Nowadays, the role of a full-back is not an easy one. There are a few main criterias which every good modern full-back should possess.
Firstly, they obviously have to be solid defensively and back up their centre-halves against the strikers. Moreover, many teams now play with three up top – so a full-back always has a defensive job to do against these modern day quick wingers. Secondly, full-backs are becoming increasingly important going forward.
If you watch any good team – a prime example is Barcelona – the full-backs are constantly overlapping the winger and supporting the forwards. Having said this, this feature of adventurous full-backs is normally only found in teams which keep the ball well, as if a team which struggle to keep the ball have two attacking full-backs then they will be extremely vulnerable on the counter. The role of turning defence into attack is one which the full-backs share with holding midfielders. Therefore, to be able to bomb up and down the pitch, full-backs need to have a good engine.
The versatile role of full-backs is being utilised more in the English game now, but Italian teams have made flying wing-backs their trademark. Most Italian clubs play with three centre-halves, and two wing-backs – including the likes of Asamoah (Juventus), Lulic (Lazio), Armero (Napoli), Candreva (Lazio), Lichtsteiner (Juventus) and more. The Italian national-team often plays with these attacking full-backs also. Therefore, it is clear that wing-backs’ attributes are being utilised nowadays.
However, the true home of the attacking full-backs is Brazil. Brazil created the wing-back, and even have their own name for the pair – ‘laterals’ – which gives an impression of not only width, but also depth (up the pitch.) In many Brazilian teams – the full-backs don’t even need to defend!
This season however, Liverpool have adopted this ‘lateral’ full-back, which has brought about relative success – offering pace and presence going forward and back through the likes of Johnson, Enrique, Cissokho – who are all formidable at their best. Injury forced Liverpool to play Cissokho and Flanagan against Arsenal, which was part of the reason they lost – but their two first-choice full-backs are important when both fit. This has lead Liverpool to 3rd in the league, compared to finishing 7th last year.
Certainly this year there is a clear correlation in the English Premier League between the quality of full-backs and their club’s position in the league. The top three involves Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool (already mentioned.) Arsenal and Chelsea have one of the bests full-back partnerships in the league, no doubt. Chelsea’s first choice of Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic are one of the best in the league defensively, conceding the third least this year – just 8 goals in 10 games.
However, Chelsea’s two full-backs are less crucial going forward, understandable looking at their prowess on the wings. Arsenal’s two first choice full-backs of Gibbs and Sagna are good defensively, conceding one more than Chelsea’s 8. However, their importance going forward is clear. With so many of Arsenal’s wingers out – Podolski, Walcott, Chamberlain, Gnabry – Arsenal have been forced to play central midfielders on the wings – mainly Cazorla, Ozil, Wilshere, and Rosicky. Although this does have advantages, as seen against Liverpool recently with the crisp, fluid movement and passing, it offers Arsenal less width going forward, so Gibbs and Sagna are important in overlapping and putting in crosses for the in-form Giroud.
On the odd occasion that Sagna does manage to put in a good cross, Arsenal often score, this is especially important in the big games (Giroud vs Tottenham, Cazorla vs Liverpool (both came from Sagna crosses.) However, Gibbs and Cazorla deserve a special mention for their work down the left hand side. The need and presence of attacking qualities in a full-back is clear when Monreal has frequently played left-wing as a substitute this year.
However, in my opinion one group of the best two full-backs in the league is owned by Everton – Baines and Coleman – who are essential in going forward, and extremely strong and comfortable on the ball in defense. Again, the relationship between Baines and Pienaar along the left-hand side is commendable.
On the other hand, another piece of evidence which proves the importance of full-backs is Tottenham. Blessed with a skilled squad – their two full-backs are poor in my opinion. Walker is a poor decision maker, and is poor defensively, and part of a reason for his poor form this year is because he has no competition.
On the other side, Danny Rose is never really going to make it as a good professional footballer, and with Assou-Ekotto on loan to QPR, Vertonghen is wasted at left-back. This, combined with the fact that all Tottenham’s wingers like to cut inside – Townsend, Sigurdsson, Lamela etc, means that there is not enough quality overlapping for Tottenham, and a reason for their lack of goals this year, even with such a talented front line.
Full-backs are becoming even more crucial in modern football, and their importance is clear when they are contributing to their teams success, or in some cases a reason their team is not thriving. However, I doubt that there will ever be a pair of full-backs which can contend with the Brazilian ‘lateral’ full-backs – Dani Alves, Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Marcelo, and almost any Brazilian ‘lateral.’
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