Just after the turn of Millennium, following the brilliant tournament which was Euro 2000, football at the top level was in danger of becoming a turgid affair.
Managers were becoming increasingly concerned with the midfield battle and the need for an increasing number of physical powerhouses to occupy the central area, while premier playmakers such as Zinedine Zidane and Pavel Nedved were increasingly asked to play in wide(ish) midfield positions as a part of compact formations.
The 2002 World Cup final featured two sides playing with wing-backs, both the 2001 and 2003 Champions League finals were somewhat dour affairs featuring overcrowded playmakers and collapsed midfields, while Otto Rehhagel's Greece kept things watertight on their way to 2004 European Championship success.
Genuine wingers stationed in advanced areas appeared very much an outdated concept for all but very few—Arsene Wenger and the "Invincibles" a notable exception, as were Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, who long kept genuine wingers as key tools at his disposal—with inspiration having been traded in for perspiration.
However, for all the perceived worry, those grey days were soon a thing of the past as the 4-4-2 featuring wide midfielders who occupied space a considerable distance away from their forwards (step forward David Beckham) became—at the very highest levels of the game at least—something of an outdated concept.
The ascent of Barcelona, firstly under Frank Rijkaard and then Pep Guardiola, and an explosion of coaches—Mircea Lucescu, Jose Mourinho (post-Porto), Rafa Benitez, Juergen Klopp, Luciano Spalletti, to name a few—who found favour with quick transitions in wide areas. 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations became the norm and subsequently brought wingers and wide forwards back into focus: Players who could beat a man and open up an opposing defence became indispensable once more, at the expense of more workmanlike wide midfielders.
However, the role of the winger has changed from that of days gone bye. Way back when it was perhaps enough to keep wide, isolate the full-back and hit the byline time and again. Now, a wide man must be more versatile, someone who offers both a goal threat—which has led to a greater number of players being stationed on their "wrong" side, Arjen Robben a prime example—and is capable of producing assists for colleagues. As such they have become an integral asset for top sides: Witness Real Madrid's pursuit of Gareth Bale for confirmation.
Thus, here's a celebration of the 15 best wingers in world football right now, those who have an abundance of talent and are capable, and indeed do change games on a regular basis, at the very highest level.