Where are all the left-footed left wingers?
Sentiment aside, I found the sale of Grady Diangana especially disappointing because he’s a rare breed in top level European football: a left-footed forward who plays his best football on the left wing.
Leroy Sané is probably the best example of this type in recent seasons and the way Pep utilised him to stretch the game across the whole width of the pitch felt like a big reason why City were so potent going forward in their back-to-back title winning seasons.
Stationing Sané on the left was largely a consequence of Benjamin Mendy’s injury problems — with no overlapper from left-back, Guardiola had to achieve width on the left by other means — and that decision had some positive knock-on effects defensively: with Mendy out of contention, City’s decision to invert Fabian Delph and then Oleksandr Zinchenko from an orthodox FB position helped fill out the middle of the pitch to guard against counter attacks.
Moving Fernandinho out of midfield and into CB has been cited as the main reason for City’s press collapsing but I think losing Sané to an ACL injury in the Community Shield last summer was an equally big factor. Guardiola shifted Sterling to the left wing and reinstated Mendy as a typical attacking left-back, which meant there was one less body in midfield to act as the second line of the press, giving Rodri even more ground to cover in transition. As a result, City were far more vulnerable on the counter than they had been previously under Pep.
That’s all a bit of a digression, but the point is that having a left footer playing on the left wing can have tactical consequences elsewhere the pitch. With Sané now back in the Bundesliga (and expressing a preference for playing on the right hand side too), there was always going to be one fewer leftie plying their trade on the left wing in the Premier League this season. But what about the rest of Europe?
Last weekend was the first game week in Serie A and the Bundesliga, so I thought I’d have a look across the big five European leagues and see how many left-footed left wingers there were kicking around.
It was slim pickings.
(for convenience I’ve discounted players who started as LWBs, but you’d be well within your rights to put guys like Filip Kostić and Bukayo Saka in this category).
In the Premier League there were 5 who fit the bill: the aforementioned Grady Diangana (WBA); Jack Harrison (Leeds); Dwight McNeil (Burnley); and Jeff Schlupp (Crystal Palace). You could also possibly make a case for Pedro Neto, who defended as a 3rd central midfielder for Wolves but pushed forward into attacking spaces down the left when they had the ball.
Ligue 1 also weighed in with 5: Maxwel Cornet (Lyon); Jérémy Le Douaron (Brest); Hassane Kamara (Nice); Kevin Volland (Monaco); and Remi Oudin (Bordeaux) are all wide players who played on their natural side.
In the Bundesliga, there was just the one — Moussa Diaby (Leverkusen) ploughed a lone furrow — while in La Liga the only two who fit this criteria faced off against each other: Iñigo Pérez (Osasuna) and Marc Cucurella (Getafe) played out a narrow Getafe win.
That meant a total of 13 left-footed left wingers who started in the 46 games* involving 92 teams this weekend.
*(Barça, Sevilla, and Atléti’s involvement deep in the Europa/Champions League meant they’ve been granted an extended break)
So where are they all?
Some of it is just a quirk of nature. A quick google suggests the general consensus is that about 10% of the world’s population is left-handed, while this BBC article reckons 20% of people are left-footed. I can’t find anything definitive on how many footballers are classified as left-footed, so it seems reasonable to work with this 20% number and assume that the ratio of left-footed footballers should be similar to the general population.
It doesn’t quite work as a direct comparison (for a variety of reasons) but the number of left-footed left wingers trails behind the distribution of left-footed people: ~14% (13/92) vs 20%.
Almost every team across Europe fielded a left-footed left-back this weekend though, so the decision to not play a left footer in front of them seems to be an active one.
What’re the factors driving this under-representation?
Well, it’s only one set of matches — maybe there are more out there but injury and suspension prevented them from featuring this weekend.
It’s also worth mentioning that several clubs played wingerless systems (usually 3–5–2 or a 4–4–2 diamond), which obviously removes the possibility of selecting a left winger of any description, let alone a left footer. Even so, that doesn’t account for the whole discrepancy.
The primary reason for it, as alluded to in the bit about Manchester City earlier, is that most teams seek width from other positions on the pitch, most notably from full-back.
The shift towards full-backs who contribute to attack is one that’s been gathering pace over the last two decades in European football, with Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool perhaps taking this trend to its logical end point — Liverpool’s creativity has been completely outsourced to their full-backs, while their midfield focuses on plugging holes and playing safe passes (prior to Thiago’s arrival, that is).
While other teams haven’t gone quite as extreme with their division of labour, this emphasis on attacking contribution from full-backs has certainly played its part in the diminishing number of left-footed left wingers knocking about.
An obvious example of this change in emphasis is Alphonso Davies. In MLS, Davies played as a wide forward for the Whitecaps but, upon arriving in Germany, Bayern quickly repurposed him as a left-back. It’s paid off handsomely, as Davies’ elite level pace has enabled him to be a serious weapon from a deeper starting point.
At West Ham, we’ve seen a similar, if less successful, redefinition of roles — Emmanuel Longelo-Mbule, who made his competitive first team debut at left-back during the week against Hull, was playing as a forward for the youth teams until last season. On the other side of the pitch, Ben Johnson has undergone the same conversion from winger to full-back.
And this use of full-backs has passed into conventional wisdom to such a degree that it makes me wonder whether there’s value in looking for alternative tactical approaches. Just have a look at some of the recent fees for full-backs: Ben Chilwell’s had 3 seasons of Premier League football as a first choice player and he cost Chelsea £50mil; last summer Real Madrid forked out £44mil for Ferland Mendy after just two seasons worth of football in Ligue 1; and the player Mendy ousted at the Bernabeu, Sergio Reguilón, has had just one (admittedly very good) season where’s he’s consistently played senior football and Spurs have just paid €30mil for him. Signing players for this role has become very, very expensive.
It’s true in lower echelons of the market, too. Jamal Lewis has had two full seasons of first team football — one in the Championship, one in the Premier League — and Newcastle paid £15mil to extract him from Norwich. By contrast, Grady Diangana reportedly cost WBA £12mil upfront, with that fee potentially reaching £18mil if certain conditions are met.
Full-backs have become such important attacking tools that they now cost roughly the same as good attackers. If you’re looking to make money, then converting the wingers in your academy into full-backs seems like a smart thing to do. From a buying perspective, I think there’s room for smart clubs to start working against the grain.
Playing as a full-back for a top tier club has become so technically and physically demanding that it’s little wonder that talented players who can do it cost a fortune. That outlay is often justified; finding players with the right skillset for those roles is so difficult because elite FBs are often asked to do entirely too much for their teams. At this point, there’s perhaps an edge to be gained by redistributing some of the jobs currently assigned to FBs back to players further up the pitch.
Get your balance in attack by playing left-footed forwards down the left. Add solidity to your team by picking a defensively minded LB behind them or by having them invert into midfield to protect your team against counters . You might save yourself a few quid in the process.