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Cafu, Gianluca Zambrotta, Javier Zanetti, Gary Neville, Roberto Carlos, Paolo Maldini and Ashley Cole. When people of a certain age are asked about full-backs there’s a high chance the aforementioned players will be on it. There’s a quixotic idea that all full-backs should be similar to these great players but that’s when people aren’t taking into account that football is perpetually evolving and the demands on each position are changing. It’s no different for full-backs who at one stage in history were simply asked to supplement the attack are now key components of how teams line up to attack.
The likes of Zambrotta, Neville and Cole were playing when the transition really began and these were perhaps the last ‘traditional’ full-backs in the game. However, the transitional period doesn’t appear to be coming to an end anytime soon and this is playing a part in why specialist positions are nearing extinction. Whereas in the past teams were made up on specialist players they now tend to be made up of all-rounders. The defined roles are few and far between with many embracing the blurred tactic of having a team made up primarily of interchangeable profiles
It’s because of this that there’s a common misconception these days that full-backs are the least important position for a football team. These people cite progressive coaches such as Jurgen Klopp, Roger Schmidt and Pep Guardiola to back up their opinion. They mistake the fact that these coaches have used various different types of midfielders in the full-back position as a sign that it’s nothing more than just a position to fill when in reality it just highlights how important that role is.
Clubs will have an abundance of full-backs on their books but these managers are ignoring them in favour of using players whose strengths align with the manager's vision for that role. Surely if the full-back role wasn’t important managers would just use their best full-backs in those roles instead of getting creative?
With so many teams adopting a high press managers have identified the fact the more comfortable a player is on the ball the better the chance his team has of retaining it. If you’re a manager looking to dominate possession you can’t have your full-backs just going long whenever the opposition press them. They also need to be able to use the ball wisely and have the ability to execute incisive passes to break the defensive lines. It’s just not something most full-backs are used to do doing. Until these players are taught and coached to do this from a young age managers will continue to get creative when it comes to selecting who to play at full-back. It’s happened already this season.
Liverpool with James Milner
When Jurgen Klopp started the season with James Milner at left-back it left many people scratching their head. Milner is a versatile player but sticking him at left-back seemed to be stretching it. The 30-year-old isn’t blessed with pace, he’s able to use his left foot but his right is by far his strongest and he’s pretty clumsy in the tackle. None of these things scream left-back potential.
But Klopp’s system, which sees Liverpool look to dominate both the ball and space, means the Liverpool full-backs are basically wide midfielders. They’re the ones expected to offer width with Coutinho and Sadio Mane supporting Firmino centrally. Now the left midfield role isn’t foreign to Milner, he’s played it for various clubs. He’s not tasked with doing much defensively because Liverpool look to win possession back high up the pitch and he’s often covered by one of the three midfielders.
Another reason he’s been playing that role is to make the most of Milner’s ability on the ball. Coutinho plays ahead of him and likes the ball to be played to feet. Milner can spot a pass and he can execute it no problem. In the 10 Premier League games he’s featured in so far this season he averages 59.2 passes per 90 minutes. Only Aleksander Kolarov averages more passes than Milner from a full-back role.
Pep’s and his full-backs.
Guardiola is innovative and a proactive manager. He’s forever on the precipice of something extraordinary. His use of Lionel Messi as a ‘false 9’ changed modern football. He’s used centre-midfielders as centre-backs and vice versa. Nothing is beyond his imagination. While at Bayern Munich he used Arjen Robben as a wing-back. Full-back and wing-back put different demands on a player and the latter has few defensive responsibilities but putting a player in that role who was renowned for shying away from the defensive side of the game seemed brave bordering on foolish.
But as expected, Bayern dominated and Robben wasn’t really tested defensively. Instead the Germans made the most of Robben’s strengths to make him a weapon in that position. He was given more room to operate in due to starting in a deep role and he was still able to cut inside onto his left foot. A full-back wouldn’t have given Bayern that extra layer from that area like Robben did.
Manchester City had a bit of a crisis at right-back earlier on in the season with both Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna injured. In a match against West Brom Pep opted to play Fernando in that role. It’s an unfamiliar position for the former Porto man but given what the manager wants from his full-backs it shouldn’t have surprised people. Much to the disdain of many pundits the City manager used an ‘inverted full-back’ meaning his full-backs would drift centrally and become part of the midfield as opposed to overlapping out wide like viewers of football expect from a full-back. Fernando is used to playing in central areas.
Bayer Leverkusen and Benjamin Henrichs
In 2014 the UEFA website listed the top 10 U-17 players players ahead of the European Championships. They had this to say about the Bayer Leverkusen man at the time –
“The Bayer 04 Leverkusen midfielder already emits an air of authority on the ball. Equally comfortable seeking possession as he is spreading play, Henrichs also showed he had an eye for goal. Not only his tall frame made him stand head and shoulders above his opponents; an uncanny maturity made him a particularly imposing presence.”
He was originally compared to Emre Can and Bastian Schweinsteiger but now the 19-year-old is the current starting right-back for Bayer Leverkusen with comparisons to German legend Philipp Lahm and his form has lead to a call-up to the German national team. His proactive approach is perfect for Schmidt’s system and so far this season he averages 4.4 tackles and 3.6 interceptions per 90 minutes and often instagates Bayer’s transition from defence into attack.
Chelsea and Victor Moses
Victor Moses didn’t look to have a career at Chelsea as anything more than a squad player but he’s now a starter for Conte as a right wing-back. He’s not just doing a job there, he’s excelling. It would have been easy for Conte to use Cesar Azpilicueta in that role with the versatile Spaniard playing that role in the past but Conte got a little creative and used Azpilicueta as a right sided centre-back and looked to utilise Moses’ strengths in the wing-back role. His pace, work rate and goal threat mean he’s played a key role in Chelsea keeping six consecutive clean sheets as they’ve surged up to top spot in the table.
Manchester United and Antonio Valencia
Antonio Valencia started off as a flying winger and it was his form in that role which convinced Manchester United to sign him. Originally he filled in at right-back due to injuries but he was slowly transformed into a full-time right-back and he’s now keeping Italian international Matteo Darmian out of the team. His pace – which means he’s able to get back and recover if possession is turned over, and crossing ability means he’s the perfect fit for Jose’s United, for now at least.
All of these defensive roles are being played by multifunctional, versatile midfielders simply because the full-back alternative doesn’t have the skill/strengths to do it effectively. Considering it’s a dead position to many fans the fact managers are getting creative in attempt to fill that role should prove just how influential and important it is to modern day teams as they look at ways to gain an advantage and win the midfield battle. Traditional full-backs are nearing extinction because football is evolved quicker than these players can be coached. We may yearn for the full-backs of yesteryear but just how effective would they be in the modern game?