Explaining the Wing-Back – Player Role Analysis

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April 2022 marked the launch of our new Player Role Evaluation System, where footballers are assessed by what they offer a football team – taking into account relevant metrics for their position and role, and minimizing less important factors that may not matter in the grand scheme of their role. We identified thirty-two different roles that a footballer may adopt on a football pitch, that can then be conceptualized to better understand how to evaluate each player’s performance. This series breaks down each of the thirty-two roles, contextualizing the tasks, function and job description within each – that can allow us to better measure their performance, without solely relying on statistics.

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Fullbacks are not always the flashiest of players, nor do they garner the greatest attention, even despite their importance to creating and generating chances in the modern game. That is precisely why a system like our Role Continuity Evaluation System works on so many levels, as we are able to adequately assess the important characteristics to a player’s performance, while minimizing the scrutinization over less important facets of the player’s game. Within the system, we break down full-backs into three broad categories: ‘Wide Warriors‘, ‘Inverted Fullbacks‘, and the topic of today’s article – the ‘Wing-Back’. So with that, we explain the tasks, functions and role of a Wing-Back and outline some of the very best in the position in 2022.

JOB DESCRIPTION

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A wing-back, as the name suggests, is a full-back that operates up and down the wing, holding particular importance in attacking phases. They may contribute to the defensive side of the game, and they may even invert into central areas. But wing-backs do their best work down the by-line, where they can deliver crosses into the box, utilize their trickery and skill to go 1v1, and surge up the field through their dynamic pace and timing of movement into dangerous areas.

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While the wing-back has evolved into a legitimate position of note in the modern game, not all wing-backs by trade would fall into the specific ‘Wing-Back’ role, which states a player must do the bulk of their best work down the wing, particularly in attacking phases. In other words, they are attack-minded fullbacks, who hold greater importance to their team’s attack, than toward their defensive responsibilities. This means that both full-backs and wing-backs could be classified within the player-type, and sometimes even wingers who swap in between the three positions (for example, Washington Spirit’s Anna Heilferty or CANMNT player Alphonso Davies).

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In stark contrast to our previous ‘Inverted Fullback’ breakdown, the ‘Wing-Back’ is one of the most common player types in the modern game, and just about every club will have a conveyor belt of them available. That, in large part, is down to the way the game has evolved in recent years, seeing full-backs as some of the most imperative to attacking intentions. Often responsible for running the highest speeds, covering the most ground, and generating the most passes into the final third, ‘Wing-Backs’ now comprise a host of players who would rank as some of the best footballers in the world.

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Statistically speaking, ‘Wing-Backs’ are likely to generate top numbers in attacking metrics ranging from key passes and, shot-creating-actions to crosses, goals and assists. As the antithesis to the ‘Wide Warrior’, one differentiating factor is that they excel in ‘receiving progressive passes’, due to their high attacking position. They may accumulate more touches in the final third, passes into the penalty area, and from a defensive perspective, more pressures in the final third, due again to their high position and importance to kick-starting counter-pressing situations.

Of important note, not all ‘Wing-Backs’ contribute a high number of goals and assists. But their high position and ability to stretch the width of the field high in attack always remains a preeminent facet of their game, whether they’re playing the pass before the assist, or the assist itself.

The best of the bunch typically even excel at taking set-pieces, due to their excellent crossing ability, precision passing, and overall quality in the final third.

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But whilst maintaining all of this attacking excellence, wing-backs still play an important role in the defensive side of the game, and may still boast positive defensive numbers. It’s not as though wing-backs never defend; just that their role becomes more about creating chances and making magic happen closer to the opposition’s goal.

As a direct result of this importance, ‘Wing-Backs’ tend to be players of great pace and power, possessing the physical mobility to get up and down the line. The best of the art are often young bucks, bursting with energy and excitement. But the likes of Marcos Alonso and Jordi Alba have continued to excel in the role past the age of 30, through their adept awareness of space and prosperous production in the final third.

