The full-back has traditionally been one of the least glamorous roles on the football pitch. Jamie Carragher once quipped that nobody steps onto the football field dreaming of being the next Gary Neville. Albeit being a tongue in cheek, the statement was not entirely without merit, with the full-back positions traditionally being second chances for failed wingers or center-backs at the youth levels. In the modern game, however, the full-back position has been interpreted in intriguing ways rendering a tactical sophistication hitherto disassociated with the role. The unprecedented evolution of the full-back role has been induced by the emphasis laid on building up from the back and gegenpressing in the modern game. In this article, we look into the tactical evolution of the full-backs through the lens of modern full-backs under various systems.
The traditional full-back
Perhaps, the English 4-4-2 typically represents the traditional role of the full-back. In a narrow 4-4-2, the full-back tucks in and is primarily tasked with maintaining a narrow block of four and forcing attacks out wide towards the corner flag. The full-backs are also tasked with limiting balls into the box. In the modern-day game, only a few teams like Burnley employ the traditional 4-4-2 formation. Among the top teams, only Simeone’s, Atletico Madrid play the 4-4-2. However, unlike the English teams that employed two wingers, wide-midfielders like Arda Turan, Saul Niguez, and Koke play on the flanks. The wide midfielders often tend to tuck in and drive forward, opening up space out wide for full-backs Filipe Luis and Juanfran to occupy. The role of the full-backs on the opponent half is primarily restricted to stretching the opponent’s defensive line. In this formation, full-backs are not principal chance creators or scoring threats. Full backs open up spaces and passing options through their movement off the ball or by stretching opponents’ backlines.
A player that exemplifies the traditional full-back is the Bayern star and French world cup winner Benjamin Pavard. Pavard is a converted centre-back with excellent anticipation and positioning. The fact that he leads Bayern Munich’s backline with two interceptions per game is a testament to his excellent reading of the game. In the offensive phase, he is primarily tasked with building up attacks on the far right, while the opposite full-back, usually Alphonso Davies or French teammate Lucas Hernandez is tasked with raiding the left flank.
Pavard prefers to build up with short passes but is adept at playing long balls with 2.6 attempted long balls per 90. Pavard has an exceptional appreciation for space and prefers to move into vacant spaces after playing short passes to open up passing options. Despite his ability with the ball, Pavard plays the role of a withdrawn full-back, picking his moments to surge up the flanks carefully. Both for the national team and Bayern he stations himself as the right-sided defender while the team is in possession and steps up to the flanks only to create overloads on the right-hand side.
The full-back has neither registered a goal or an assist in the Bundesliga this season. However, Pavard possesses excellent shooting abilities, and his wonder goal against Argentina in the 2018 world cup was voted the goal of the tournament. With France, the player is more adventurous going forward, but the principal role he plays remains the same, with the bulk of his touches coming closer in the defensive half or near the centre circle rather than the right flank in the opposition’s half. Another player who would fit the mold of a traditional full-back in the modern-day game is Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
The Red Devils right-back is a proficient tackler, unlike Pavard and has earned the nickname octopus for his sliding tackles. But he does not share Pavards proficiency in build-up play and passing and is primarily concerned with tracking attackers and winning back possession in a tackle shy back four at Manchester united.
The overlapping full-back
The overlapping full-back fits the customary description of the modern full-back. The modern full-back plays as the outside back in a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formation. In addition to his defensive duties, he is also tasked with providing width in the offensive phase with wingers moving inwards and occupying central positions. The fabled Brazilian full-backs from Leonardo and Junior to the couplet of Cafu and Carlos and the ephemeral genius of Dani Alves, probably the greatest full-back in history, are part of this ilk. A modern full-back is a machine constantly shuttling from box to box, forcing attacks wide and blocking crosses at one end, and racing to the touchline at the other end. Indeed, the modern full-back is a hybrid of a traditional central defender and a winger. Although a multitude of players fit the description, the functional role of the overlapping full-back changes with different formations and tactics. We look into the differing interpretation by focusing on Andy Robertson, Marcelo, and Alphonso Davies.
He is the left half of probably the greatest full-back pairing in Premier League history. Andrew has all the tools in his pocket for being a world-class overlapping full-back- boundless energy, astute positioning, excellent spatial awareness, and excellent crossing ability. Andy bombards up and down the Anfield left flank with unmatched ferocity. In the defensive phase, he is an aggressive presser but is adept in a low block as well as forcing opponents out wide and blocking crosses. Among the modern full-backs, you hardly find anyone pressing with Robertson’s intensity. He leads the team in distance covered per match, constantly bombarding forward to occupy space vacated by Sadio Mane.
