Creating and exploiting space is the key to any successful football tactic. Be it via keeping the ball and stretching the opposition until holes appear, or immediately counter-attacking into the open space, every single successful tactic exploits space in different ways. Over the past few months, I’ve been focusing on something I’d previously never even thought about – the Inverse Wing Back.
The full-back is an often neglected position in football, particularly in a four-man defense. Because of this, I’ve always been interested in tactics that bring the full-backs into play more effectively. So when this thread popped up, I accepted the challenge.
What is the Inverse Wing Back?
On a basic level, the inverse Wing Back refers to a player who plays at left-back, and is predominantly right footed, or vice versa. They need to be talented all-rounders, with the physical ability to make strenuous runs forward and also ensure they are not caught out of position, and the mental ability to know when to make those runs.
Whilst a normal Wing Back will generally offer width to an attack, the Inverse Wing Back will make runs through the centre of the pitch, creating space for numerous players around him.
Football Manager suggests the role of the Wing Back is as follows:
“Usually playing out wide with no wing support, the Wing Back must fulfill the attacking and defensive duties of wingers and full-backs.
In attack he must be prepared to run at his man and put in aggressive crosses, in midfield to help win the possession battle and in defense to close down opponents, block crosses and win the ball back when possible.”
The noticeable difference between the description of the Wing Back and Inverse Wing Back refers to the width of the two players. Whilst the Wing Back will generally be played as the only wide option, an Inverse Wing Back is better partnered with an out-and-out winger who is able to hug the touchline and offer a suitable passing option.
Examples of an Inverse Wing Back in football is rare. However, possibly the most famous exponent is Marcelo Bielsa who has used an Inverse Wing Back in almost every side he’s managed in recent years. Whilst Bielsa has usually opted for a three-man defense with two Wing Backs (the left-sided player is usually the Inverse Wing Back), I’ve attempted to create the Inverse Wing Back effect in a four-man defense.
The Inverse Wing Back in Football Manager
In order to get the role to work, you need a player up to the job. It’s a demanding role technically, mentally and physically. You also need a player with the right PPMs if they’re to be truly successful. Because they need such a strong combination of such a large number of skills, it’s highly likely they’d be one of the best players in your side.
Above is my attempt at creating the perfect Inverse Wing Back. I was at the stage with my Wolves side where I knew we had a solid squad, but we needed something different to break into the top four after two consecutive fifth place finishes. Dalmolin had been in the side, but was certainly not capable of playing at Premier League level – however, I stuck by him, knowing he had the potential to become the perfect Inverse Wing Back. I decided to teach him the “Get’s Forward Whenever Possible” PPM as well as changing his role to Wing Back – Attack. Immediately, I saw results. Dalmolin netted in the first game of the new season with a tremendous run inside – exactly what I was looking for (see video here).
Having played with Dalmolin in the Inverse Wing Back role for two seasons now, my Wolves side has won two consecutive Premier League titles as well as winning the Champions League in the latter season. During that time, I’ve learnt far more about the Inverse Wing Back role and the phases of attack that it results in, as well as the basic setup.
The Inverse Wing Back in Action
Example One: The Wandering Wingback
Here is the match highlights from a Champions League game against then-German Champions, Borussia Dortmund. It highlights a superb hattrick from Nicolas Dalmolin as he wanders forward from his left-back role. Gareth Bale’s performance against Inter Milan springs to mind – however, Dalmolin inverted it.
Example Two: Arriving Late
This second example of the Inverse Wing Back exploiting space is when he arrives late into the box.
The first screenshot (above) illustrates Neto (playing as a central striker) crossing the ball. In the box are the three attacking midfielders of the side, however the Deep Lying Playmaker (Adryan) sits deep alongside the Anchor Man. This large gap between the attacking midfielders and the defensive midfielders draws all the Chelsea defenders away from the gap, leaving Dalmolin to run into it…
As all the Chelsea defenders (and defensive midfielder) are drawn into the box, Dalmolin exploits the space, and receives a simple pass back from Iker Muniain. With a few steps he unleashes a fierce shot…
And the rest is history.