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Best served in possession-based teams, ‘Wing-Backs’ may be paired with a more defensive player, an ‘Inverted Fullback’, or even another man by the same trade. As opposition teams compact and narrow the field, they become particularly imperative to breaking the opposition down. They can be used as constant mechanisms to help the team break pressure, switch play, and isolate a weak-side defender; and they can even do the bulk of the hard work on their own.

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Wing-Backs can still exist within the realms of defensively-minded teams, providing an extra cutting edge to their teams in attack. But again, they are best served as additional numbers to support a team’s attacking play, typically within high tempo, possession-based sides. As the game evolves, it’s possible that full-backs will only grow in skewing more toward ‘Wing-Backs’ than ‘Wide Warriors’, as teams continue to develop philosophies for generating the best out of their attacking play.

QUINTESSENTIAL WING-BACKS

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Due to their importance in the modern game, we can all name some of the best wing-backs of today. Liverpool have become synonymous with attack-minded-fullbacks through their use of the effervescent Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold down the wings. Chelsea have also achieved success through utilizing Marcos Alonso, Ben Chilwell and Reece James in advanced roles, where each can contribute heavily in the attacking third. Manchester City’s full-backs would best be classified under the ‘Inverted Fullback’ umbrella, but even they possess several characteristics associated with wing-backs, frequently contributing to attacks down the by-line.

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Then you have the likes of Luke Shaw, who absolutely destroyed the 2020-21 season for both United and England as a bulldozing up and down wing-back; and Newcastle’s Kieran Trippier, who vastly helped to improve upon the Magpies’ second-half of the campaign through his attacking endeavours and insane crossing ability. As we evolve our system, both may transfer over to our ‘Inverted Fullback’ player type in the future. But for now, their statistics over the course of their careers and lack of real inclinations toward central areas in 2021-22 led to them being placed in this category.

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Outside of the Premier League, there is little debate as to the two best of the art. Achraf Hakimi has been one of the best around since his two-year Dortmund loan where he fulfilled all three wide positions for the Black & Yellows. Now at PSG, the up and down, relentless energy of Achraf Hakimi resembles that of a peak Andy Robertson – the man Jose Mourinho supposedly got tired just watching. Down the other flank, Alphonso Davies has a long future ahead of him as a world class superstar, playing as a left winger for his native Canada, and as a high-flying, high-positioned left-back for Julian Nagelsmann’s Bayern Munich.

If you’ve been following the Canadian Premier League this season, you will have become very familiar with Diyaeddine Abzi, who almost plays like an Alphonso Davies styled left-winger down the left of York’s attack, before galloping back to defend toe-for-toe in 1v1 situations. Pacific’s wide rotations where they push Olakunle Dada-Luke down the line have also been impressive in creating chances for the title challengers, and Zachary Fernandez has emerged from obscurity this season to contribute massively to Halifax’s attacking intensity down the right.

Speaking of emerging from the shadows, we’ve seen the success of David Raum this season, knocking another top tier left-wing-back in Robin Gosens out of the German National Team’s starting eleven. Raum assisted 11 goals this campaign, bettered only by Trent Alexander-Arnold among full-backs and wing-backs in Europe’s top five leagues. With most Bundesliga teams either favouring a back-three or floating between some variation of a wing-back system and a back-four, there are a countless number of examples emerging from Germany’s top flight beyond Raum.

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Jeremie Frimpong excelled as an attack-minded right-back in Seoane’s side, creating a magnificent relationship with Moussa Diaby as he overlapped the French winger down the right. Christian Günter accomplished perhaps even greater feats in 2021-22, captaining Freiburg to a sixth place finish, where he assisted many goals from crosses and dead-ball situations. Filip Kostic and Borna Sosa have long been linked with every club of a wing-back need, due to their effervescent energy up and down the left side and incredible crossing ability. Then over in Serie A, where back-three formations also tend to reign supreme, Denzel Dumfries entered Inter Milan with little cause for worry after Hakimi’s departure, and Theo Hernandez made massive contributions to AC Milan’s title triumph, contributing to 11 goals in the league.

