Explaining the Inverted Winger – Player Role Analysis

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We are now in the home-stretch of our thousand-piece puzzle to break down the various roles that players adopt in a football team. The goal of this series has always been to identify how clubs achieve balance within their ranks, by creating a team of players who fulfill varying roles. We therefore break down the twenty-six player roles that footballers adopt as part of our Role Continuity Evaluation System, identifying the unique job descriptions, metrics for evaluation and the best of the art in 2022.

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Today’s article is all about the ‘Inverted Winger’ – those responsible for drifting into the half-spaces to create chances and play incisive passes into the penalty area. Here is everything you need to know.

JOB DESCRIPTION

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When I say ‘Inverted Winger’, I’m sure you immediately conjure up an image of a winger who loves to roam in the half-spaces, or at the very least, likes to cut inside onto their stronger foot. These are the two most common agreements about the ways in which we perceive the traits of a typical ‘Inverted Winger’. However, in our system, we see ‘Inverted Wingers’ less as ones that go from out to in when they have the ball, and more as ones that start from an inverted position, holding crucial chance creating responsibilities from those inner channels.

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These players often end up being some of the most creative and influential members of their teams as a result of their positioning and outlook, causing havoc at every turn with their incisiveness in the final third. In the ideal world, ‘Inverted Wingers’ tend to be more of the ‘chance creating’ types than goal-scoring extraordinaries. But if their positioning and role sees them take on a deeper role, and then that manifests in scoring more than they assist, that would be fine too. Creativity is essential to the position, but they are not just pure chance creators incapable of doing anything else. Sound like another role you know? That’s right. ‘Inverted Wingers’ are the close cousin of ‘Creative Ten’s’, albeit starting from a wider position and drifting in-field as they move along.

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They differ from their close cousin in two key ways. First, they operate in wider roles from start to finish, and typically receive significantly more passes out wide and in the half-spaces than in central avenues. The Creative Ten may drop deeper in build-up phases to pick up possession and play progressive passes forward. But the job of the ‘Inverted Winger’ is more about getting on the ball in the final third, and working magic from there.

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Secondly, they start in a wide role (or as the name suggests – as a ‘winger’), even if they like to drift in-field and pick up possession in unique areas of space. Of our three wing types, they are typically less prioritized for their goal contribution, and more for their chance creation. While they may even be excellent on the ball, and capable of dancing around players for fun, their role is less about beating players on the dribble and more about beating players with their vision and incisiveness in the final third. Some could even play the ‘number 10’ position and many have in the past, but their current role sees them pick up possession in wider channels than a true ’10’.

So while you may be more likely to find ‘Inverted Wingers’ in a formation that naturally inclines them to drift in-field (e.g. 4-2-2-2, 3-4-2-1, 4-3-2-1), they can be found in any system of play. They may even bounce off of a fellow wing pal who prioritizes runs forward (such as Kulusveski’s partnership with Son), or one who stays wide and likes to beat their man for speed and skill (such as Vincius Junior being paired with Fede Valverde). They exist to compliment and probe around other players who can bang in the goals, even if they might be one of their team’s top scorers themselves (like Nkunku and Diaby).

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So with that job description in mind, let’s dissect those that would be deemed ‘quintessential’ within the role in greater detail.

QUINTESSENTIAL INVERTED WINGERS

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When separating wingers into categories, we are essentially finding their fit between three questions:

  • Do they prioritize speed and skill to beat an opponent 1v1? (i.e. Dembele, Traoré)
  • Do they race in behind to finish off moves and score goals? (i.e. Son, Mané)
  • Do they prioritize chance creation, receiving from a deeper position and playing passes into the penalty area? (i.e. Neymar, Foden).
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Our ‘Inverted Wingers’ would best be described as the last type of player. Obviously (as Jon Mackenzie would say), you get players who meet somewhere in the middle of the venn diagram. Mohamed Salah for example is an exceptionally skillful player, who creates chances for fun and often scores goals without being all that involved in the first part of the move. But Salah’s greatest skill, the thing that typifies his persona, is however his fanciful footwork, and his ability to beat his opponent 1v1. Yes, he inverts into half-spaces as Henderson or Alexander-Arnold overlap, but he also loves to stretch the field out wide and take players on for pace.

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On the other end of the spectrum, you have a player like Neymar. Again, the Brazilian fantastically accomplishes all three categories. He’s an alien from outer space, that never quite lived up to his full Lionel Messi UFO potential. But while Neymar is an exceptional dancer and scorer of great goals, he prioritizes chance creation and picking up the ball in the half-spaces to play the role of the provider.

