In the modern era, wingers can be as vital to scoring goals and creating chances as any other position on the pitch. Elite superstars like Mohamed Salah and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia have illustrated this to a tee this year, for both their goal scoring prowess and chance creation supremacy. But most young players aspiring to be the world’s best struggle to see the finer details of exactly how the likes of Salah and Kvara find themselves in those scoring positions. With that, we break down how to move off the ball like a world class winger, with real examples from the likes mentioned above, in addition to Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Alex Morgan.
1. BLINDSIDE RUNS
Regardless of the area of the pitch, elite level wingers will break free from their markers by making “blindside runs”. These are runs made beyond the line of vision of the nearest defender. See above how the Leicester defender (in blue – Timothy Castagne) is caught staring at the ball, with his body turned away from Marcus Rashford as the pass is made. The Leicester man has no idea that Rashford’s even there, because of the Englishman’s positioning on the “blindside”.
This then requires constant adjustment of the feet, and ensuring to remain on-side as the defensive line steps up.
Here’s another example from Rashford in more of a ‘9’ position, where he positions himself in between two defenders, but on the blindside of the nearest one. The Leicester defender becomes attracted to Rashford’s teammate closer to the ball, thus vacating space for Rashford to hold his run and scan over his shoulder, see that he’s still onside, and then dart into space.
2. GHOSTING IN
Timing of the run is also imperative to the process. While young players may often sprint as fast as they can to get beyond their marker and into the box, this is not always the most effective approach when the ball is on the opposite side of the field.
There will always be moments where arriving early and maintaining a sound position will result in goals. On counter attacks, speed to get into the box and adopt a smart position away from defenders will also be imperative. But many players miss opportunities by arriving into the penalty area too soon.
Instead of arriving too early, wingers must cautiously arrive into the penalty area at the right moments. Raheem Sterling made a habit of this during his time at Manchester City, where he’d ghost into the box at the vital moment to finish off a chance. Just see how far away from the situation that Sterling remains in the above image, as the ball is played into the opposite side of the field for his teammate – Bernardo Silva.
Sterling almost appears disengaged and uninvolved, thus allowing his teammates to attract the attention. But the former City man remains the main target for the pass. Just see the clip from pressing play on the video below.
The defenders consume all of their attention toward the players already in the most optimal positions to score, completely forgetting about the eventual goal-scorer ghosting in later on. Bernardo Silva on the other hand perfectly perceives the moment, and plays the pass over to his opposite winger.
Take another example from Khvicha Kvaratskhelia. Here he is (below) lurking at the top of the box, as the ball again makes it way toward the goal-line. As all the other players closer to the keeper attract the attention, the Napoli man is able to receive the ball at the top of the box, completely unmarked.
He then hammers home the finish, before anyone even notices he’s there.
“Ghosting” in the footballing sense requires wingers to remain patient, almost unassuming as they slowly jog toward the penalty area, before quickly accelerating beyond the nearest defender. Due to the sharp change of speed, the nearest defender can’t react before they realize what’s happened. But Kvaratskehlia’s example showcases a time where it can even be about holding a position away from the situation, and then waiting for the moment to pounce.
Now this isn’t to say that “ghosting in” will always be the best approach. Players like Beth Mead and Heung-Min Son have scored many goals over the years by flying in, arriving fast and furious, and getting in front of the nearest defender before they have time to blink. But when the opposition are well set up to defend, it can often be the player that arrives late to the situation that ends up scoring the goal.
3. SHIMMY & SHAKE
There’s no better term for this smart maneuver than the ‘shimmy and shake’. Take this wonderful example from Sterling in his early days with the Citizens. He comes toward the ball pretending as though he’d like to receive, and then quickly darts the other way, leaving the defender caught flat-footed. If coordinated with another player (say a central midfielder), and discussed beforehand, these two players can constantly be on the same wavelength knowing that the winger might make this maneuver.
But look at Sterling’s body positioning and centre of gravity when he changes footing and direction. He’s almost falling over! That’s how quickly he springs from one foot to the next before leaping into the penalty area and finishing off the chance.
On the same note, movement does not always have to be forward. Here’s a moment where Sterling has perhaps arrived too soon. So instead of waiting at the back-post, he realizes that the ball is about to go out of play, and that the only likely passing option for his teammate will be a cut-back – ensuring that the ball shifts away from the keeper.
Immediately, he cuts his own positioning back, and shuffles into new space further away from goal. This gives him acres of space to finish off the chance.
To hammer home the point, movement does not always have to be forward. Sometimes it can be backwards, and then forwards, and sometimes it can be sideways or backwards altogether. It’s all about reading the moment and creating optimal space for the situation.
4. OUT TO IN
As a winger, you will often be starting from a wider position. Looking for the right moments where you can exploit the gaps and take advantage of spaces in between defenders will be imperative to breaking free into open spaces closer to goal. This is where ‘out-to-in’ movements can be so effective, where you curve a run from the outer edges of the field toward the ‘inside’ closer to the net.
With her predatory instincts in front of goal, this is where Alex Morgan often excels. She will often hang high in defensive phases to be used as an outlet instantly on the break, where she’s already curving her run toward the centre and looking for the gaps in between defenders to use her unbeatable speed.
Wingers must recognize that while their coach may love them to maintain width, their role should never be restricted to staying strictly in the wide areas (even if the coach imposes). Whenever the ball is on the opposite side, the winger can often gamble by starting to make a run toward the middle, perhaps even allowing a full-back to overlap their side.
This is again where Morgan makes a name for herself in the final third. She’s always thinking about how she can get closer to goal, and that will often mean she’s starting her runs from the half-spaces, or a more centrally-focused channel.
In counter-attacking situations, moving closer toward the centre may go against the natural instinct to get away from defenders. But verticality is essential to counter attacking moves. Here’s an example where Rashford starts in the wide area and actually moves closer to the nearest defender as he shifts inside, before receiving the pass.
In coming closer to the defender, he ensures that he can remain on-side, while also arching his run in a way that allows him a higher chance of scoring the goal. Had he instead moved closer to the wide area to receive, he’d allow the defender a greater likelihood of recovering their position, as he then has more ground to make up in the quest to achieve a better scoring position (i.e. shifting the ball closer to goal / the centre). It might look simple, but it’s absolutely clinical from Rashford, and a key component to why he’s scored so many goals in 2022-23.
It’s also important to note that the majority of players we’ve referenced in this article would be classified under our ‘Direct Goal-Scorer‘ persona. Outsmarting their opponents by moving into space at the right moments to score goals is the quintessential component to their role in the side. This does not have to be your role. You can be a creative player who shifts inside in the half-spaces. You can be a dynamic dribbler who takes players on 1v1 and beats them with speed and skill. You can even have a more defensive edge to your game.
But regardless of your role, following these general rules of thumb when it comes to effective and efficient movement off the ball will help take your game to the next level.
So there it is! How to move off the ball like a world class winger! Be sure to check out more of our Player Education resources, and follow on social media @mastermindsite and @desmondrhys. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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