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In Ligue 1, Jonathan Clauss and Youcef Atal boasted impressive campaigns for Lens and Nice respectively, with the former contributing to 16 of Lens’ 62 goal haul in Ligue 1. Lesser known names like Djed Spence and Caio Henrique also emerged as integral components to their teams, through their up and down chance creation and trickery. Then you have old heads like Jordi Alba, Ivan Perisic and Marcos Alonso still kicking around and making their presence felt.

There are too many examples to name in full, perfectly highlighting both the significance of the role in the modern game, and the sheer fact that every club wants to find the very best in the position to improve their squad. It doesn’t matter whether a manager wants to play with wing-backs by the positional meaning of the word. The best of the art will find a way to make their presence known, whether they’re playing in a back-three, or four.

MEASURING WING-BACKS

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Within our Role Continuity Player Evaluation System, players are first measured by what they are expected to do in their position and role first, with any tasks associated with a secondary role coming second. In establishing who quantifies as a ‘Wing-Back’, we are looking for attacking metrics and statistics to stand out, particularly in areas like receiving progressive passes, delivering passes into the penalty area, crossing, and goal contribution. We can then use data to more adequately assess their player positioning and movement around the pitch, the areas in which they frequently pick up possession, and the success at which they perform their role. So with that, here is how we measure ‘Wing-Backs’.

1. attacking THREAT & IQ

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As imperative members of their team’s attack, ‘Wing-Backs’ are first assessed by the degree to which they excel in the attacking half, particularly in their timing of decision making, such as when to progress into space, take players on 1v1, or cross the ball into the box. This includes a range of statistical metrics, concomitantly supported by player scores in IQ…

  • Crossing %
  • Dribble %
  • Shot on target %
  • Progressive passes received
  • xA + xG
  • Decision making in attacking phases (e.g. timing of runs, positional sense, etc.) + awareness of own strengths vs. that of teammates

2. attacking contribution

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We always prioritize the importance of decision making, timing and our ‘IQ’ scores first, but sheer volume of numbers in a variety of attacking metrics also hold particular water when assessing how ‘attack-minded’ an ‘attack-minded-fullback’ may be, and how successful the player performs their role. This includes sheer volume numbers of…

  • Touches in the attacking third
  • Successful crosses
  • Key passes
  • Passes and carries into the final third + penalty area
  • Total number of dribbles + carries
  • Goal contributions
  • Shot-creating-actions + Goal-creating-actions
  • Shots + shots on target

Unlike ‘Wide Warriors’ and ‘Inverted Fullbacks’, we assess for ‘Attacking Contribution’ and ‘Attacking IQ’ in separate sections, due to the importance of attacking phases to the role.

3. DEFENSIVE IQ

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On the flip side of the spectrum, we assess defensive contribution and IQ under the same umbrella for ‘Wing-Backs’, since both are equally important to understanding how the player performed at their less important end of the pitch. This is in contrary to their starting position and what would normally be associated with a ‘full-back’ of old. But defensive ability has never waivered in importance, and often separates the best from the rest, even when it comes to attack-minded-fullbacks. In fact, it’s one of the aspects holding back a player like Marcos Alonso or Jordi Alba from the current echelon, and why many England fans still prefer Reece James to Trent Alexander-Arnold at the national team level. We can measure a player’s defensive appetite and IQ by assessing for…

  • Tackle % and decision making when tackling
  • Pressure %, and decision making when pressuring
  • Positional awareness and positional discipline
  • Awareness of own strengths vs. strengths of teammates
  • Discipline (e.g. fouls, bookings, and positional discipline)

By first assessing decision making, we can then more appropriately analyze the statistics a defender may acquire in any given match. A player is given a score out of 10 in each ‘IQ’ category, using both statistical metrics and the eye test, which is then averaged together to create an overall ‘IQ’ score.

