Storylines | The Anatomy of a Wingback

Rosales Corner

Formations are just fads, folks. The soccer world cycles through a select few pretty regularly, bringing back the things that used to work once everyone has moved on to something shiny and new. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a return to the glorious three-center back system—my personal favorite—and, subsequently, an uptick in the use of wingbacks across not only Major League Soccer but some of the best lineups across the world.

We’re no exception to this trend at Minnesota United, as Head Coach Eric Ramsay has shown that while he likes to experiment with formations within his guiding principles, he tends to stick with a five-man backline through it all. But what makes it better than four in the back? And why are we good at it? Oh, sweet child, I’m so glad you’ve asked. It all comes down to personnel, and with a certain Honduran running up and down the left channel, the Loons are dangerous indeed.

3 > 2

First, let’s address why three center backs are better than two, other than simple math. Depending on how a team likes to play and what they’re trying to accomplish, a four-man backline can be wasteful. Defensive fullbacks are useful when you’re facing a team that’s much better than you, but in a league like this, the scales are never too unbalanced. Three players can effectively cover the back well enough and long enough to allow the rest of the squad to recover when needed, while freeing up an extra player to move further up the pitch.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think fullbacks are useful; I played the position myself for quite a while, so I can certainly empathize. But asking a fullback to attack can be a bit much, as their defensive duties tend to outweigh the slim opportunities that come their way in any given match. With three center backs, your fullbacks become wingbacks, and while they’re still expected to help defend, the freedom they gain to join the attack adds an exciting dimension to any team that does it right.

Building the Perfect Wingback

A wingback is a hybrid position that incorporates elements of a traditional fullback, winger, and center midfielder. They cover a lot of ground, provide width, and are given a lot of freedom to be creative in possession. As long as they do their defensive duties, they get to have a lot of fun. Sound like someone you know?

If I were picking my ideal wingback, I’d want a few attributes. I’d want someone who’s relatively fast and willing to run as much as a midfielder. They’ve got to be capable of defending, but they’re probably more useful on the ball than off it. Finally, I’d want someone who’s disciplined and willing to play creator instead of finisher. Those traits alone would make you a decent wingback, but there’s some icing on the cake that I’d never turn down.

The Right Man for the Job

In years past, we’ve seen Joseph Rosales line up in midfield, on the wing, and in both fullback positions; that’s the trifecta we’re looking for. His quality has always been clear, and his poise with the ball at his feet is admirable, but his versatility was often the very thing that kept him OFF the field. He’s always been a quality player, but how do you get the best out of him?

PUT HIM AT WINGBACK. That’s it. Let me explain.

Since moving to left wingback for the Loons, Rosales has leveled up his game. Seven assists in 12 games puts him behind just Robin Lod for the most on the team, and his two Team of the Matchday inclusions really undersell how good he’s been. When Joseph is playing freely and getting up and down the pitch, good things happen for MNUFC.

Rosales can operate in wide areas, with a fantastic ability to serve a pinpoint cross or find the open man in the middle of the field. He can invert his run and cut inside to take defenders on with his fantastic footskills. And, on top of all that, he’s able to recover and put his defensive acumen to good use. On a good day, this gives the team flexibility in possession and solidity while defending. That’s a cocktail I’d drink any night of the week.

While Joseph’s skill set makes him an ideal candidate for the wingback position, it’s his understanding of the position and his instincts that really set him apart. It’s relatively easy to teach a player a technical skill: repetition of useful drills can train muscle memory in anyone that’s determined enough, and though the same principle applies to the tactical side of the game, it’s not a process that can be done mindlessly.

The ability to read the game is essential for every player on the pitch, but none more so than the players that are expected to fill the gaps between the forwards and defenders. If a wingback stays up too often, they leave space out wide for the opposition to occupy. If they don’t get up enough, they hamstring their own attack by limiting the options in the final third.

Knowing where you need to be and when you need to be there comes from a combination of intuition, experience, and instruction. Even with a wealth of all three, you’re inevitably going to face new situations that test your decision-making in every game, and the ability to improvise is essential. Becoming a good wingback involves a lot of trial and error, and more often than not, players don’t start their careers playing this position.

After spending years learning the nuances of the positions surrounding the wingback role, Rosales has accumulated an intriguing mixture of skill and experience that Coach Ramsay has helped bring to the fore in the best way possible. The Honduran international is thriving in a role that he’s tailor-made for, and while he may not have expected to be in this position at the start of the season, he’s turned into one of the league’s most effective two-way players since making the shift.