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He operates like a ‘number 10’ in many ways, without crossing that line of being a true ‘Creative Ten’ in either his positioning or role. This isn’t to say that he’s not an incredibly dynamic dribbler. Just that he’s more of a ‘number 10′ than the Adama Traore type of winger that would never fulfill the ’10’ position.

If you’ve read that Creative Ten article and seen Neymar’s heatmap, you will know why we quantify him as a quintessential ‘Inverted Winger’. For argument’s sake, let’s go over it again.

Neymar’s heatmap clearly showcases a tendency to drift inside and create from central avenues. But he still spikes more in the half-spaces to wide areas. Lionel Messi on the other hand, in that true ‘Creative Ten’ role, sees more of a centrally-dominant heatmap. This difference comes about even despite playing in the same “position” on paper, in Galtier’s 3-4-2-1. Here we can see that clear difference, and in Neymar’s heatmap – the exact spaces that ‘Inverted Wingers’ typically adopt.

Here’s another example from RB Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku. While the Frenchman is a fabulous player that can play either on the right or left, we would still expect his heatmap to spike higher in the half-spaces.

He nicely covers several sections of the pitch, even dropping in to pick up possession from time to time. But look at where he spikes the highest. Again, he’s operating in those half-spaces ahead of the penalty area, where he’s then looking to play incisive passes and display his creativity in the final third. Before I continue, I’m going to challenge you to name the next one. Who do you think qualifies under the same job description that we are yet to mention?

In the Canadian Premier League, there are quite a few teams that play with ‘Inverted Wingers’. Marco Bustos frequently inverts from his position on the right wing, allowing Olakunkle Dada-Luke to overlap down his side. Atletico Ottawa achieved a similar balance at the start of the season down their left-hand-side via Zach Verhoven, with Maxim Tissot racing forward on the overlap.

Tristan Borges also typically plays in the half-spaces for Forge FC, as somewhere halfway between wing and attacking midfield. His Forge teammate David Choinière may even be the best example of all, as someone who constantly prioritizes chance creation and positional rotation into the half-spaces depending on the movement of the players around him.

Stretching the width and taking players on 1v1 remains a priority in each case above, but they also frequently cut inside to play incisive passes inside, or allow attacking fluidity to take place in the final third. As integral players to playmaking and setting the team up for success, you will also find quite a few red marks on places where wide free kicks and corners occur. Many of the top quality ‘Inverted Wingers’ not only produce high quality chances through their precision and skill, but are trusted to do so from a dead-ball too.

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Out of a desire to inject variety into their play, they typically can also be quite two-footed. The likes of Phil Foden, Dejan Kulusevski and Moussa Diaby exemplify this sentiment, frequently showcasing the ability to either play down the line or shift inside on their left foot. The variability in their attacking play gives them the capacity to play to equal effect on either side of the pitch, even if they typically perform better when cutting inside onto their strong side. But again, an ‘Inverted Winger’ is not only someone who loves to cut inside, but someone who frequently adopts an already ‘inside’ position. Angel di Maria serves as a wonderful example of this, often picking up possession in the half-spaces as his wing-back gallops up the pitch.

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Lorenzo Insigne is another wonderful example, as most famously seen during Euro 2020, when Italy used him in the half-spaces to allow Leonardo Spinazzola on the overlap. They used more of an out-and-out direct threat down the right wing in gallivanting up and down the wide channel, but Insigne prioritized picking up possession in deeper, almost central channels of space.

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As classic ‘number 10’s’ die out, many ‘Inverted Wingers’ also come from backgrounds as being a central component in that ’10’ position. Emile Smith Rowe, Daichi Kamada, Paulo Dybala and Hakim Ziyech have all adapted their roles over time to suit the changing nature of the game, now playing in wider roles than first thought when they started their careers. But they’ve never lost their creative edge and playmaking influence from deeper positions, making them quintessential ‘Inverted Wingers’.

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Yet once more, it’s worth reiterating that ‘Inverted Wingers’ are not just chance creators. In fact, one of the potential reasons why Smith Rowe ended up being moved out wide might have come down to his intelligence in picking up positions in the penalty area to score goals, rather than assist them.

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Raphinha serves as another example of a highly creative player with loads of flair and intensity, who uses his inverted positioning and forward-thinking mindset to strike from distance and score crucial goals. You will frequently see these players not only finishing off moves, but starting them off, and leading the charge in transition. This is an essential difference between the ‘Inverted Winger’ and the ‘Direct Goal-Scorer’ type, as a player who simply holds greater influence in possession of the ball throughout the phases.

So with that, we now discuss how to assess the amazingness of one ‘Inverted Winger’ over another.

MEASURING INVERTED WINGERS

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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, accompanied by a secondary role. We utilize statistics to help measure performance, but go far beyond that to incorporate the eye test in analyzing player IQ, awareness and tactical understanding. We can then congregate data to more adequately assess their player positioning and movement around the pitch, the areas in which they contribute to attacking moves, and the success at which they create moments of magic for their team. So with that, here is how we measure our ‘Inverted Wingers’.

