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The Inverted Winger at Manchester United

The Inverted Winger at Manchester United

Memphis Depay news

The labeling of forwards as inverts began at Manchester United with the arrival of Memphis Depay, a right footed left winger, who technical writers, associated with the coaching side of soccer, defined as an inverted left winger.


The choice of terminology was perhaps surprising to psychologists, for example, sexologist Havelock Ellis (1859-1939), whose understanding of ‘invert’ was ‘sexual instinct turned by constitutionalized abnormality toward persons of the same sex.’1 The other interpretation is that of ‘reverse psychology’, that is, a right full back, expecting a left footed winger as his antagonist, would be caught flat footed by Depay’s right foot, for example.

 Memphis arrived at ‘the Theater of Dreams’, subsequent to Argentine right winger, Ángel Di María, bought for the 2014-15 campaign from La Liga Spain’s Real Madrid for £59.7m by Dutch manager, Louis van Gaal, disappointing, with 20 starts, and 7 substitute appearances, for a return of 3 goals, being sold on to France’s Ligue 1 club Paris Saint-Germain for £44m before the commencement of the 2015-16 term. Along with Depay, £25m from Dutch Eredivisie club PSV Eindhoven, came Anthony Martial from Ligue 1 AS Monaco for £36m, a French left footed center forward, who also played on either wing, that is, as an inverted right winger, if he was selected to demonstrate his attacking abilities there.

 Like Ángel, the right winger Gaal rejected, Depay was also found wanting, with 16 starts, 13 appearances from the substitutes’ bench, and 2 goals in 2015-16, but by Gaal’s successor, Portuguese José Mourinho, replacing the Dutchman, rather surprisingly to many, after the club’s defeat, 2-1, of Crystal Palace in the May 21st, 2016, F.A. Cup Final. Depay didn’t figure and Mourinho brought Armenia’s captain, right wing, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, for £30m from German Bundesliga club Borussia Dortmund, which investment was quickly repaid, as Henrikh scored the second goal on 48 minutes, with an overhead kick inside the penalty area against the Netherlands' Ajax of Amsterdam, 2-0, to win the May 24th, 2017, Europa Cup Final at Friends Arena, Solna, Stockholm, Sweden.

 The emergence of England’s Jessie Lingard on the left wing, although he came on as a substitute for inverted right wing, Spain’s Juan Mata, in the 2016 F.A. Cup Final, scoring the winning goal in the 110th minute, with a right footed volley from inside the 18 yard box, meant that Depay, who made only 4 appearances as a substitute in 2016-17, wasn’t missed when his transfer to Ligue 1 Lyon for £22m went through on January 20th, 2017. However, midway through the 2017-18 season Henrikh went to North London club Arsenal in a swap deal for Chilean forward, Alexis Sánchez, who’d score 2 goals in 12 starts and have what looked like a perfectly good goal disallowed in the May 19th, 2018, F.A. Cup Final defeat against West London’s Chelsea, 0-1 to Belgian center forward Eden Hazard’s 22nd minute penalty, after he was brought down by United center back, England's Phil Jones, lunging recklessly after a ball too far away at Hazard’s feet for County Durham referee, Mark Clattenburg, to have any option but to award Chelsea the spot kick.

 Although Mourinho brought Brazilian Fred for the left side of midfield from Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukrainska Premier Liha for £47m before the 2018-19 campaign, he couldn’t be defined as a winger, and the damage was done. Alexis scored only 1 goal in 9 starts and 11 appearances and Mourinho, dismissed on December 18th, 2018, with just 7 wins in 17 games, was replaced by manager of Norway’s Eliteserien club, Molde, former United striker, Norwegian Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who’d scored the winning goal on 93 minutes almost on the goal line, after England center forward Teddy Sheringham’s 91st minute equalizer against German side, Bayern Munich, 2-1, in the May 12th, 1999, European Cup Final at Camp Nou, stadium of Spanish La Liga club, Barcelona.