Example Three: Aiding the Possession Duel
I mentioned earlier that the Inverse Wing Back can drift into the centre of midfield, and aid the team in winning the possession battle. Here is that theory in action, in a number of different ways.
This example shows Dalmolin forming the offensive point of a midfield triumvirate with Yann M’Vila and Adryan. As I’m sure you’re all very aware, one way of winning the possession battle is to put an extra man into the middle of midfield in order to allow more short-range passes. Dalmolin pushing into the centre of midfield allows the Iker Muniain (CAM) to push forward and become another ‘runner’, creating another passing option for Neto.
However, it’s all well and good your full-back drifting into the centre of midfield, but if they leave a large gap defensively, then you’re open to the counter attack. The above screenshot shows the potential for covering from Yann M’Vila and Florian Schwartz, allowing Dalmolin time to recover.
The above screenshot is a little different in that it illustrates Dalmolin’s run, creating another option for the Deep Lying Playmaker, Adryan. Dalmolin makes his run between the opposition right-back and centre-back, in the gap shown. This would drag the right centre-back away from his duties in the centre of the pitch, and leave Neto with only one man to beat.
Adryan does find Dalmolin, however on this occasion, he shoots wide of the post. It’s a half chance created where one usually wouldn’t be, though.
Maintaining Defensive Stability
I’ve already talked a couple of times during this piece about how maintaining defensive stability is vital. If your left-back wanders out of his position, then he generally leaves a large gap which the opponent can exploit on the counter-attack. However, if you set your team up in the right way you can still use the Inverse Wing Back effectively.
Defensive Setup One: The Anchor Man
This setup is fairly self explanatory. As Dalmolin advances forward, it is generally M’Vila’s job to ensure we’re not open to counter-attack. Sometimes he stays in the centre of midfield, however, he often drifts into left-back to cover for Dalmolin.
Here it is in action:
You may wonder what the point of this is – why not just start Dalmolin in a more central position and M’Vila at left-back? The reason is the creation of space. Even though I created the above screenshot to highlight the defensive setup, you can again see Dalmolin about to overload the opposition defense. If he goes between the central defenders and the right-back, he’ll either be the free man, or drag the opposition right-back away from the left-midfielder, Eden Hazard. Another scenario would be that another opposition midfielder drops back, effectively creating a six-man defense for the opposition. This would simply give our midfield far more time and the likes of Ramadan (our RB) even more space.
Defensive Setup Two: Drift Defense
Occasionally, when the ball is higher up the pitch and the team is pressing more, a three-man defense becomes a suitable method of defending. When the ball is on the left hand side of the pitch, Dalmolin presses forward and creates a 3-4-3. This three-man defense is then comprised of the two centre-backs and the right-back drifts across to become a third centre-back.
Considering this style of defense is used often in my games, I’ve always favoured right-backs who are defensively solid – and those that can play centre-back just as well. For example, Marc Bartra and Martin Kelly are two players that fit into the role excellently.
The Inverted Wing Back is an incredibly specialised role. There’s a very limited number of players able to play it effectively and I was incredibly lucky to find myself a ready-made Inverted Wing Back in Dalmolin – you’ll generally need to re-train them, which costs ‘CA points’.
However, if you get it working, it can be a fantastic addition to your side in numerous ways, as illustrated above. My version of the Inverted Wing Back generally contributes more to the side with marauding runs than arriving late or aiding possession, but depending on the player you use (his PPMs are vital) and the tactical setup you use, you can create a totally different type of Inverted Wing Back. For example, I’ve seen a number of people use Kwadwo Asamoah at LWB due to Juventus’ abundance of talented midfielders. Asamoah, whilst being left-footed, could still often move centrally and aid the midfield in the possession battle. Arturo Vidal would probably be an even better option, though (he’s even been used in this role for Bielsa’s Chile side, in recent years).
I’d love to see anyone else’s take on the Inverted Wing Back – remember, they don’t have to be a wrong-footed player to be Inverted. They just need to be partnered with a wide midfielder and generally cut inside rather than offering width as normal Wing Backs do.