Not so long ago, the winger was what the classic number 10 is now. An almost extinct position in football. Overtaken by time. Disappeared in the evolution of the game. In the eighties, practically every team played 4-4-2 or 5-3-2. Arrigo Sacchi celebrated great successes with AC Milan. On the other side of the Berlin Wall, Valeriy Lobanovskyi did the same with Dinamo Kiev. They seemed to have found their way to modern football. Even the Netherlands gave in to the 4-4-2 trend. In 1988, both the Dutch national team and PSV triumphed from a formation without pure wingers. Even youth teams were trained in that way of playing. The end of the classic wingers era seemed near.
When Johan Cruyff became Ajax’s coach in 1985, only one team with wingers had won the European Cup I in the past decade. Even about that Aston Villa was arguing whether that formation with a relapsing striker and pushed through outside midfielders was not previously a variation at 4-4-2. The successes of Feyenoord, Ajax and Orange in 4-3-3 in the seventies were hardly followed. So when Cruyff made warm pleas for wingers, he seemed more like a romantic than a visionary.
‘You don’t see wingers at all anymore’, Cruyff complained. ‘That goes against every, at least my, philosophy of football.’
This is Part 12 of #TheCruyffStory. For the full series click here.
The fact that the rest of the world thought differently did not bother him. ‘It may well be the case that Ajax uses a system that goes against the developments of the last ten years. Every advantage has its disadvantage. Because if everyone thinks and talks like that, the opponent is not used to finding a team that plays with three strikers.’
For Cruyff it was 3-4-3 or 4-3-3. He never deviated from that premise. In his head, it wasn’t all that complicated. As a relapsing striker, he benefited greatly as a player from wingers such as Johnny Rep, Piet Keizer and Rob Rensenbrink, who created spaces for him by keeping defenders busy. The fact that such types no longer seemed to pay off was, in Cruyff’s eyes, the result of lousy coaching. Simple basic principles that were insufficiently taught.
Details that Cruyff kept whining about for so long that Tscheu La Ling at Atjax once exclaimed: ‘If you don’t keep your mouth shut now, I’ll kick that stick in your ass.’ Not every right winger was waiting for the advice of the Dutch oracle.
That 25 years after this collision between Cruyff and Ling a training video of Manchester City went viral, was proof of what a visionary the legendary Number 14 was. In that clip, Pep Guardiola explained to Raheem Sterling one of the basic principles that Cruyff has always insisted on.
The Job of Cruyff’s Winger
In the eyes of Cruyff, wingers should line up against an offside position. The first reason for this is defensive: then more players are behind the ball when losing the ball than when the winger is on the same line as the midfield. The second reason is offensive: opponents’ backs are forced to play one-on-one. Because no one can give back cover.
So Cruyff’s analysis was: ‘One of the reasons that few or no wingers come through anymore is that they are so poorly drafted nowadays. When they’re in possession, they’re up against two, three men. That’s just a matter of drafting. It is a pity that people who have a very good movement and can play one-on-one very well always get into trouble in the wrong place.’
According to him, the solution was simple: ‘Do you let him get possession of the ball at the level of the last man of the opponent or at the level of the midfielders? That’s what it’s all about. Most wingers are killed because they are played in such a way that they constantly have to deal with a number of opponents.’
Cruyff put his wingers high and wide against the sideline. That guaranteed the best possible field occupancy, with many triangles all over the field. ‘Every team has to have fixed playing points, that’s a matter of organization. When you play with wingers, you have width and depth in your game. Then you use the space in an optimal organization.’
The team has to work for the wingers
The relationship between the midfielder and winger on the same side (e.g. left midfielder and left winger) needed special attention. According to Cruyff, they had to be set up in such a way that the midfielder can play the winger both in front of and behind his direct opponent. So both in the feet and in the depth. The midfielder must therefore be at an angle behind the winger, in what is nowadays called the half-space. This allows for diagonal passes that are much more difficult to defend than the vertical ball from back to winger.
Cruyff proved as a trainer that these kinds of insights were timeless. In 1987 he won the European Cup II with Ajax with John van ‘t Schip and Rob Witschge as pure wingers. At Barcelona in 1989 he repeated that success with Gary Lineker and Txiki Begiristain on the sides. Three years later, Cruyff even started a trend break by winning the European Cup I with real wingers. That had only happened twice in the previous sixteen years.
Although not long after another headstrong Amsterdammer – Louis van Gaal with Ajax – proved that wingers at the highest level could still pay off, a revaluation of this craft was initially not forthcoming.
The winger only became hip again when Barcelona dominated international football between 2006 and 2015. With Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique, three coaches – all of whom were influenced by Cruyff and Van Gaal – took a total of four Champions League titles. This was done with a modern interpretation of the wing positions for which Cruyff and Van Gaal were responsible.
Success at Ajax and Barcelona
In the nineties they played at Ajax and Barcelona with right-footed Marc Overmars from the left and left-footed Hristo Stoichkov from the right. The emphasis was therefore no longer on giving passes, but on scoring yourself by coming in after an individual action and lashing out with the right leg. This functioned especially well in combination with a relapsing striker who created space in the center.
‘If you do play with two strikers, I would play with two outside strikers’, Cruyff explained that tactic. ‘Then you let your center-forward fall back, which strengthens the midfield. The backs of the opponent then have to defend and they can no longer do that nowadays. And one of the central defenders has to move on to midfield. Who can do that? And the last man can only give back cover on one side. This gives you many more options than by playing with two center- forwards. Then the central defenders can give each other back cover, the backs only have to squeeze a bit and they already give back cover. Actually, you have to ask yourself whether top football without wingers is still possible.’
When Cruyff uttered those words, it seemed like an insane claim. In the meantime, he has been proved right. Of the last thirteen Champions League winners, no less than eleven (!) played with wingers. In many cases – Barcelona, Liverpool and Real Madrid – even with the style of play he advocates of a relapsing central attacker and outside strikers who take advantage of the spaces.
Pep as the Modern Cruffista
Obviously, Guardiola is the most radical in applying Cruyff’s principles. In large periods of matches, it can therefore seem as if the wingers of Manchester City play an extra role. They are seemingly aimlessly glued to the sidelines and are spectators at the large rondo in the middle of the field. Guardiola demands both width and depth from his outside attackers behind the last line. In many cases, this leads to opponents who become anxious, stand just a little more outside or backwards and thus create space elsewhere on the field. “Our wingers give oxygen to the positional play,” Guardiola once said.
Like Cruyff, he wants wingers to get the ball when they have the space to be decisive in one-on-one duels, rather than against a superiority of opponents. “First you have to convince them of that,” Guardiola said. “You say: Wait there, as deeply as possible, wait for the moment to come. Then you have to respond. How many opponents do you have to pass? Just one. We’ve taken care of that through the way we’ve built the game. So you only have to pass one man and sometimes there is no one at all. But if you don’t follow the instructions and you get involved in the game too early, how many men do you have to pass? Four!’
An echo of the words of his teacher Cruyff. Wingers are very modern. As long as you know how to use them.