Friday, 12 Jul 2024

The 9 Best Wingers Of All Time

Picture the scene: a tense, focused defender is stationed out wide, jockeying an attacker by the bright white touchline. But in a flash, the speedy, technical forward they’re up against conjures a moment of magic and skill, and their clever footwork takes them past the defender and into a dangerous position. As a supporter of the attacking team, it can be one of the most exciting moments in football. And there’s one pivotal player behind it — the winger.

In association football, or soccer, wingers tend to be some of the most entertaining players on the pitch, their unique skill sets allowing them to consistently produce special moments that get fans off their seats. The role of the winger has evolved and changed a lot over the years, but one thing that has remained the same is that the best players in this position are often celebrated and cheered more than any other player on the soccer field.

In this article, we’ll be diving into some of those culturally important sporting figures, providing you with a list of the 9 best wingers of all time and explaining why each of those stars have made it into our final list. But before we discuss the world’s best wingers in more detail, we’ll explain what this position involves, guiding you through all the key skills and responsibilities that are wrapped up in this role.

What Is A Winger In Soccer?

In football, different teams will attack in different ways. Some will tend to work the ball through the centre of the pitch or hit the striker with long, lofted balls from deep positions. Others will build using the wide areas, finding space in the channels and creating chances from there. Wingers play a crucial role in both strategies, but they’re particularly vital when it comes to the latter tactic.

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Wingers are essentially wide midfielders stationed on the right and left hand side of the pitch, typically with plenty of license to roam forward, but also with certain defensive responsibilities. Traditionally, formations such as 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 would rely heavily on fast, powerful wingers capable of getting into space and crossing the ball into a centre forward, and while this aspect of the winger’s game is still important, the role has evolved over the years.

Today, many coaches have adapted the traditional winger to play the role of a more inverted forward or wide midfielder; however, this position, with its focus on attacking prowess and dynamism, speed and acceleration, and technical ability, can still be seen widely across the beautiful game.

The Key Skills Of A Winger

A variety of different physical and technical attributes are needed to become an effective winger in football.

Speed

Wide midfielders tend to be some of the fastest players on the pitch, because on the flanks acceleration and pace can make all the difference. Making a killer run that gets you beyond a back four, or a quick sprint after a one-two to find space to receive the ball, is what most wingers will always be looking to do. Speed is essential when it comes to completing these kinds of tasks.

Ball Control

While it’s common to see wingers pick up the ball in extremely wide areas with plenty of space around them, they will also consistently receive the ball in tight spaces and be expected to control, dribble and distribute it when under pressure. In these positions, an excellent first touch and confident ball control is vital.

Dribbling

This goes hand in hand with the previous point, but it’s worth fleshing out in more detail. A big part of the winger role is dribbling, whether it’s tight, mazy meanders in-field or fast, direct runs down the touchline before delivering a cross into the box. Carrying the ball from deeper areas into the final third is an important element of a winger’s attacking contribution.

Crossing

All that clever, technical, physically powerful build-up play isn’t worth much if the player in question can’t deliver the ball properly at the end of it. Wingers should be confident crossing the ball into the penalty area from a range of different positions, whether it’s a deep out-swinger, a dead ball position, or a sharp, dinked cutback into the six-yard box from the touchline. Picking out forwards and midfielders with a pinpoint cross is a crucial aspect of the winger role in soccer.

The 9 Best Wingers Of All Time

Of course, matters regarding the best footballers of all time are always up for debate, but below is a list of players who have undeniably had a massive impact on the sport.

Gareth Bale

Former Spurs and Real Madrid winger Gareth Bale enjoys the status of a true icon in Wales, where his commitment to the national team and consistent performances on the biggest stage ensure he is beloved by all. He was instrumental in the country’s historic run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, and their qualification for multiple tournaments since, and his combination of speed, trickery, clever movement and stunning ball-striking ability has allowed him to grab 185 goals in 553 career appearances for club and country, as well as an incredible five Champions Leagues, three La Liga titles, an MLS cup and a League Cup with Spurs.

Ryan Giggs

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Bale isn’t the only world-class winger to have shone for Wales in recent years; Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs, who registered a record 277 Premier League assists during his long career with the Red Devils, remains one of Wales’ greatest ever players. Known for his elite-level crossing, intricate dribbling, and leadership skills, Giggs won an incredible 13 league titles under Sir Alex Ferguson, as well as triumphing in two Champions League finals and collecting an array of domestic cups.

