In days gone by, a winger wasn’t a winger unless the soles of his boots were covered in white paint from spending so much time standing on the touchline; and that’s a tradition which might be making a return in 2019-20.
Think of legends such as Ryan Giggs, Andrei Kanchelskis, John Barnes in his early days at Watford, Marc Overmars, Steve Heighway, Peter Barnes, Stanley Mathews, Tom Finney, George Best, Steve Coppell, Chris Waddle, the young Cristiano Ronaldo.
Most of them quick, all able to beat a player and told to hug the line, make the pitch wide, and be direct. If a winger in the 1970s and 80s didn’t beat two players, get to the by-line and cut back a cross several times in a match, then he really wasn’t worth his salt.
Slowly that tradition has been eroded thanks to modern formations which require far more versatility from attacking players.
Wingers like Mo Salah could play anywhere across the front three, are encouraged to cut inside, must be able to defend, and need to adjust between 3-5-2, 4-3-3 and 4-5-1, depending on the team shape.
Many modern wingers, urged to evolve in the absence of their native 4-4-2 formation, have slowly been turned into central strikers; think of Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, and Gareth Bale, for instance.
But the good news for those of us who miss the thrill of the out-and-out wide man (and judging by the chants at Old Trafford over the last few years, there are plenty who fit into that category), it looks like things might be changing.
The transfer window suggests a shift in thinking as managers become increasingly convinced that direct straight-line pace and an ability to widen play could be the key to making modern formations work.
As a result, more than half of Premier League clubs have bought a winger in the current transfer window; and many of them carry the characteristics of those wide men of old.
Manchester City showed the way last season with the way they used Leroy Sané, perhaps the nearest thing in the Premier League to the kind of winger that fans of the 1970s would recognise. So quick, so direct, heavily left-footed and able to get to the by-line.
For those of us who enjoy that kind of thing, the German is possibly the most entertaining and exhilarating player in English football.
But now there are others. Take a look at the players arriving in the Premier League this season with white paint on their boots:
ARSENAL: NICOLAS PÉPÉ
Plays on the right even though he’s left-footed. He’s quick and makes a big contribution in the attacking third (22 goals and 11 assists in France last season tells the story). Seen as a striker of the future, but let’s enjoy him out wide while we can.
ASTON VILLA: JOTA
The Spaniard had an outstanding couple of seasons for Brentford in the Championship before falling flat at
Birmingham. But he’s a real talent. Plays on the right and beats people for fun.
BOURNEMOUTH: ARNAUT DANJUMA, HARRY WILSON
A double wing swoop for the Cherries. Wilson starred on loan at Derby last year (18 goals, six assists from the right wing). Dutchman Danjuma scored six goals and provided four assists in Belgium.
BRIGHTON: LEANDRO TROSSARD
Albion reckon Trossard, who plays on the left wing, is the real deal. An upgrade on Anthony Knockaert, sold to Fulham. He scored 14 goals for Genk last season, has great pace and gets in plenty of crosses.
LEICESTER CITY: AYOZE PÉREZ
Well known to the Premier League already after his time at Newcastle, Perez can play out wide or up front.
But with club talisman Jamie Vardy up top, you suspect that the Spaniard will be spending a lot of time wide at his new club.
MANCHESTER UNITED: DANIEL JAMES
Lightning pace, wonderfully direct and full of skill; just take a look at his goal for Swansea against Brentford in the FA Cup last season. A modern version of the old-school winger, he’s going to excite a lot of people.
NEWCASTLE UNITED: ALLAN SAINT-MAXIMIM
The former Nice winger can play on both flanks and should provide good width. Newcastle paperpublished his ‘heat map’ from last season and it was pleasing to see that the 22-year-old hugged so close to the left touchline. He has more dribbles than any other player in Europe over the last five years.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: LUKE FREEMAN
The former QPR man has a wonderful left foot, but has been used more centrally in recent seasons at Loftus Road. It will be interesting to see how he fares in a wide role. Could be a shrewd buy for the Blades.
SOUTHAMPTON: MOUSSA DJENEPO
The Mali international has everything needed to be a fans’ favourite at St Mary’s. A young left winger, he has a reputation for beating players and is rapid. He won 70 free kicks last season, so he’s clearly not easy to catch!
TOTTENHAM: JACK CLARKE:
The former Leeds man can play on either wing, which will be useful for Mauricio Pochettino, and he can beat his man in either direction, too. His right foot is probably his stronger, but it was his dribbling skills which caught the eye in the Championship last season. He attempted 48 dribbles, succeeding with 27.
BOURNEMOUTH: RYAN FRASER:
Had a huge season with the Cherries and was heavily linked with Arsenal. Plays on the left and very direct.
CHELSEA: CALLUM HUDSON-ODOI
Now that the ‘will he stay, will he go’ debate is over, the England winger could potentially be a star.
CRYSTAL PALACE: WILFRIED ZAHA
Everyone seems to want to buy the Ivory Coast winger and it’s easy to see why. So quick, so skilful, and capable of winning a game on his own.
Often used up front as well as on the wing, but the Brazilian is a huge talent in both positions.
LEICESTER: DEMARAI GRAY
This could be a big season for the young winger who looks ready to hit the big time.
LIVERPOOL: MO SALAH AND SADIO MANE
Salah is part winger, part striker, total hero. We all know what to expect from the Liverpool man. Mané. Is he a winger or a striker? Super-quick, insanely skilful, and increasingly consistent in front of goal.
MAN CITY: LEROY SANE AND RAHEEM STERLING
The news that Sane suffered an ACL injury in City’s Community Shield win over Liverpool is a huge blow to Pep Guardiola because this guy is the real deal. A proper out-and-out winger who is incredibly exciting.
Sterling has gone from out-and-out winger to having a bigger influence infield. Adding goals to his assists has made him a superstar. Could have a massive influence on the title again.
MANCHESTER UNITED: ANTHONY MARTIAL
A player with huge potential who can nevertheless frustrate. Plays on the left and has everything needed to be a superstar if he gets head right.
TOTTENHAM: HEUNG-MIN SON
The most improved player in the Premier League, he’s as good on the wing as he is up front. Blessed with non-stop energy, he has pace and can beat a player.
WEST HAM: FELIPE ANDERSON
More of a Waddle than a Sane but delightful to watch, with skill in abundance.