4. DEFENSIVE CONTRIBUTION

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Simultaneous to a player’s defensive “IQ”, we also assess for the player’s sheer number of defensive actions, allowing us to understand how positively they contributed on the flip side of the spectrum from their player role. This may include…

  • Tackles
  • Interceptions + recoveries
  • Clearances
  • Blocks
  • Pressures, particularly pressures in final 1/3
  • Aerial duels won + aerial %

Whilst it’s not the most important side of the game for ‘Wing-Backs’, they are still full-backs by trade and by the succinct definition of their position. If a player can contribute positively at both ends, whilst shining a greater light on their attacking play, they will automatically rank higher.

5. POSSESSION & DISTRIBUTION

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Following their defensive aptitude, we also assess for their ability in possession of the ball, and their relative distribution. This holds higher weight for ‘Inverted Fullbacks‘, and while wing-backs are often sound in possession, it’s never their role to keep the game ticking from a possession perspective. More likely, they’re tasked with injecting pace and energy into the attack, or finishing off moves high up the pitch, rather than remaining overly engaged in build-up and progressing the ball through the thirds. Those that have that importance for their teams do so in momentary ‘Inverted Fullback’ roles, such as Marcos Alonso or Trent Alexander-Arnold.

  • Passes received + passing %
  • Long passing % + switches of play
  • Decision making in supporting the build-up and progression
  • Progressiveness (progressive passes + progressive carries)

As you can see, this category includes a range of easily identifiable on-the-ball metrics, without detracting from the eye test and the off-the-ball decision making processes of our full-backs in question.

6. ABNORMALITIES

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Fullbacks may also be given additional boosts or retractions for any abnormalities that they perform in a match, including the following…

  • Penalty kicks made, or given away
  • Errors leading to shots or goals
  • Own goals
  • Red cards

While these metrics may affect a player’s rating in a given match, they don’t tend to change a player’s score over the course of a season, unless repeatedly conducted.

So with that, based on the six key evaluation metrics, here are some of the very best ‘Wing-Backs’ in Men’s Football across Europe’s top leagues.

TOP 20 WING-BACKS

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As illustrated in the previous section, a range of factors go into assessing one ‘Wing-Back’ over another. But by in large, we are scrutinizing over attacking quality, threat and IQ, with those accumulating higher attacking numbers always favoured. We’ve chosen to include three role-defining statistical metrics for ‘Wing-Backs’ in our table, without forgetting the multitude of other facets of the game that may contribute to a high or low ranking on this list.

It’s also worth reiterating here that we’re not including players who we’ve described as best fitting other roles, such as City’s Joao Cancelo or Dortmund’s Raphael Guerreiro.

So with that, after scouring the databases and scrutinizing over statistics from the 2021-22 season, these are the best ‘Wing-Backs’ across Europe on the men’s side, at this time.

Rank #Player TeamGoal Cont.xG + xACrosses
1Trent Alexander-ArnoldLiverpool2 + 120.444.01
2Achraf HakimiParis Saint Germain4 + 60.251.89
3Alphonso DaviesBayern Munich 0 + 30.303.11
4Andrew RobertsonLiverpool3 + 100.253.16
5Reece JamesChelsea5 + 90.403.96
6Theo HernandezAC Milan5 + 6 0.342.29
7Filip KosticEintracht Frankfurt4 + 90.456.82
8Jordi AlbaFC Barcelona2 + 100.243.54
9Ivan PerisicInter Milan8 + 70.404.70
10Christian GünterSC Freiburg2 + 90.243.65
11David Raum1899 Hoffenheim3 + 110.385.95
12Marc CucurellaBrighton1 + 10.102.74
13Ben ChilwellChelsea3 + 10.341.67
14Ferland MendyReal Madrid2 + 1 0.131.40
15Luke ShawManchester United0 + 3 0.192.47
16Djed SpenceNottingham Forest2 + 40.162.10
17Kieran TrippierNewcastle United2 + 0 0.122.29
18AngelinoRB Leipzig 2 + 5 0.295.02
19Marcos AlonsoChelsea4 + 40.332.66
20Dani CarvajalReal Madrid1 + 3 0.172.33

First, it must be noted that far more statistics have been considered in this ranking than the three shown above, but all three help to exemplify the role of a ‘Wing-Back’. For those curious, we assed xG + xA on a per 90 basis, total goal contributions (i.e. goals + assists) and total crosses (crossing % statistics are fairly transferrable). None of the above are perfect for assessing wing-backs in isolation, but still pinpoint some of the essential traits of the role, and the variability that can simultaneously exist within the player type.