George Best

Northern Ireland and Manchester United winger George Best remains one of the most iconic characters to have ever graced a football field. Discovered by a United scout aged 15, he went on to score 181 goals in 374 appearances for the Red Devils, dazzling fans across Europe while gaining plenty of headlines for the famed playboy lifestyle off the pitch. Blessed with a stylish swagger, glorious ball skills, two-footed dribbling ability, and wonderful finishing, he’s considered by most to be one of the best wingers to have ever played the game.

Garrincha

Another hugely exciting dribbler of the ball whose nickname translates roughly as “little bird”, Brazilian winger Garrincha was a short, compact, tricky wide midfielder who terrorised opposition defenders during his country’s historic 1958 and 1962 World Cup wins, led by star striker Pele. Winning the Golden Ball and being described by many as player of the tournament at the latter competition, he holds a special status in Brazil and is an absolute legend at club side Botafogo, where he won numerous trophies and scored 101 goals in 323 appearances.

Gareth Bale

Former Spurs and Real Madrid winger Gareth Bale enjoys the status of a true icon in Wales, where his commitment to the national team and consistent performances on the biggest stage ensure he is beloved by all. He was instrumental in the country’s historic run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, and their qualification for multiple tournaments since, and his combination of speed, trickery, clever movement and stunning ball-striking ability has allowed him to grab 185 goals in 553 career appearances for club and country, as well as an incredible five Champions Leagues, three La Liga titles, an MLS cup and a League Cup with Spurs.

Mohamed Salah

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Widely regarded as one of the greatest players ever produced by an African nation — and there are tons of top talents to have come out of the continent — Egypt’s Mo Salah has enjoyed tons of success in England with Liverpool, reaching three Champions League finals (winning one) and competing in numerous title races and cup wins, scoring almost 200 goals in the process. A tricky winger with skillful feet, clever movement, and a lethal finish, he’s one of the best wide players in the world right now.

Stanley Matthews

The iconic English winger, known for his skill, speed, and excellent crossing ability, Sir Stanley Matthews is one of only four English players to have won the Ballon d’Or, football’s most coveted individual award. During a remarkably long stint at the top of the domestic game stretching from 1932 to 1961, he shone for clubs such as Blackpool and Stoke City, before enjoying a couple of loan spells in Canada at Toronto City.

Luis Figo

One of Portugal’s greatest ever players, Luis Figo became renowned across the world as one of Real Madrid’s ‘Galacticos’ in the early 2000s, following a high-profile, controversial transfer from arch-rival Barcelona at the turn of the century. The quick, powerful, technically excellent wide man was a giant of Spanish football, racking up 67 goals and 106 assists in La Liga (the second-highest tally in the league’s history), as well as glowing in the Champions League and on the international stage with Portugal.

Ronaldinho

A cheeky, charismatic, elegant player with unbelievable footwork and ball control skills and a penchant for pioneering ambitious tricks such as the elastico, Ronaldinho was one in a million. The retired Brazil international was a pivotal figure in his country’s 2002 World Cup win in Japan and South Korea, and he impressed at each club he rocked up at, from La Liga giants Barcelona to legendary Italian club AC Milan.

Lionel Messi

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We’ve saved the best until last; Argentina captain Lionel Messi is considered by many football fans and pundits to be the greatest player of all time, and while he’s not exactly an out-and-out winger, throughout his career, he has enjoyed most of his success drifting in from the right flank onto his gloriously potent left boot. A player with remarkable creative vision, sublime ball skills, superb passing ability, and a goalscoring record that any centre forward would be desperate to replicate, Lionel Messi has redefined what a winger can be viewed as during a long career at the top in which he has won twelve domestic titles, four Champions Leagues, a Copa America, and a World Cup with Argentina.

Want to learn more about the role of the winger in soccer? Check out our in-depth guide to this position here.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Who is considered the greatest winger of all time?
  2. How has the role of wingers evolved over the years?
  3. What are the key skills of a winger?
  4. Can wingers play inverted roles?
  5. How does the winger contribute to a team’s attacking play?

Conclusion

Wingers have always held a special place in football, captivating audiences with their speed, skill, and ability to create magical moments. The 9 best wingers of all time, including Gareth Bale, Ryan Giggs, George Best, Garrincha, Mohamed Salah, Stanley Matthews, Luis Figo, Ronaldinho, and Lionel Messi, have left an indelible mark on the sport through their exceptional abilities and achievements. Whether it’s delivering pinpoint crosses, dribbling past defenders, or scoring spectacular goals, these wingers have entertained fans around the world and made a lasting impact on the beautiful game.