end of it. Wingers should be confident crossing the ball into the penalty area from a range of different positions, whether it’s a deep out-swinger, a dead ball position, or a sharp, dinked cutback into the six-yard box from the touchline. Picking out forwards and midfielders with a pinpoint cross is a crucial aspect of the winger role in soccer.

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The 9 Best Wingers of All Time

Of course, matters regarding the best footballers of all time are always up for debate, but below is a list of players who have undeniably had a massive impact on the sport.

Gareth Bale

Former Spurs and Real Madrid winger Gareth Bale enjoys the status of a true icon in Wales, where his commitment to the national team and consistent performances on the biggest stage ensure he is beloved by all. He was instrumental in the country’s historic run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 and their qualification for multiple tournaments since. His combination of speed, trickery, clever movement, and stunning ball-striking ability has allowed him to grab 185 goals in 553 career appearances for club and country.

Ryan Giggs

Bale isn’t the only world-class winger to have shone for Wales in recent years. Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs, who registered a record 277 Premier League assists during his long career with the Red Devils, remains one of Wales’ greatest ever players. Known for his elite-level crossing, intricate dribbling, and leadership skills, Giggs won an incredible 13 league titles under Sir Alex Ferguson, as well as triumphing in two Champions League finals and collecting an array of domestic cups.

George Best

Northern Ireland and Manchester United winger George Best remains one of the most iconic characters to have ever graced a football field. Blessed with a stylish swagger, glorious ball skills, two-footed dribbling ability, and wonderful finishing, he’s considered by most to be one of the best wingers to have ever played the game.

Garrincha

Another hugely exciting dribbler of the ball, Brazilian winger Garrincha, was a short, compact, tricky wide midfielder who terrorized opposition defenders during his country’s historic 1958 and 1962 World Cup wins. Winning the Golden Ball and being described by many as player of the tournament at the latter competition, he holds a special status in Brazil and is an absolute legend at club side Botafogo.

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Mohamed Salah

Widely regarded as one of the greatest players ever produced by an African nation, Egypt’s Mo Salah has enjoyed tons of success in England with Liverpool. A tricky winger with skillful feet, clever movement, and a lethal finish, he’s one of the best wide players in the world right now.

Stanley Matthews

The iconic English winger, known for his skill, speed, and excellent crossing ability, Sir Stanley Matthews is one of only four English players to have won the Ballon d’Or, football’s most coveted individual award.

Luis Figo

One of Portugal’s greatest ever players, Luis Figo became renowned across the world as one of Real Madrid’s ‘Galacticos’ in the early 2000s. The quick, powerful, technically excellent wide man was a giant of Spanish football, as well as glowing in the Champions League and international stage with Portugal.

Ronaldinho

A cheeky, charismatic, elegant player with unbelievable footwork and ball control skills and a penchant for pioneering ambitious tricks such as the elastico, Ronaldinho was one in a million. The retired Brazil international was a pivotal figure in his country’s 2002 World Cup win and impressed at each club he played for.

Lionel Messi

We’ve saved the best until last. Argentina captain Lionel Messi is considered by many football fans and pundits to be the greatest player of all time. Throughout his career, he has enjoyed most of his success drifting in from the right flank onto his gloriously potent left foot. A player with remarkable creative vision, sublime ball skills, superb passing ability, and a goalscoring record, Lionel Messi has redefined what a winger can be viewed as during a long career at the top.

Want to learn more about the role of the winger in soccer? Check out our in-depth guide to this position here.