Robertson is adept at blindsiding defenders with overlapping runs. This coupled with his excellent passing abilities and decision making helps him make shot-creating actions regularly. Unlike his counterpart on the opposite flank, Robertson creates more chances from cut-backs but his arching crosses from the left also worry opposition defenses. What sets Robertson apart from other attacking full-backs is that unlike other great attacking full-backs like Marcelo and his counterpart Trent Alexander-Arnold he is excellent at his defensive duties. Formerly an auxiliary full-back at Hull city under Steve Bruce, Andy is an excellent defender 1v1. This coupled with his incredible stamina and excellent reading of the game ensures that he is rarely caught out of position, unlike other attacking-minded full-backs.
Marcelo, unlike Andy, is a hugely polarizing figure even to die-hard Selecao and Los Blancos fans. Exquisite in the opponent’s half and elusive in his own when tasked with defensive responsibilities, Marcelo is often criticized for his perceived defensive laxity. However, the inability of Ferland Mendy to adequately fulfill his attacking duties at left-back has led to a widespread appreciation for the unique role the canary performed in Madrid’s hat-trick UCL victories. In Zidane’s Madrid Marcelo played as an auxiliary winger, freeing up Cristiano to play a free-roaming role as a shadow striker. The role played by Marcelo can be best compared to that of a wide receiver in American football. Zidane preferred to play with a midfield 3 of Kroos Casimero and Modric with Isco filling in as the trequartista. Given Cristiano’s penchant for scoring goals, he would be wasted in a traditional winger’s role and often preferred to cut infield as a second striker. Marcelo hence was stationed on the left-wing between the center and the final third wherein he received long balls from Ramos, Kroos, and Modric. Marcelo was tasked with progressing to the final third or switching play.
Marcelo is equally adept at creating chances with his excellent crossing ability and blind-sided runs. What sets Marcelo apart from other attacking full-backs are his packing statistics and his capability to come alive in big games. Packing statistics are accurate indicators of ball progression and measures the number of times a player or team bypasses their opponents. In the 2017 champions league final against Allegri’s Juventus Marcelo had the highest packing score of all players on the pitch. What set him apart from others was that he ranked in the top three for both passes made and passes received categories. In the UCL final in the next year, the presence of Salah in attack severely curtailed Marcelo’s involvement in the build-up play and Madrid had considerable difficulty in progressing play until Salah’s injury freed up Marcelo in the offensive half. With Marcelo higher up the pitch, Madrid dominated proceedings with Marcelo bagging two assists. While Marcelo’s attacking contributions and shot-creating actions are widely acknowledged his contributions in ball progression are overlooked with Modric and Kroos garnering the limelight.
While Marcelo tops the modern-day full-backs on packing stats, Bayern Munich’s Canadian dynamo pips him for progressive runs. Marcelo is feared for his exquisite footwork and impeccable footwork the young Bavarian full-back eats opponents up with his raw pace. Unlike the Brazilian, Davies is solid in defense and makes up for his awry positioning at times with his raw pace. Davies is excellent at defending one on one. However, it is his dribbling skills that set him apart from fellow full-backs. Davies tops the charts for dribbles completed per 90 amongst Bayern players in the Bundesliga.
The full-back attempts nearly 7.6 progressive runs per 90 with a success rate of 56%. His dribbling skills have been used astutely by Flick to beat the opposition press. But unlike his counterparts Marcelo and Robertson he is not particularly creative with Davies attempting just 0.3 crosses per 90 which is abysmally low given his offensive attributes. This may be because Bayern prefers to attack centrally and the remarkable crossing ability of Kimmich on the right-hand side. Davies’s unique skill set has been used by Flick to beat the press and disorganized defenses. His overlapping and underlapping runs coupled with his pace and dribbling skills have been used to drag defenses out of position and open up spaces on the pitch. In this manner, he is a key cog in Bayern’s offense even as he is rarely involved in the final shot-creating actions himself.
The inverted Full back
Sticking with Bayern Munich, the club spearheaded one of the great tactical innovations, the inverted full-back under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola. Guardiola at Barcelona used a 4-3-3 with his full-backs Dani Alves and Eric Abidal bombarding up and down the flanks. At Bayern, he had inherited Lahm and Alaba, arguably the greatest full-back pairing in the world at the time. However, Bayern posed another problem, as the best players in the team the dynamic winger duo of Ribery and Robben preferred to play on the flanks unlike his previous protégés Villa and Pedro. Further, Bayern presented another conundrum with their 4-2-3-1 formation with Kroos, Schweinsteiger, and Muller all vying for the starting berth. But Pep preferred more bodies in midfield to dominate games with his possession-centric approach but reverting to a 4-3-3 would mean dropping one of his best attackers in Robben, Ribery, or Muller. Pep decided to try the unthinkable and play Lahm in midfield as an inverted full-back. Now at city Cancelo performs the task admirably albeit with greater freedom to roam forward.
