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Neymar, Mohamed Salah lead football's new power position: the wide forward

There was a time when the most glamourous positions in world football were the central ones, both in defence and attack. If you were a defender growing up in the early 1990s, you were likeliest to admire Franco Baresi; if you were a young forward late in the same decade, the chances are that you idolised the original Ronaldo. Yet those times have changed. The central players, more often than not, are reliable and steady figures; there, the attackers are hardworking, chasing down opponents whenever they choose to play the ball out from the back.

Now, if you're truly looking for football's cool kids, you'll find they have shifted to the wings.

It's no coincidence that the three most devastating forwards in world football last season -- Cristiano Ronaldo, Leo Messi and Mohamed Salah -- all plied their trade from wide positions. Similarly, the Premier League's two most effective attacking forces since the start of last season are Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane, Manchester City's wide forwards, who have scored 40 goals and provided 36 assists between them over that span. In Germany, the precocious Jadon Sancho is helping to lead Borussia Dortmund's title challenge, while Bayern Munich's Arjen Robben, despite being in the autumn of his career, is still in extraordinary form.

There's a very good reason for why many of the game's most creative players find themselves confined to these margins; in short, they are victims of their own brilliance.

In a previous era, the No. 10 (or "attacking midfielder") reigned supreme. Brazil had Kaka and then Ronaldinho; Portugal had Rui Costa; Italy had Alessandro del Piero, Gianfranco Zola, Francesco Totti and Roberto Baggio. Due to their success in the final third of the pitch, that space just in front of the penalty area eventually became the most fiercely contested real estate in the game. Terrified of the damage that a Ronaldinho or Deco could do from that distance, teams frequently appointed not one, but two defensive midfielders to patrol this terrain. As a result, elite playmakers saw themselves forced to forage elsewhere.

Salah's magical 2017-18 season owes a lot to his role as a wide attacker. He was able to exploit the space in the final third to the tune of 32 Premier League goals in 34 games.
Mohamed Salah's magical 2017-18 season owes a lot to his role as a wide attacker. He was able to exploit the space in the final third to the tune of 32 Premier League goals in 34 games.

Looking at today's game, we can see that they have chosen to take up residence on the edge of either area. Defenders often fear to tread here: they're constantly unsure whether to press the ball or stand off given the space that can be exploited around them. They can be forgiven for their uncertainty because the inside forward, although not a new invention, has regained prominence at startling speed. The resurgence of this role now means that they can find themselves isolated against two to three opponents at any time: an onrushing full-back, the aforementioned forward and a No. 8 arriving from midfield.

If you go back only a couple of decades, it was entirely normal for teams to play with conventional wingers, who stayed close to the touchline: say, Ryan Giggs or Luis Figo. Now, though, such a player almost seems like an anomaly. Ivan Perisic, of Inter Milan and Croatia, is notable not only for his fearsome left foot but also because his style seems so much of a throwback. Footballers with Perisic's skill set have long since drifted inwards; the space along the touchline is now occupied by marauding full-backs such as Real Madrid's Marcelo and Manchester City's Benjamin Mendy instead.

At the same time, many No.9s -- in other words, those who were once traditional centre-forwards -- now tend to avoid the congestion of the penalty area. Thierry Henry spent the bulk of his career drifting in from the flanks, having long understood that the one thing that seems to unsettle defenders above all is a striker who arrives in the area at the very last moment. Of late, Real Madrid's Gareth Bale and Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller have followed in Henry's elusive footsteps. With their success we're seeing a mass migration, in a sense, of three types of footballer to the same area of the pitch; it's a convergence that has produced a very special blend of winger, striker and playmaker.

Neymar and Mbappe are the modern embodiment of this wide forward role, exploiting the spaces to drift infield and score against any kind of opponent.
Neymar and Mbappe are the modern embodiment of this wide forward role, exploiting the spaces to drift infield and score against any kind of opponent.

The perfect example of this hybrid, despite the difficult World Cup he just endured with Brazil, is Paris Saint-Germain's Neymar.

While at Barcelona, he produced a season that could probably be studied for many years as a classic of the wide forward genre. In 2014-2015, a season that saw Luis Enrique's team claim a treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and UEFA Champions League, Neymar scored 39 times in 51 matches. In Europe, his goals were particularly crucial; he became the first man to score in each game of each of the knockout stages and fittingly, he scored the last goal in the final, a 3-1 win over Juventus.

During that exhilarating stage of his season, Neymar was often found at the very end of Barcelona's attacking moves; Leo Messi preoccupied centre-backs with his movement, Luis Suarez contested them with his strength and Neymar floated in to rob the unguarded bank. Neymar reprised this role against Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League, where he arrived late and unsupervised in the area to score the decisive strike in a 2-1 victory.

With Neymar's PSG teammate Kylian Mbappe still in the ascendancy, it seems as though the rise of the wide forward -- or, rather, the "hybrid" forward -- is set to continue for some time yet. Perhaps, such is the cyclical nature of football tactics, we will once again see the return of centre-forwards in the mould of Andrei Shevchenko. For now, though, players with these skill sets remain on the fringes of the area, where they can operate in glorious exile.


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