Back when I started watching football, which was somewhere in the early nineties, most teams used prolific wingers. Speedy dribblers with an excellent cross, who stuck to the sidelines most of the time to stretch the opposing defence. Nowadays, one will struggle to find such a player at the elite clubs in the world. In the modern game, it’s the wing-back or full-back’s job to maraud the flank and put the crosses in. The traditional winger has been replaced by the inside forward.
While these inside forwards initially emerged and evolved within 4-2-3-1 formations, they have different roles to play depending on the team they play for and the formation they are used in. In previous versions of the game, the only tactical option a manager had in his arsenal, was to employ an inside forward. Nowadays, we can use both the inside forward and the inverted winger. The main job of these inside forwards is to use their acceleration and technique to take on their man and drive towards the goal.
In previous iterations of Football Manager, we could use an Inside Forward role for this exact purpose. Real-life examples of such Inside Forwards as the Football Manager match engine envisioned them would be players such as Arjen Robben, Thierry Henry or more contemporary players such as Serge Gnabry, Mo Salah, Sadio Mané or David Neres.
The playing style of such players is direct. Once on the ball, they combine technique and dribbling with acceleration and good decision making to drive past his opponent and either take a crack at goal or look for a pass. This style of playing however did not entirely match the style of other real-life Inside Forwards such as Ryad Mahrez or Marco Asensio, who did drive inside but opted for a through-ball or cross instead of shooting.
In older versions of the game, you either made these players Inside Forwards, including the hard-coded behaviour that instructed them to cross less often, or you turned them into Advanced Playmakers, accepting that they would cross less and take fewer shots, but take more risks in their passing. FM20 offers you a new role in that regard, the Inverted Winger.
So which extra dimension will this role offer us, managers? Lines have become blurred, as have perceptions of what each role does or ought to do. To see what they are supposed to do, we can just look at their hard-coded instructions, the ones we cannot change. I will compare the Inside Forward, Advanced Playmaker and Inverted Winger roles, taking pieces from the excellent work of v_maedhros from earlier years.
The advanced playmaker, when fielded on the flanks, is primarily a midfielder placed in a wider position, who seeks to find spaces to create opportunities for himself and for the other players, especially searching the space between defensive lines. He comes in a narrow position but tends to backtrack defensively when the team is without the ball.
When we compare the advanced playmaker to the inside forward, we can immediately see that the latter provides more movement towards the box, more penetration into the penalty area and a different offensive skillset.
This makes sense when we examine their hard-coded behaviour. They are more offensive-minded. They want to drive at the heart of the opposing defence, cutting inside from a wide(r) position. Instead of looking to create chances for their team-mates with a through-ball, they are far more likely to try and score a goal themselves.
This does not mean they will blindly take a shot and ignore team-mates in good positions. On an attack setting, they are more likely to go for goal, while on support duty, the Inside Forward is further away from goal and thus more likely to look for a team-mate in space before linking up.
Which brings us to the Inverted Winger. The in-game description states that he “aims to frequently cut inside the attacking third to open up space for overlapping full-backs and to subsequently overload retreating defenders.”
Their hardcoded behaviour is different compared to the other roles mentioned above since they are not instructed to cross less often or take more risks. They offer a more conservative version of the Inside Forward or a combination between the Inside Forward and Advanced Playmaker, essentially a Mahrez-type of player.
The movement of an Inverted Winger is slightly more lateral compared to an Inside Forward. The Inverted Winger moves into the half-space, cutting inside from a wide position. Instead of taking a shot, he often plays a pass before positioning himself inside the penalty area. He is less direct in his drive towards goal, instead opting for a pass and a run inside the box.
When we examine the heat map and passes received for an Inverted Winger, we can see this movement. He will cut inside to receive a pass, he plays it on and he moves inside the box, sliding in between the central defender and full-back. I will also attach a few videos of goals and passes by the Inverted Winger.