1. ATTACKING THREAT & IQ

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More than anything else, ‘Inverted Wingers’ must be capable of creating space, and creating chances. That can come in the form of scoring or assisting goals, spearheading attacking transitions, crossing the ball into the penalty area, or even in creating chances from set-pieces. Regardless, how they balance those facets of creation in the attacking half to final third is of the upmost importance. This includes…

  • Decision making and ability to link play in the attacking half
  • Expected threat (possession-value added)
  • Successful inversions into the half-spaces (passes received + dribbles inside)
  • Spatial awareness in the attacking third + progressive passes received
  • Decision making on dribbles, carries and forward thrusts (including dribble %)
  • Creation from open play, set-pieces and crosses
  • Shot on target %
  • xG + xA

2. ATTACKING CONTRIBUTION

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After establishing threat and IQ as a baseline, we then measure actual attacking output. This includes sheer statistical values that allow us to gain a better sense of how successful players were in carrying out their attacking endeavours. This may include their total number of…

  • Key passes, through passes + passes into the penalty area
  • Goal and shot-creating-actions
  • Shots + shots on target
  • Dribbles + carries
  • Touches in the attacking third
  • Passes and carries into the final third
  • Fouls won + fouls won to fouls conceded percentage
  • Goal contributions (i.e. goals + assists)

3. POSSESSION & DISTRIBUTION

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While we want our ‘Inverted Wingers’ to spike highest in the attacking third, they must remain capable of coming deep and contributing to all phases of possession. After all, their ability to drop deep and pick up possession allows others to race in behind and contribute closer to goal. As part of our ‘Possession & Distribution’ score, we measure…

  • Control (touches, miscontrols, dispossessed, passes received %)
  • Passing % + long passing %
  • Decision making in supporting the build-up and progression
  • Progressiveness (i.e. prog. passes and prog. carries)

4. DEFENSIVE IQ

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Even if remaining high in defensive phases, ‘Inverted Wingers’ must still be sound defensively, and capable of producing moments of pressing, ball-winning, and angling out wide. Their role will always be more about contributing to the attack, but they may even be the one player in the attacking line that holds more responsibility in defensive phases, such as Dejan Kulusevski for Spurs. This includes…

  • Tackle % and decision making when tackling
  • Pressure % and decision making when pressuring
  • Dominance in midfield battles + combined % of duels won across thirds
  • Positional awareness and positional discipline
  • Awareness of own strengths vs. strengths of teammates
  • Discipline (e.g. fouls, bookings, and positional discipline)
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Unlike the vast majority of roles, we don’t measure ‘Defensive Contribution’ as a separate category. We care more about the success of a wingers defensive deeds, rather than the sheer numbers they accumulate. This can be particularly clear in assessing for values like ‘aerial duels won’, ‘blocks’, or ‘clearances’, to which their output should be practically non-existent.

5. ABNORMALITIES

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

  • Defensive contributions leading to a goal (GCA-Def.)
  • Penalty kicks won, or given away
  • Errors leading to shots or goals
  • Own goals
  • Red cards
  • Wearing a cowboy hat post-match (only kidding)

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 five key evaluation metrics, let’s jump into what you’ve been waiting for – the very best ‘Inverted Wingers’ in the world of men’s football as of 2022.

TOP 20 INVERTED WINGERS

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When assessing ‘Inverted Wingers’, we’re searching for attacking midfielders who play in the half-spaces and hold an imperative role in linking attacks together. In the table below, we’ve chosen to include three essential statistical categories from the 2021-22 season that bring to light some of the best at the art.

Rank #Player TeamG+A SCAPP Rec.
1NeymarParis Saint Germain13+65.989.90
2Phil FodenManchester City9+53.517.80
3Christopher NkunkuRB Leipzig 20+134.4311.4
4Jack GrealishManchester City3+35.179.11
5Bukayo SakaArsenal11+74.297.04
6Dejan KulusevskiTottenham Hotspur*6+113.107.43
7Moussa DiabyBayer Leverkusen13+123.367.26
8RaphinhaLeeds United*11+33.675.90
9Angel di MariaParis Saint Germain5+75.208.36
10Dušan TadićAjax*13+195.2510.0
11Paulo DybalaJuventus*10+54.157.64
12Jonas HofmannMonchengladbach10+64.654.87
13Lorenzo InsigneNapoli*11+84.446.50
14Vincenzo GrifoSC Freiburg9+74.223.70
15Dominik SzoboszlaiRB Leipzig6+84.327.54
16Daichi KamadaEintracht Frankfurt4+32.826.85
17Hakim ZiyechChelsea4+34.378.10
18Emile Smith RoweArsenal10+23.054.60
19Emil ForsbergRB Leipzig6+22.857.84
20Lucas MouraTottenham Hotspur 2+63.195.13

As you can see from many of the table toppers, being a high-quality ‘Inverted Winger’ does not always manifest in scoring or assisting the most amount of goals. A player’s influence on the pitch in multiple different phases of the game will always hold priority, particularly in their quest to fulfill their specific role in the team.

