Increasingly, full-backs are vital attacking creators for their teams. A new era has taken hold.
To kick off another bumper week of football, the performances of two young men displayed just how much a tactical trend has emerged in recent times.
As Liverpool came from behind to defeat West Ham 3-2 on Monday before Bayern Munich dismantled Chelsea at Stamford Bridge the following evening, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Alphonso Davies were their respective teams’ keys to success; both dominated the game with stellar man of the match performances which perfectly displayed the ever-growing playmaking influence of the modern full-back.
Liverpool had to battle hard to beat the resolute Hammers in Monday’s Premier League clash. All three of their goals were set up by their flying full-backs, who have deservedly garnered much attention during Liverpool’s continuous rise to the summit of world football in the past two and a half seasons. Alexander-Arnold and Robertson have arguably become the most important players in the best team in world football.
The scouser on Liverpool’s right flank created six big chances and was once again his side’s biggest attacking threat: a display followed up by a masterclass from Bayern’s 19-year-old Canadian international the following day. Ironically, Davies was (and perhaps still is) a winger, but shone from a deeper position as he consistently has done since recently moving back there out of injury-inflicted necessity. In both directions, Davies was electric, bolting backwards to sweep up the rare Chelsea counterattack while springing through, round and over challenges in the other direction: perfectly illustrated by his assist for Robert Lewandowski’s goal for Bayern, the team’s third.
While full-backs have long been an important facet of a side’s attacking output (really since I began avidly watching football in the mid 2000s) they have never had such an important role to play as now. The best full-backs — those who have the biggest influence on their teams — can now be considered playmakers. Be it with key incisive passes into forward players or combining with midfielders to manoeuvre a cross, they are vital pieces of the jigsaw which can exist as top teams attempt to break down deep, low block defences of opponents sitting on the edge of their box attempting to stifle central areas.
But it is not a case of throwing the ball into the box aimlessly. The modern full back is required to drive towards a position of maximum opportunity, either creating themselves space with a burst of speed or being picked out by a pass. Once they receive the ball, playmaking full-backs vary a cross with a driven or whipped delivery into an area of onrushing attackers or directly into the path of a specific target.
Further, the contemporary full back’s intelligent movement — including the traditional under and overlap — is often based on the position of wingers. More and more, wide men stray from tradition, drifting into inverted positions and tighter central areas. This is certainly the case for Liverpool – with Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah buying into a systematic way of playing which simultaneously allows them to venture into central areas and link with Roberto Firmino, while the full-backs operate in an open channel.
Gone are the days of full-backs trotting forward to cross from deep or restraining from venturing forward at all. The wide men of today are an extension of the attacking unit; progressive and vitally important in the creation of key chances and goals for team mates. Above all else, the distinctive trend applicable to the majority of those widely considered as the game’s best full-backs is their experience of having played in other positions. As was the case with Trent and Davies playing in roles further up the field during their youth, some of football’s most exciting young stars are playing in full back positions having adapted their natural forward thinking and flair to a wide “defensive” role.
Bukayo Saka has made a name for himself this season; the Arsenal youngster was considered a winger and only truly broke into the first team in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In setting up his side’s equaliser in the 3-2 win over Everton on Sunday, Saka became the youngest player to assist in consecutive Premier League appearances since Francis Jeffers in 1999 when he set up Eddie Nketiah’s equaliser in the 3-2 win over Everton on Sunday. This, along with impressive recent performances in a breakthrough season for Saka, prompted team mate Alexandre Lacazette to say “I think he is maybe the best young player in the league.”
Elsewhere, Achraf Hakimi has caught the eye of onlookers in 2019-20 with consistently dominant performances from right back for Borussia Dortmund. The Moroccan international, on loan from Real Madrid, has created 28 chances and had 10 assists in 23 Bundesliga games alone and routinely bombs forward to wreak havoc in the opposing half. Hakimi, too, has shown versatility in being able to play as a winger in the past and scored four goals in the Champions League group stage with a pair of two-goal performances against Inter Milan and Slavia Prague.
Reece James at Chelsea, Ferland Mendy at Real Madrid and Ben Chilwell at Leicester are further cases in point that a new era in the contemporary game is well underway. Chilwell in particular has proven his worth, primarily through his attacking endeavour, almost certainly cementing his place as England’s first choice left-back heading into this summer’s European Championships. They all make up a crop of a new generation of talent in similar positions, with variations on how they go about having a crucial role in their team’s attacking output.
I have seen it myself. During my 11 years in the academy at Luton Town, I played with a number of players who have gone on to compete in the EFL and Premier League. As young, developing players in the youth teams at Luton, James Justin (now of Leicester) and Max Aarons (Norwich City) often played as midfielders. The same is true of Aarons’ Norwich teammate and fellow starting full back for the Canaries, Jamal Lewis, who played for years in creative forward positions.
Jay Dasilva also falls into this category. He was a serial FA Youth Cup and UEFA Youth League winner with Chelsea, has four caps for England’s Under 21s and now plays for Bristol City in the Championship. All of them are full-backs, all were attacking players or midfielders during their early developmental years and all of them (Justin, Aarons, Lewis, Dasilva) represent their countries. I was part of the Luton team that won the Aarau Masters tournament in 2009, along with Justin, Lewis and Dasilva, pictured below.
Where clean sheets were once a priority, assists and chances created may well be the new benchmark for a full back. Within reason, it no longer matters whether full-backs are “not as good defensively” as they should be, since the development of the game dictates that their influence at the other end can be significantly more decisive.
Some of the game’s best full-backs of a waning era marked this change. When player such as Dani Alves, Jordi Alba and Marcelo were at their peak level, they were long considered the best full-backs in the world based almost entirely on their attacking capabilities. No one talked about how good they were defensively.
Often, full-backs can be neglected by opposing managers who focus their attentions on the threat of genuine forward players. Despite this, shutting down the full-backs of teams like Liverpool seems to be the way to beat them. Exhibit A: Atlético Madrid in the Wanda Metropolitano last week, who limited the influence of Alexander-Arnold and Robertson, minimising theirs and their team’s success as a result. Liverpool had zero shots on target on a rare off-night.
But what happens when the threat of full-backs can’t be stopped? This problem has become a conundrum for managers coming up against teams with the most adept attacking full-backs who can wreak havoc by pulling inside to create possession-based overloads in central areas or floating up and down a vacated channel.
With the game evolving all the time and the old-school role of a traditional outside back a distant memory, a war against the growing power of the modern full back is now beginning to ensue. They are the primary creative source for a growing number of teams as managers adapt their styles and turn to them for increased attacking potential.
As Jamie Carragher famously once said, “no one wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville.” However, going forward, more young players may idolise and hope to follow in the footsteps of players like Alexander-Arnold and Davies.