The Four Pillars of Football – Part Three: Winger

Liverpool Football Club has been blessed with some of the most exciting wingers in Premier League history over the years. John Barnes and Steve McManaman sprinkle the minds of years past. Before Jurgen Klopp’s arrival, Liverpool fans were able to enjoy Dirk Kuyt’s ever-present engine. Then there was the young talent of Raheem Sterling that electrified Liverpool’s attack during Brenden Rodger’s era. Both were capable of turning games around in their own right. Yet while they excelled in certain aspects of the Four Pillars of Football, there were deficiencies in others.

Klopp was integral to the transformation of the team over the years. The expectations of what is required from the wing position are excruciatingly high from Klopp. Seen by many as unrealistic. There are few players capable of being trusted to be a winger for Klopp’s Liverpool. Winger, under Klopp, is a tireless position filled with strategic movement and eloquent skills. At the same time, it requires immense discipline and physical intensity. Since the ownership change, Liverpool has not been in the position to finance the moves for stars that were already forged in the position. Instead, they meticulously planned and later crafted their own stars in the shapes of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. Both have established themselves as some of the most elite wingers in Premier League history.

Salah and Mane were not seen as elite players prior to their arrivals at Merseyside. Instead, they both worked to reach new levels that only Klopp could’ve imagined and subsequently required. Klopp’s imagination is now personified on the field.

Mental

The mental pillar reflects upon the ambition and willpower of a player to keep going through adversity. The responsibilities of a winger under Klopp are tedious and tiring. The wing position can be frustrating and demoralizing if a player does not possess a strong mentality. For example, Liverpool’s wingers are responsible for the reoccurring angled runs behind the defensive line. But there are many times no attempt to make the pass is made. It can be demoralizing for a winger to constantly make a run knowing the ball will not arrive. Other pain points for wingers can come from how reliant Klopp’s squad is on the wingers for goal-scoring opportunities. But where there are opportunities, there are often missed chances. No player can score with every shot. The mentally weak are more prone to shutting down.

The burning desire to perform can lead to anger often seen from our wide stars. It isn’t uncommon to see Mane and Salah extremely angry at themselves or others when a shot or pass does not come off as they intended. But both manage to continue working hard for the entirety of the match. And Klopp, who knows his players better than anyone, has no issue with seeing his players angry in the moment. He praises their attitude towards success and deems their intentions as a reason behind the never-say-die performances we so often see. 

Physical

The most important aspects of the physical pillar for a winger are acceleration, strength, and stamina. The most successful wingers around the world tend to exhibit these qualities. However, Klopp’s standards are elite and he requires his personnel to possess the highest level of these traits. Each year it appears as though our wingers are getting stronger and faster. And the fans get to be in awe of their abilities; to glide past defenders from standing still, their top speed achieved on a run in behind. All aspects of the wingers’ pace are the reason the position is so electrifying.

Players, though talented, who do not possess such blistering pace often do not succeed in Liverpool’s system. For example, this appears to be the main reason that Harry Wilson has not maintained a solid roster spot. Wilson has been on the club’s books for a number of years. His performances have never lead to reoccurring success, while his talent is not questioned,. Other players that have played auxiliary winger for the team. For example, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xherdan Shaqiri have achieved partial success in the position due to these physical limitations. Though both are extremely talented and physically capable (when fit) in their own right, neither can mimic the pace and strength that Mane and Salah exhibit each and every game.

Tactical

Tactically, the wingers for Liverpool hold immense responsibility in both sides of the ball. Klopp has such tactically astute players at his disposal in this position. He is capable of making mid-game changes and tweaks in order to try and outsmart the opposition. This is the standard now of Liverpool’s wingers for the future. There will come a time when the days of Salah and Mane will near a crossroads. A new crop of wingers will have to come to the forefront at that time. The tactical approach of a talented player will be the determining factor for if they are the right player for Liverpool.

much of Klopp’s work with the squad begins with the dynamics of defensive tactics. Wingers have just as much responsibility defensively as any of the members of the defensive line. In the upper third of the pitch, the wingers are tasked with providing a high line of pressure to the opposite defensive line. By rapidly squeezing the air out of defenders, they constrict the movement and passing lanes. This will only allow a pass to a desired location, which cover defenders are ready to bite at. The opposition can also rely on an emergency outlet of a longer, yet riskier ball to their more advanced teammates. By forcing this, Liverpool’s high line can frequently change possession to their own hands.