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While all of these players can be classified as ‘Inverted Wingers’ within our system, they are not all perfect fits across the board. So with that, let’s now cross-examine the very best at the art, that also qualify as the most quintessential ‘Inverted Wingers’.

PERFECT PROTOTYPES

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Among the twenty names listed above, these are the ten most prototypical ‘Inverted Wingers’. To rank high on this list, a player should prioritize the attacking side of the game through a strong sense of creation on and off-the-ball in the half-spaces, whilst playing a wide position. They should also test lower on behaviours associated with other player types, such as playing in the ‘number 10’ position, scoring goals through direct speed in behind, or dynamically dribbling their way out of trouble at every turn. Let’s dive in.

Rank #Player TeamKey P.Thr. BCrs. PA
1Lucas MouraTottenham Hotspur1.680.360.30
2Angel di MariaParis Saint Germain3.010.440.55
3Dejan KulusevskiTottenham Hotspur*1.590.040.44
4Dominik SzoboszlaiRB Leipzig2.460.180.70
5Phil FodenManchester City1.690.250.42
6Jack GrealishManchester City2.540.140.14
7Vincenzo GrifoSC Freiburg2.050.160.36
8Moussa DiabyBayer Leverkusen1.990.330.59
9NeymarParis Saint Germain2.960.580.15
10Hakim ZiyechChelsea2.040.200.68

We’ve chosen to include crosses into the penalty area, through-passes and key passes as indications of creativity and the types of actions ‘Inverted Wingers’ accomplish in the final third. However, their role extends far beyond just creativity. In fact, while they will generally accumulate more crosses than ‘Creative Ten’s’, we still would not be expecting ‘Inverted Wingers’ to be hitting an obscene number of crosses on a match by match basis. We do however expect higher creative numbers (such as xA, key passes and TB), matching closely to the likes of Angel di Maria and Dominik Szoboszlai.

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Due to the nature of his understanding on when to drop into the half-spaces to receive the ball and his overarching role inside, we’ve gone for Lucas Moura as one of our quintessential ‘Inverted Wingers’. You might not see too much of him this season due to Dejan Kulusevski’s brilliance – a man who also wonderfully exemplifies the role. Antonio Conte loves playing with ‘Inverted Wingers’, utilizing his high-flying wing-backs to gallop down the wide areas instead. So when studying the traits of an ‘Inverted Winger’, these are the players most worth scrutinizing over.

CONCLUSION

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Unlike their name implies, ‘Inverted Wingers’ are far more than just wingers that cut or drift inside. That is only one small part of an overarching puzzle that prioritizes playmaking in the final third, and dynamically linking play between the other members of the front-line. The best of the art will often post high numbers in goals and assists; but ‘Inverted Wingers’ need to be so much more than just creative goal-scorers – generally tasked with creating space, rotating with teammates, and moving off the ball to exploit the half-spaces at the right moments. The likes of Neymar, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish are some of today’s modern greats in the role, each acting almost like a ‘number 10′ in that wide role, without fully crossing the line. While all can clearly play that ’10’ position, they’re deployed on the wing for a reason.


So there it is! Explaining the ‘Inverted Winger’ within our Role Continuity Evaluation System. Be sure to check out more from this series as we detail all twenty-six 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
-> Explaining the Wing-Back – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Ball-Playing-Centre-Half – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Stopper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Sweeper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Midfield Destroyer – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Anchor – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Deep-Lying Playmaker – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Shuttler – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Box to Box Midfielder – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Tempo Setter – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Midfield Maestro – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Creative Ten – Player Role Analysis

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Explaining the Midfield Maestro – Player Role Analysis

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Explaining the Tempo Setter – Player Role Analysis

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Explaining the Box to Box Midfielder – Player Role Analysis

As goal-contributors, defensive warriors and midfield engines all wrapped up in one modem, ‘Box to Box Midfielders’ end up being some of the most imperative members of their squads. Unlike other midfield player types, they consistently catch the eye for their attacking performances, even when deployed in a deeper, defensive, ‘number 8’ role. The likes of Conor Gallagher, Sergej Milinković-Savić and Georgia Stanway perfectly encapsulate the role, helping us to qualify and quantify more of these ‘Box-to-Box’ engines in the future.

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