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In the future, we may re-quantify the likes of Cucurella, Trippier, Shaw and Mendy as ‘Inverted Fullbacks’ due to the nature by which they excel in possession, particularly if they invert into central areas more often when deployed as full-backs. None of the four performed overwhelmingly proficiently in a majority of attacking or defensive phases of the game, despite holding that high position for their teams in attack. Instead, Denzel Dumfries, Borna Sosa, Jeremie Frimpong, or Jonathan Clauss may have been worthy of a place on the compilation, and better set up to feature on the ‘Perfect Prototype’ list below.

PERFECT PROTOTYPES

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Among the top twenty names listed above, these are the most prototypical ‘Wing-Backs’ – those that most perfectly exemplify our metrics for success within the role. To rank high on this list, a player should feature prominently in their team’s attacking phases, particularly out wide. Those that have greater potential to be ranked as ‘Inverted Fullbacks‘ due to their influence in possession and build-up, even if their attacking metrics excelled. That’s because we’re looking for players that would purely be best described under this prototype over any others.

Rank #Player TeamProg. P. Rec.Touch. (Att. 1/3)Key Pass
1Filip KosticEintracht Frankfurt5.0731.43.18
2Alphonso DaviesBayern Munich4.9732.01.71
3Reece JamesChelsea4.7340.42.27
4Andrew RobertsonLiverpool4.0832.11.95
5Jordi AlbaFC Barcelona3.7832.11.97
6Ivan PerisicInter Milan4.1926.01.92
7David Raum1899 Hoffenheim3.4328.52.61
8AngelinoRB Leipzig3.5725.62.00
9Ben ChilwellChelsea5.0033.81.67
10Achraf HakimiParis Saint Germain4.4428.51.05

We’ve settled for Frankfurt’s Filip Kostic as the ‘Perfect Protoype’ for the ‘Wing-Back’ role, due to his excellence in receiving progressive passes and contributing in the final third, even in a team that boasts less possession than most other teams in the league (49%). Kostic plays almost like a left winger for his side rather than a full-back, and generates over 3 key passes per game. Alphonso Davies, Jordi Alba, and Angelino each hold similar roles for their clubs, operating almost like left-wingers in attack, often times alongside an ‘Inverted Fullback’ or more defensively minded player on the opposite side.

Of note, Achraf Hakimi has become more consistently solid across the board at PSG this season rather than just an electric out-and-out wing-back, whilst Trent Alexander-Arnold and Marcos Alonso occasionally invert into central areas to contribute to possession.

So when studying the tasks of the modern day ‘Wing-Back’, these are the players most worth scrutinizing over.

CONCLUSION

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Over the last few decades, fullbacks have evolved from being the furthest down the pitch, to one of the highest and most important to any team’s attacking structure. The game has taken even more unique turns for the betterment of team tactics, as managers continue to work out the best ways to break down a low-block. One of those emerging facets of the game has been the relentless energy of the modern day ‘Wing-Back’, becoming a preeminent figurehead in attacking phases. The player role remains one of the most common in the modern game, with too many solid performers to name. For now, the likes of Filip Kostic, Alphonso Davies and Andy Robertson may be some of the most worthwhile cases to study, for their brilliance in the final third, and ability to transcend the full-back position into so much more.


So there it is! Explaining our ‘Wing-Back’ player type within our Player Role Evaluation System. Be sure to check out more from this series as we detail all thirty-two roles, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

More in this series…
-> Explaining the Shot Stopper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Sweeper Keeper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Wide Warrior – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Inverted Fullback – Player Role Analysis

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