 With players mainly inherited, with the notable exception of Portugal's midfield maestro, Bruno Fernandes, bought from Primeira Liga Lisbon's Sporting CP for €80m on January 30th, 2020, Solskjaer was able to reach the Europa Cup Final at Stadion Gdańsk, Poland, on May 26th, 2021, but lost to Spain’s Villarreal, 11-10, a.e.t., on penalties, with Spain's ‘keeper, David De Gea, the only player to miss, after Uruguayan center forward, Edinson Cavani, brought as a free agent for 2020-21 from Paris Saint-Germain, equalized on 55 minutes, a low strike from five yards, 1-1, in normal time.

 Trophyless, despite bringing legendary right wing, Cristiano Ronaldo, from Italian Serie A club Juventus for €13m, European Champions’ Cup winner with United on May 21st, 2008, 6-5 on penalties, a.e.t., and a Ronaldo header on 26 minutes, 1-0, at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, before England midfielder, Frank Lampard’s equalizer, 1-1, on 45 minutes, poking the ball left footed between advancing Dutch ‘keeper Edwin van der Sar and England center back, Rio Ferdinand. Cristiano, who’d notch 18 goals in 2021-22, had been joined by inverted England left winger, Jadon Sancho, from Borussia Dortmund for €85m, and France’s center back, Raphaël Varane, from Real Madrid for £34m, but 7th in the Premier League, after losing away at Watford, 1-4, Solskjaer was nevertheless replaced on November 21st, 2021, by interim manager until season’s end, formerly at RB Leipzig, German Ralf Rangnick, before Dutch manager of Ajax, Erik Ten Hag, was appointed for 2022-23.

 Cristiano, known as CR7 for his initials and his preferred shirt number, departed, 4 starts and 6 appearances for 1 goal, to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Nassr of the capital Riyadh, on January 1st 2023, where his illustrious name would receive more luster, scoring twice on August 12th at the King Fahd Stadium, Taif, in the 74th, 1-1, and again in the 94th minute of extra time to win the 2023 Arab Club Champions’ Cup against city of Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal, 2-1. CR7’s leaving was bittersweet, as United’s first success since 2017 came with the February 26th, 2023, League Cup Final defeat of Newcastle United, 2-0, with Marcus Rashford and inverted Brazilian right wing, left footed Antony, bought from Ajax for €95m, on the wings. Brazilian midfielder, Casemiro, bought for £60m by Ten Hag for the 2022-23 season from Real Madrid, headed in a goal from Luke Shaw's free kick on the left on 33 minutes, 1-0. Put through by on loan Dutch striker from Burnley, Wout Weghorst, 6 minutes later, Rashford’s shot, deflected off Magpies’ Dutch central defender, Sven Botman, looped over Newcastle’s German ‘keeper, Lorius Karius, goal, 2-0.

 The decision to select Marcus Rashford, as a left winger, came as a surprise to many devoted followers, 11 starts and 5 goals in his 2015-16 debut season, and center forward in the 2016 F.A. Cup Final, but the purchase of Brazilian left footed right winger, Antony, provided a clue to manger Erik Ten Hag’s thinking. Previous managers had selected Anthony Martial as a center forward, or a winger, depending on injuries, tactics, and strategy, although Ten Hag looked to play Martial as a complementing inverted left winger to Antony on the right, that is, as what fans of soccer in the 1950s would recognize as inside forwards. Van Gaal’s tactical use of three center backs, along with full backs, who’d been wingers, had been similarly deployed as ‘retro’ 1950s ‘wing backs' by a Gaal predecessor, legendary two times European Champions’ Cup winning Scot, then retired, as Sir Alex Ferguson, knighted by England’s queen Elizabeth II for his contribution to soccer, and who’d been initially replaced by Everton’s David Moyes for 2013-14, before Gaal’s appointment. Ecuador’s Antonio Valencia, a former right winger, bought from Wigan Athletic for £16m for 2009-10, before being converted to right full back by Ferguson, and England’s Ashley Young, as a left winger, bought for £17m for 2011-12 from Aston Villa, restyled as a left full back, were converted again by van Gaal to wing backs, with responsibility for wing play in support of Depay, for example, an inverted right winger, effectively in the role of an inside forward.

