In a way, football is a sport of the mind as much as it is of the body. Football thrives on creating and exploiting space for yourself and for others. A successful tactic finds ways to generate space where there was thought to be none. This objective can be achieved by patiently passing the ball around, by hoofing the ball forward to a big guy, by stretching the opposition until holes appear, by immediately counter-attacking once the ball is won or in a dozen other and distinctive ways. The fact remains that every tactic exploits space somehow.
The match engine of Football Manager is no different than an actual football match in terms of tactics, the key to creating a successful tactic is finding a way to generate and exploit space for your team, whilst simultaneously restricting the space the opposition gets. Every version of the match engine has its weaknesses, a specific tactic or approach that is overpowered, a bit too effective. In FM16 you could score for fun just by launching a barrage of crosses into the penalty area, CM03/04 had its Diablo tactic with the insanely effective central midfielder scoring for fun and in the 17.2 match engine you have another example of this tactical kryptonite; the inverted wingback.
Since the introduction of Pep Guardiola to the Premier League, the concept of an inverted wingback is becoming less and less alien to the larger masses. On a basic level, the inverted wingback is a right-footed defender playing on the left side, or vice versa. These talented all-rounders are important both offensively and defensively. They are tasked with surging forward and bolstering the offensive movements of the team as well as protecting the flank of the defensive line. This implies a broad technical skill-set, a strong physique and the mental ability to make the right decision based on the situation a player is in.
So far, there is not much difference between the inverted wingback and some of the standard bearers from the modern era of the wingback, men like Roberto Carlos and Cafú. Much like these men, the inverted wingback is relied upon for his attacking threat as much as their defensive capabilities. The difference between a traditional wingback and an inverted one lies within their positional play on the pitch. Whilst a normal wingback will generally offer width to an attack, the inverted wingback will make runs through the centre of the pitch, creating space for numerous players around him.
To illustrate my point somewhat, have a peek at this match clip.
I love how the IWB is bombing forward, during the attacking phase it almost feels like you have an additional inside forward in your team. Instead of staying wide, this wingback cuts inside into the half-spaces and even central areas of the pitch to get involved with the flow of play.
The offensive possibilities
When we look at the offensive opportunities an inverted wingback offer, we can clearly see that they bring a variety of additional options in the final third to the table.
One such option is the possibility of changes in momentum. When my team work the ball out to one of the flanks the expected end product would be either a return pass infield or a cross-pass, but the presence of an inverted wingback provides a more incisive edge. Naturally inclined to drive inward with the ball, he can disjoint the opposition’s defensive shape as, once the ball has reached him, he can dribble diagonally infield onto his favoured foot.
In many marking schemes, the opposing team will change their position relative to the ball to some degree. In layman’s terms, the defenders will shuffle towards a threat to try to maintain the integrity and cohesion of the defensive unit. Thus, against my team when I’m fielding IWB’s, the opposing defenders will follow the ball horizontally as it moves out to a flank but these defenders will have to immediately alter their movements as the IWB looks to drive inward and link up with team-mates, attacking space between the lines aggressively. Such movements are a source of chaos as opposition defences have to instantaneously reset their collective shape to deal with the quick changes in direction.
In this instance, the IWB #11 Jonsson drives inside with the ball at his feet. The opposing defender, #4, moves inside to shield the run and engage our IWB. This, in turn, opens up space on the flank, as the opposing central defender #35 is not in an adequate position to deal with a run into the channels by our forward #7.
As well as potentially unhinging the opposition’s defensive organisation, due to his nature and preferred foot, the IWB has greater angles to work with once he has driven infield. Allow me to elaborate and use an example. When a left-footed player moves inward from the left flank in this manner, it would be extremely difficult for him to work the ball back in the direction from which he came due to his being left footed. As a result of this movement-pattern, a more traditional wingback would have fewer angles available to him to penetrate the opposition defensive line with a pass.
We’ll take the situation above as an example. If #11 Jonsson were a left-footed player, his passing options would be extremely limited. A left-footed pass into the gap between defenders #13 and #2 seems improbable, leaving just a pass down the flank for the runner to latch onto or a cut-back pass.
The IWB, however, is far less restricted in his passing options. As he drives inside towards his more favoured foot, he is able to not only pass diagonally forward to the left and vertically forward but diagonally forward to the right. This is a potentially defence-unlocking pass as he can draw the opposition towards him and the ball by driving diagonally inward to the left before passing to the right, once again potentially unhinging the opposition’s defensive line. With such movements, the IWB essentially performs many of the attacking tasks of an inside forward, though it is also important for him to hold his wide position at times, in order to stretch the opposing defensive line.
In the situation above, a left-footed player would generally try to move the ball into the gap between #4 and #35 for our forward #7 to run onto. A right-footed player is more versatile in passing options in such a situation. #10, a direct pass to #7 and a pass into space for #41 are all very real passing-options.
While there are many positive attacking aspects to the inverted wingback role, his duties extend beyond helping to build good possession and creating in the final third; he also has to perform defensive duties. With all this marauding on the flanks and driving inside one might forget that the IWB’s track back the entire length of the pitch as well, as their defensive chart shows in terms of tackles, interceptions and aerial challenges.
The IWB’s to cut inside doesn’t stop when an attack breaks down and this tendency helps the team in the defensive phase. By playing a bit more narrow than a regular wingback, the IWB’s assist their midfielders by cutting off the half-space opportunities for opposition players. If an opponent takes up a position between a central midfielder and the IWB, the latter closes down from the outside while the former moves toward the opponent from the inside. This forms a kind of pincer movement that congesting the space available to the opposition player. When the IWB is facing a regular winger or inside forward, he acts as a traditional wingback, marking his opponent and moving outside to take on his marker when needed.