“If you're a full-back, you're either a failed winger or a failed centre-back. No one grows up wanting to be Gary Neville.”
Jamie Carragher's assessment of full-backs is no longer accurate. Yes, full-backs used to be known as failed wingers. But football has evolved and now these frustrated wide players are key cogs in some of the most complex systems thought up by many of Europe's most innovative coaches.
When a manager as meticulous and methodical as Pep Guardiola is prepared to spend a combined £130million on full-backs, you know there's been a shift in what they offer the team. They aren't match winners or game changers, but they're often integral in the top teams executing their game plan.
In the modern game, with teams often looking to flood the centre of the pitch and sit deep with compact defensive lines, having an outlet with real quality on either flank can be the difference between a 0-0 draw and a 1-0 win.
Full-backs and wing-backs, in certain systems at least, often make the most passes per 90 minutes. They have the most touches of the ball and, in Manchester City's system, can find themselves in central positions. They're heavily involved in all that's good.
The likes of Kyle Walker, Alberto Moreno, Marcos Alonso and Antonio Valencia are viewed, rightly or wrongly, as attackers these days. They're judged on their influence in the final third more than they are in the defensive third. And, with this in mind, we've decided to take a look at the stats to reveal just who is the best attacking full-back from the Premier League's top six.
We're using xG and xA (expected goals and expected goal assists) for this because these are more predictive of future goals and assists than goals scored already. Why? Because we're trying to find the best attacking full-back in the Premier League, not who has been the best. The expected numbers, over 24 matches, help judge which of these are reliable in the final third because they've sustained such numbers for that period of time.
The top 10
When you think of attacking full-backs and wing-backs, the obvious names are Alonso and Valencia. The Chelsea No.3 has 12 goals and four assists in 54 matches. It's a record that some midfielders would be envious of.
However, as you can see in the graph above, his xG+xA90 numbers put him as the seventh-best attacking full-back in the Premier League – level with Victor Moses on 0.21.
The are two difference between Alonso and the others on the list. The first is he's often on free-kick duty for Chelsea. It's a skill and it's a weapon for the Premier League champions. He's scored four of the 22 free-kicks he's taken in the English top flight since joining from Fiorentina. But, as previously mentioned, we're looking for reliability. There's no guarantee he'll get the opportunity on a regular basis and banking on free-kicks as a way to score isn't sustainable.
Secondly, Alonso is a an elite finisher for someone playing in his position.
He's scored four of the 22 free-kicks he's attempted for Chelsea in the Premier League. It's definitely something to mention, as is the fact he's an elite finisher for a left-back/wing-back. My argument would be he's a luxury as opposed to a reliable weapon. His xG Ratio score, which looks at how many goals he's scored for every one xG, comes in at 2.06. Not only is he scoring from distance, the 27-year-old is scoring from acute angles.
Chelsea rely on their wing-backs for width so their xG+xA90 figures are expected. This is mentioned because of the next point: the lack of Manchester City full-backs on this list.
Benjamin Mendy wasn't included because he's played just the 299 minutes this season. The sample size is too small to fairly judge but his xG+xA90 number is 0.25, a score that would've put him in second position. Walker, framed as a marauding right-back, has a score of 0.14 while Fabian Delph, a makeshift left-back, finished bottom with a score of 0.03. Auxiliary full-back Danilo has an xG+xA90 score of 0.07.
Context, as ever, is important. Most full-backs and wing-backs get their xA, the real driver of the two stats, from crosses into the penalty area. But City's full-backs are tasked with that. Their wingers often keep the width and then their box-to-box midfielders fill the half-spaces.
Walker and Delph can usually be found alongside Fernandinho in centre-midfield. You could say they're more likely to get a hockey assist from playing a pass into the feet of the more creative players before they set up a goal.
It doesn't make them bad going forward, it just means what they do can't be quantified.
The same could be said for Moreno. The Spaniard impressed early on in the season before picking up an injury in the 7-0 win over Spartak Moscow in the Champions League. He's often portrayed as a reckless player who ignores his defensive duties so you'd assume he'd rank high on this. But he doesn't.
Moreno is third from bottom with an xG+xA90 score of 0.10. On the surface it's a fairly low score but, like his City counterparts, he's usually the man playing the hockey assist an therefore he doesn't get the credit for it.
When watching Liverpool it's clear to see the difference in styles when Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson play in place of Moreno and Joe Gomez. And it's evident with their xG+xA90 scores. Gomez's is equal to Moreno's (0.10) while Alexander-Arnold's is 0.22 and Robertson's is 0.20.
Tottenham Hotspur have the most reliable full-backs in terms of attacking outlets with three of their first choice four making the top ten list. Ben Davies averages 0.24, Keiran Trippier just behind on 0.23 and Serge Aurier's xG+xA90 is 0.22. Danny Rose hasn't played as often this season but still manages 0.15.
The most interesting takeaway from the Spurs four are that all of Trippier's 0.23 xG+xA90 come from xA. He's no direct goal threat himself but he's creating the equivalent of a goal every four matches. Furthermore, the Davies (2.27) and Tripper (2.19) play the most key passes on the list and are second and third for completed dribbles per 90 minutes. They are are the best all-rounders.
Valencia is always pegged as the attacking threat for Manchester United but he's second from bottom on this list with 0.05 xG+xA90, with Luke Shaw coming in with a score of 0.10.
Ashley Young, used as a left-back by José Mourinho, is surprisingly second on the list, level with Davies. You now see the reason the Manchester United manager plumps for the former Aston Villa man.
In a shock result it's Arsenal's Sead Kolašinac, who comes out on top, averaging an impressive 0.32 xG+xA90. Playing as a wing-back certainly helps him get into dangerous areas on a regular basis but he's still a clear winner, and the majority on the list play in a similar role.
If Arsenal manage to sign Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang then the former Schalke defender must be a regular starter. The Borussia Dortmund man thrives on balls into the penalty area, and, as mentioned in a recent feature, his xG90 for the current season is 1.12, showing he's regularly getting into dangerous positions. Kolašinac and Aubameyang could be a match made in heaven.
In terms of reliability and sustainability, the Bosnian powerhouse is the best attacking full-back in the Premier League this season.