 With five across the back, that is, a half back line, similar to that which won United the league title in 1909 and 1911, featuring Dick Duckworth, Charlie Roberts, and Scot, Alex Bell, and the April 24th F.A. Cup Final in 1909 at South London’s Crystal Palace, 1-0 against Bristol City, after a shot on 22 minutes from inside right, Harold Halse, hit the bar, and inside left, Sandy Turnbull, struck the rebound past ‘keeper, Harry Clay, room remains for two midfield players, and three forwards, or more daringly, a playmaker, functioning as a deep lying center forward, in the mold of Bobby Charlton, or Paul Scholes, behind the strikers and the wingers, and in front of a midfield two. However, if the wing backs function as wingers, left and right wingers become redundant in the forward line, although traditional with United, used to having a holding midfielder, of the type of Eire’s Roy Keane, alongside the attacking midfielder, for example, Fernandes, as that point of the diamond, where the two wings and the central striker are the other constellating points of the diamond’s structure.

 With this strategy, either twin strikers were deployed, which means that each striking forward can be the point of the diamond, or there’d be a holding player in the midfield alongside the diamond strategist, with a single striker up front. If the manager deployed full backs as wing backs, for example, England’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the right, signed by Solskjaer for £45m from Crystal Palace, before the 2019-20 campaign, and Luke Shaw on the left, bought for £30m from Southampton by Gaal for the 2014-15 term, it’d be logical to suppose inside forwards in the style of the 1950s United, for example, Eire’s inside right, Liam Whelan, and England’s Bobby Charlton at inside left, during United’s 1955-56 and 1956-57 championship winning seasons, therefore inverted is an appropriate description for wingers in the role of inside forwards playing with the wrong foot, as it were, on the opposite side of the pitch to where they might naturally be expected to deploy.

 Spain’s Juan Mata, for example, as a left footed player, often deployed on the right, after being brought by former manager, David Moyes, from Chelsea, on January 24th, 2014, for £37.1m, that is, as a left footed inside right, and similarly with Antony, had the effect of funneling the play into the center, as the space on the right touchline of the field lay abandoned. As there aren’t any rules barring left footed center forwards, so with inside forwards, which foot used is entirely a matter of preference. Rashford, a center forward by common consent, selected on the left or right, as a left footed inside forward, for example, rather than a twinned striker, alongside Dane Rasmus Højlund, bought from Italy's Atalanta for £64m, as an out-and-out striker for the 2023-24 term, illustrates that there aren’t any wingers per se in the inverted strategy.

 The advent of Alejandro Garnacho, as a left winger on the left foot, suggests that tactics and strategy at Manchester United undergo revision. Although Gaal’s experiment with three center backs wasn’t entirely dismissed by Mourinho, as Gaal himself was, after the 2016 F.A. Cup Final win, the idea of starting full backs as wing backs to perform the role of wingers remained fashionable. Unfortunately, the ploy of having three central midfielders, with a diamond behind the main striker, seriously curtails United’s usually all-out attacking style, as more fluidity’s required of the front three; resulting in an inversely proportionate return through placing too much onus on a single central striker to score, that is, goal famine. Although the ideal for United is a two man midfield, with a hard man, midfield destroyer, who can pass, and a diamond; twin strikers, and left and right wingers, or at least left and right inside forwards, who’re left footed left inside forwards, and vice versa, are needed to improve the goal drought. Otherwise the forward line will be inverted to the extent that there’ll be no wide play, which means no balls from extreme angles, crossed over to evade defenders, for forwards to head in, or boot onto, after a wing and a prayer.

 The argument that inverted forward thinking is more cerebral ignores the fact that an outside left with a right foot can’t hug the touchline, evading tackles from the opposing right full back to deliver accurate balls, like that of Wales' Ryan Giggs to Roy Keane, there at the far post on 35 minutes against Brazil’s Campeonato Brasileiro Série A club Palmeiras, 1-0, to secure the Intercontinental Cup trophy on November 30th, 1999, at the National Stadium, Tokyo, Japan, against the champions of South America, winners of the Copa Da Libertadores, 4-3, on penalties, after losing the June 2nd first leg away at Deportivo Cali, Valle del Cauca, Columbia, 0-1, but winning the June 16th return leg at their Palestra Italia Stadium, São Paulo, 2-1, that is, after a draw, 2-2 on aggregate.