In Pep’s system, one or both of the full-backs step into the midfield on either side of the midfield pivot. This has two advantages: it enables the team to maintain its numerical superiority in midfield and stop counter-attacks in transition with the full-backs providing cover. In the offensive phase, it frees up the two attacking central midfielders to move into the half-spaces or occupy a position between the lines and dictate the tempo of the match. The tactic also allows the wingers to express themselves. The inverted full-backs also step into the wide channels to create numerical overloads when the team has the ball. The tactic also has the advantage of leaving the wingers 1v1 with the full-backs when the opposition wingers tuck in to mark the full-backs. The flip side to the inverted full-back tactic is it forces the central areas to be over-congested. Hence all full-backs might not be suited to the role. Only players who are comfortable in tight spaces and have an excellent understanding of space would succeed in the role.
Philip Lahm was Guardiola’s go-to guy as an inverted full-back. He impressed the coach so much that he ended up playing as the team’s defensive midfielder, a role he would later assume for Germany in the group stages of the 2014 World cup. At Manchester City, the tactic hasn’t yielded desired results when Kyle Walker plays at right-back due to his limited ability in possession. Cancelo on the other hand has taken to the role like a duck to water. Cancelo has been offered greater freedom in the role compared to Lahm and almost interprets the role akin to that of a box-to-box central midfielder popping up all across the pitch to create overloads and at times providing the telling pass like in the UCL round of 16 ties against Borussia Monchengladbach.
Next, we look at two unconventional ways in which full-backs have been used in the modern game as a playmaker and a goal threat.
Trent Alexander-Arnold became the first full-back to register double-digit assist figures in two consecutive premier league seasons. As Liverpool mauled their way to their first premier league title in over 30 years the Reds full-backs were racing up the assist charts, with their wing play being the principal source of creativity for the reds side. While Robertson played the role of the dynamic box-to-box wingback to perfection, Trent was the team’s regista or deep-lying playmaker. The midfielder turned full-back is equally comfortable at playing deep crosses into the path of Liverpool’s fabled front three as he is at pinging a sixty-yard diagonal to switch play. Indeed, his stats resemble and playing style matches that of a midfielder than a full back. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s perceived defensive deficiencies that almost cost him a place in the Euro 2020 squad can primarily be pinned down to his weakness in one on one duels. The full-back possesses an astute understanding of space and is excellent with his use of the ball. His crossing from wide areas is matched only by the genius of Kevin de Bruyne, arguably the greatest chance creator in the Premier League’s modern era.
To go with his Beckhamesque crosses the full-back also possesses the former England captain’s vision and long passing ability. A cursory glance at his statistics reveals that he is a false full-back. a midfielder in disguise. He attempts roughly 4.2 accurate long balls per 90 and is excellent at breaking the line passes. Being stationed at right-back affords him more time on the ball and also allows him to occupy positions on the flanks frequently putting his devilish deliveries to good use. Unlike his counterpart Robertson, he prefers to play balls to the player’s feet and this is crucial in breaking the lines with passes to the feet of Firmino who drops deep from his nominal false nine role. Trent is equally good at playing diagonal balls behind the opposition right back as he is at finding the runs of Salah behind the opposition left-back. His exceptional passing range, vision, and shot-creating actions indicate that Trent is indeed a playmaker in disguise.
Atalanta probably plays the most attacking brand of football in all of Europe. They are by far the most exciting team to watch in Serie A, with their matches a guaranteed goal-fest. Three Atalanta players reached double figures in goal contributions last Serie A season. While the top two spots went to the club’s dynamic striking duo of Zapata and Muriel, number three will most likely raise a few eyebrows with Gossens their left-back chipping in with 11 goals. Unlike, yesteryear full-backs who padded their goal stats with free-kicks and penalties almost every single one of Gossens’s goals came from open play. Gossens attempts 1.6 shots per game, a fairly high volume for a full back. Most of his attempts come from within the penalty box with a high Xg.
Gossens is a prominent scoring threat and creative outlet for Atalanta with his underlapping runs. His excellent link-up with teammates, especially one-twos with Zapata often results in the full-back moving into good goal-scoring positions. His aerial prowess and astute movement of the ball means that he is often at the end of one of Josip Illicic’s in-swinging crosses from the left. Gossens’ remarkable goal return can be attributed to Atalanta’s lopsided build-up and quick switches of play, that enable him to exploit chinks in the opposition defense with ease. Stylistically he would be the wing-back version of Donny van De Beek, an intelligent player who relies on his spatial awareness to appear in goal-scoring positions.
Thus in the modern game, the full-back dons several hats ranging from a side back, auxiliary winger, box to box wing-back, deep-lying playmaker, central midfielder, and goal scorer.