Fans still look at a back three as an über-defensive tactic but with expansive wing-backs that isn’t the case. In fact, it can be the opposite.
With the protection of three centre-backs, wing-backs can have the freedom to essentially play as wide midfielders or even wingers and some of the best clubs in the world have tried a back three at one point or another – even if it’s with a midfielder dropping deep in possession.
Chelsea are perhaps the best example of explosive wing-backs being key to the way they play; injuries to Ben Chilwell and Reece James made Thomas Tuchel’s side far less threatening going forward as well as weaker without the ball.
So, we’ve selected five key metrics – Expected Assists, touches in the opposition box, passes into the penalty area, take-ons attempted and ball recoveries – and cast our net over Europe’s top seven leagues and beyond to create this shortlist of wing-backs that may be flying under the radar.
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Ultimate Team fans will know Jonathan Clauss for the four special cards he has received in FIFA 22, including a spot in Ligue 1’s Team of the Season. But others might not be too aware of why he received the online plaudits.
Clauss missed just one game for Lens in Ligue 1 last season through suspension, an otherwise ever-present as their right wing-back, helping them to a respectable seventh-placed finish – just four points off the Europa Conference League play-off spot. And he was such a key player.
The 29-year-old, who made his France debut in March, was directly involved in 16 goals in Ligue 1, scoring five and recording 11 assists. Only four players recorded more assists across Ligue 1 last season and two of those were Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi (Benjamin Bourigeaud the other), remarkable company for Clauss to be in. It wasn’t a case of having potential goalscorers either, with Clauss’ 74 chances created the third-highest in Ligue 1 behind only Bourigeaud and Dimitri Payet.
He’s some full-back.
Although used exclusively as a left-back by Celta Vigo in 21/22, Javi Galán proved he can play further forward the preceding campaign for Huesca. Named in our LaLigaLowdown Team of the Season for the second consecutive year, Galán won more duels and made more tackles than any other player in the Spanish top-flight in 21/22, completing more take-ons than any other defender.
His tenacity and unrelenting raids up and down the pitch makes it easy to see why he was nicknamed ‘Rooney’ during his youth career – even if he’s not quite the same presence inside the penalty area.
David Raum will have become a slightly more familiar name in recent weeks due to his role in the Germany squad for the Nations League but the 24-year-old left wing-back remains on the fringes at club level.
When looking at the Bundesliga for talent, not too many fans will focus on Hoffenheim, especially after their 11th and ninth-placed finishes in the past two seasons, but that would make them overlook someone like Raum. The 24-year-old was Hoffenheim’s marauding left wing-back last season and recorded a seriously impressive 11 assists from 83 chances created in the Bundesliga.
Only Filip Kostic and Thomas Muller created more chances in the Bundesliga last season than Raum, who was one of just four players to hit the 80 mark, but his 13.9 Expected Assists was unrivalled in the German top flight.
Pedro Porro joined Manchester City in 2019 from sister club Girona but has not played for the English side, spending his entire time on loan. And he’ll be leaving this summer, joining Sporting CP – but that doesn’t mean he’s not available.
Porro joins Sporting after two years on loan with the Portuguese club, having a buyout clause triggered in May, an easy decision given how good he was. In the Primeira Liga last season, scored four goals and recorded four assists, the third and fifth-best returns in the division among full-backs and wing-backs. The 22-year-old also had 110 final third entries and 188 penalty area entries, the latter again the third best in the Primeira Liga among full-backs and wing-backs.
|Summer transfer odds 22/23: To sign for before 3rd September||Sky Bet|
|Antony to Man Utd||1/8|
|Romelu Lukaku to Inter||1/7|
|Robert Lewandowski to Barcelona||1/4|
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|Kalvin Phillips to Man City||1/4|
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|Lucas Paqueta to Newcastle||4/6|
|Jesse Lingard to West Ham||11/8|
|Raphinha to Barcelona||2/1|
|Ousmane Dembele to PSG||5/2|
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One of the reasons Porro’s numbers perhaps weren’t as high as some fans would like is that Sporting focused their wing-back play down there left, with Nuno Santos.
Santos, a converted winger playing at wing-back, brought the attacking experience and prowess to Sporting’s team in 2021/22 and was directly involved in 13 goals – more than any other wing-back or full-back in the division. Naturally, his six goals and seven assists were unrivalled and all came from open play, there are no set pieces helping him boost his numbers (creativity from set pieces is an added bonus for wing-backs, though).
If you want a left wing-back that can bend crosses in then Maximilian Wittek may be your man. The 26-year-old attempted 7.63 crosses per 90 minutes in the Eredivisie last season, with only four players managing more than the Vitesse man.
Wittek also recorded six assists from 72 chances created, the latter more than any other defender in the Eredivisie last season, while only AZ’s Owen Wijndal bettered him for assists (10). Then there’s his 8.81 penalty area entries per 90 and 2.22 tackles, good at both ends of the pitch.
And he may not be a goalscoring wing-back, with all five of his goals coming in the Europa Conference League, but Wittek is capable of a banger – his strike against Roma in the last 16 of the inaugural competition was ranked as the second best by UEFA.
WHAT. A. GOAL! 😳
A 30-yard VOLLEYED SCREAMER from Maximilian Wittek! 💥
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 17, 2022
Twenty-two-year-old Tyrell Malacia played more minutes for Feyenoord than any other player during the 2021/22 season, turning heads during their run to the Europa Conference League final in particular.
In the Eredivisie, the left-wing back attempted more shots, completed more take-ons and played more successful through balls than any other full-back, ranking in the top three for tackles, touches in the opposition box and passes into the final third. Throw in the fact that Daley Blind was the only defender with more touches and it’s pretty obvious Malacia is ready for the next level.
Another Man City loanee, but this time one that they aren’t losing this summer unless someone puts a bid in. Yan Couto, who joined Man City from Coritiba in 2020, spent the 2021/22 season on loan at Braga and played 42 games across all competitions including nine in the Europa League as they reached the quarter-finals – losing to Rangers after an extra-time defeat in the second leg which Couto didn’t play.
In the Primeira Liga last season, the 20-year-old averaged 6.51 final third entries per 90 minutes and 4.86 penalty area entries, being fairly key to Braga’s attack. But he was also capable defensively, with 6.16 ball recoveries per 90 and 2.9 possessions won in the middle third. Man City may want to ensure they don’t have another Pedro Porro on their hands.
Djed Spence’s role in Nottingham Forest’s return to the Premier League has attracted the attention of Spurs and other top six clubs, but there is a reason why Middlesbrough loaned him out: Isaiah Jones.
Another converted winger, Jones out-performed Spence for touches in the opposition box, expected assists, tackles made and duels won. But, for any club missing out on Spence, it might be worth giving Boro another call.
We end on something of an unorthodox wing-back. A right-footer playing on the left. Caci was Guilbert’s teammate at Strasbourg last season, combining well with the Aston Villa loanee to lift his side up the table.
But even though he will have had to cut in on his stronger foot, Caci still managed to attempt 3.65 crosses in Ligue 1 last season and 6.84 long passes, constantly trying to get the ball into the box. He also made 2.44 tackles per 90, 1.24 interceptions and 1.77 clearances so can double back on defence.