 Reports that Manchester United actually narrowed the pitch at Old Trafford suggests timidity. Abandoning the wings to play an inverted game is indicative of fear. Moreover, against a team with wingers United’s inability to counterattack down the wings puts too much strain on the defenders, while making for a defensive team, containing as many midfielders as possible, for example, Mata, a left foot brought to replace Giggs, signed upon contract expiry for Turkey’s Süper Lig club Galatasary of Istanbul for the 2022-23 season, having found himself labeled left sided midfield too often to view his role as even that of an inverted winger, that is, as an inside left forward, after debuting against Cardiff City on January 21st, 2014, scoring 6 goals in 14 starts, including 2 goals in his only substitute appearance at Old Trafford against Norwich City, 4-0, before 2013-14 season’s end.

 The emergence of Argentine, Alejandro Garnacho, as a classic left winger in 2022-23, 5 starts and 14 appearances for 3 goals, suggests fans won’t want him to play on the right as an invert, that is, a left footed inside right, which though fashionable is destructive of the genius of the goal-scoring outside left. Moreover, without a striking partnership in attack, it’s unlikely that United will challenge for honors, irrespective of the deployment of wingers, as two strikers are necessary for success. Withdrawing the wings in favor of a pitch inversion is indicative of a psychological complex, that is, introversion, which is a term used to describe an approach that is antithetical to that of the extroverted personality, as exemplified by United teams in their thirst for trophies since manager Matt Busby’s first great side beat Blackpool, 4-2, in the April 24th, 1948, F.A. Cup Final, coming back after being 0-1 on 12 minutes through right back Eddie Shimwell’s penalty, when center forward, Stan Mortensen, was tackled from behind, and again at 1-2, after a Mortensen cross-shot in the 35th minute improved upon a United goal on 28 minutes from a Delaney pass and a strike from Jack Rowley, 1-1, who went on to head home his second equalizer of the afternoon on 70 minutes from a quickly taken free-kick, 2-2, before a Pearson shot flew into the net via an upright on 80 minutes, 3-2, and two minutes later Anderson wrapped it up, 4-2.

 The attack boasted Scot, Jimmy Delaney, at outside right, Charlie Mitten at outside left, Johnny Morris at inside right, and Stan Pearson at inside left, and Jack Rowley at center forward, with a half back line of John Anderson at right half, Allenby Chilton at center half, and Henry Cockburn at left half. The full backs were John Aston on the left, and United’s captain, Eire's Johnny Carey, on the right, which was five at the back, and five up front, that is, 1-5-5, including ‘keeper Jack Crompton. The game’s evolution was of the playmaker amongst the inside forwards, dropping back alongside the more distributive half back, resulting in 2018-19 in what United fans were prone to call ‘McFred’, for example, as Fred, and Scot, Scott McTominay, were brought together in a two man midfield by Solskjaer, with Fernandes ahead of them as a part of the diamond with three forwards ahead. The concept of wing backs derived from the need to support the midfield two, which meant either attacking full backs, or defensive wingers, although 1-4-2-4 remained the prevailing paradigm at Manchester United, before the advent of the diamond, controlled by a playmaker ahead of the central midfield pair, for example, Fernandes in front of Fred and McTominay, and behind Rashford.

 Describing inside forwards, who’re left and right wingers, as inverts, that is, being of one gender and having the traits of another, contains malice, that is, a team with inverts won't get much penetration, as they’ll be confused over whether they’re an inside forward, winger, or midfielder, which can only be detrimental for new stars, like Garnacho, who clearly isn’t an inverted right winger with a left foot, although that mightn’t be evident to the coaches.


1 Ellis, Havelock Studies in the Psychology of Sex Volume II: Sexual Inversion, 3rd Edition, 1927.