There are times when the opponents manage to break out of the pressure or successfully proceed through a counter attack into Liverpool’s half. The wingers are not off the hook for responsibilities just yet. Wingers are tasked with making recovery runs back towards the defensive third of the pitch. Often times, we see the winger all the way back to their own team’s penalty area. Players not able to maintain the defensive shape cannot be relied upon over the course of a normal ninety minutes, such as Divock Origi. Origi has been tasked to play the wing position numerous times throughout his Liverpool career. Albeit out of his normal striker position, his lack of defensive intensity and integrity have led to lackluster performances.

Offensively is where the wingers make their legacy. Wingers have the responsibility on their shoulders to be supremely apt at goal. But this ability is just the tip of the iceberg. Their goal scoring responsibility comes at the back end of tactical hard work and choice movement off the ball. When beginning possession in our own defensive half, we often see sharp precise movement by the winger to either check in with their back to the defender or make an angled run in behind the opposition. The ball is played to the feet of the winger once they check toward their own teammates,. This allows the winger to turn on a dime or to hold up play for the rest of the team to progress forward. The alternate run in behind is a direct route, often requiring an immaculate ball from the supporting cast so that Salah and Mane can run in towards goal.

In the attacking half, the wingers are the catalyst for the attacking outlet. Fans often see the short piercing movement by the attacker towards the inside of the penalty area. As movement is initiated by the winger, the rest of the squad take notice and play a ball through into space. There is an expectation the pace of the winger will allow them to latch onto the pass, regardless of the trajectory of the ball. From there the winger has the ability to take a strike for themselves or search for a third man run in efforts to set up their teammate. Regardless of the decision, a goal scoring option is near for the team to maintain being on the front foot.

Technical

The technical skills on display for the winger position most is their touch, dribbling, and goal scoring abilities. Liverpool fans are blessed to be able to watch masters at their craft. Salah and Mane’s ability to control the pass that comes their way is second to none. The scenes of Mane cutting the ball with the outside of the boot around Manuel Neuer or Salah taking a ball that had just fallen from space down without a bounce comes to mind immediately. And Klopp expects nothing less. This allows for no time wasted in route to the opposition’s goal. Once a ball is drilled into the winger, they are expected to take it in stride.

The winger is able to express themselves against the opposition defenders once the ball is at their feet. A defender will tell you that the most daunting experience to have on the football field is for a gifted player to be running at them with pace. Having to face away from their own goal while attempting to block off a top dribbler is not the easiest task to imagine. And in Salah and Mane they have two of the best dribblers in the league; quick in the turn and explosive to gather the ball with pace from one side of the defender to the other. With immaculate movement and precision, both appear to shape-shift across the grass to get the best of their opponent.

Once on the other side of the defender and near the oppositions’ goal, the skill of goal scoring is at the forefront. There is an old saying, ‘if it was so easy, everyone would be doing it,’ and scoring a goal in football can fall right into the significance of that statement. The ability to place a shot in the net far enough out of reach from a professional keeper is not a task to take for granted. Liverpool fans should feel blessed to have such a rich history of strikers in the club’s history that scored as they pleased. But for a team’s prolific goal scorer to be an out and out winger is less frequent. Fans are truly blessed to watch such goal scoring technique come from wingers at such a regular basis. Mane and Salah have the technical ability to put the ball in the back of the net with such regularity while still upholding their responsibilities on all other aspects of the pitch.

What’s Next

Jurgen Klopp has effectively given the kitchen sink to the wingers when it comes to the responsibilities that they enjoy. The wingers combine a mixture of defensive mettle with expressive attacking flair. In Salah and Mane, the two are capable of shouldering an elite blend of the four pillars of football that few other attacking players can possess. Both are twenty-nine years old and in the prime of their career. They both have multiple years left on their contract, but it will still be a priority to make sure that their careers remain in Merseyside for the duration of their primes. Both have expressed desire to stay in the Northwest, but will never close doors to opportunities elsewhere.

Because of this, it is imperative that Liverpool think several years ahead and establish the next rotation of players to enter the limelight. There are potential candidates across the world that Klopp and his staff will likely keep eyes on. More likely than not, other players to join the squad will come in the fashion similar to our superstar wingers; talented and promising, but not finished articles. Liverpool have already acquired Diogo Jota, though his future likely lies down the middle of the pitch more than the wing.

Harvey Elliot has purposely not been mentioned until the ‘What’s Next´ section. He seems to be just that. Elliot appears to be one for the future of this squad. Elliot has just announced the signature of an extension to his contract, keeping him at the club for years to come. At just eighteen years of age, the sky is the limit on a player who has already shown he can be a star in his very young career. Time will tell just how established he will be in the Liverpool infrastructure. Till then, Liverpool will enjoy the best of Salah and Mane on the wings, both of whom will go down in the folklore of legends for years to come.

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