Analysis: Juan Imhoff and the evolving role of the modern attacking winger

For many who have played on the wing before, the position brings up memories of thankless days standing out wide, waiting for the pass that never comes. Left out of Argentina’s World Cup squad entirely this year, Juan Imhoff will know better than most the isolation that standing on the wing can bring. This quick analysis will look at Imhoff’s efforts to get back in the thick of things with Racing 92 and how his play typifies the evolving role of the modern attacking winger in open play.

Before we see Imhoff in action, let’s start with a graphic that highlights some of the areas that a modern attacking winger like Imhoff looks to target.

When modern defences position their defenders, they generally operate on the rule that the slower tight-five players defend the centre of the pitch, while the faster players cover either wing. Against an traditional attack-where wingers usually stay in the ‘A’ or ‘C’ zones in the graphic above-this approach makes sense.

However, with defences becoming increasingly effective at stopping the ball from going wide, attack coaches have looked to bring their faster players infield to disrupt the defence. This is where a winger like Juan Imhoff comes in.

If we now look at last weekend’s Champions Cup game between Racing 92 and Munster at Thomond Park, we can see Imhoff starting in the traditional ‘A’ zone for a left winger below.

As is also tradition, when the opportunity of an overlap presents itself, lock Dominic Bird ignores the chance to pass to his winger and carries into contact.

However, look at what Imhoff (11) does next in the GIF above. Instead of resigning himself to another lost opportunity on the left wing, Imhoff secures the ruck and then moves infield.

As we can see above, by the time the ball is coming out of the next breakdown, the Argentinian winger is now in the ‘B’ zone behind the midfield ruck. Seeing as Munster are well-resourced in midfield, Racing look to go to where the space is out wide.

After another phase in which fullback Simon Zebo commits two Munster defenders to the tackle, a second opportunity on the wing has revealed itself and Imhoff now moves into the ‘C’ zone of the field.

Spotting a mismatch between the pacy Teddy Thomas and Munster hooker Niall Scannell on the wing, the call for the pass is made by Racing and scrum-half Teddy Iribaren makes no mistake to put Thomas into space.

It’s worth noting that once Thomas breaks the first line of defence in the GIF above, you can see Imhoff pointing out that the chip kick is on.

Although he doesn’t finish with the ball in this run of play, it’s a good early indication of how Imhoff looks to come off his wing and perform the role of a modern attacking winger.

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Coming off his wing is something that Imhoff looks to do regularly, as the this example against Saracens from the week before shows.

Finn Russell has rightfully received a lot of praise for his performances at 10 for Racing in recent weeks but Imhoff’s effort is equally important here.

Faced with two props defending the centre of the Saracens defence, Imhoff runs a support line in the ‘B’ zone for Russell, allowing the Scottish 10 to employ a dummy pass and then make a half-break.

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Coming back to the Munster game again, Imhoff finally gets the reward for his work around the pitch. With play restarting in the 48th minute, Zebo looks to go on the counter-attack.

Imhoff is starting in the ‘A’ zone again and, despite an overlap momentarily presenting itself out wide, Zebo carries into contact.

It worth noting for later in the play that Munster loosehead Jeremy Loughman injures his ankle at the end of this GIF when being cleared out of the ensuing ruck.

As Racing look to move the ball wide, and then back into the middle of the pitch, you can see Loughman hobbling back into position in the centre of the field.

Following Camille Chat’s muscular carry, the Parisian team’s attacking situation looks like this. With props Loughman and John Ryan facing Russell-it’s a prime ‘B’ zone opportunity for Imhoff to get himself involved.

As a side note, Imhoff’s starting position is worth pointing out here. By standing behind the ruck, the Racing winger still is an option to receive the pass from Iribaren at scrum-half. By making himself an attacking threat around the edges of the ruck, Munster’s fringe defenders can’t drift out early to swarm Russell in the tackle.

Once the pass does come to Russell, it’s a fantastic piece of attacking play from Racing.

With Loughman and Ryan both identifying Zebo as the next man to receive the ball, Russell can dummy and step off his right foot before ghosting into the gap. From there, it’s all about the support-line and pace of Imhoff as the winger reaps the benefits of his hard work.

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After the disappointment of being left waiting in the wings during the World Cup in Japan, the support play of Racing 92’s number eleven has put him back on the centre-stage. With a league-leading six tries in five Top 14 games for Racing this season, and another one in the Champions Cup, few exemplify the evolving role of the modern attacking winger better than Juan Imhoff.

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If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to read more, you can click on the ‘Index’ icon at the top of the page to see a list of all the other articles on the site.

There are also links to the EK Rugby Analysis Twitter account on the top and bottom of the pages if you want to follow any future updates on new articles. Thanks for reading.

EK

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