Barcelona, Arsenal & Manchester United And The Reinvention Of The Full-Back

In the high pressing, attacking style of football championed by Barcelona, the full back is crucial to the success of the philosophy.
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In the high pressing, attacking style of football championed by Barcelona, the full back is crucial to the success of the philosophy.

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Barcelona, Arsenal & Manchester United Would Be Nothing Without Their Full Backs...

Traditionally the fullback was a position reserved for solid, dependable players. If the forwards in your team are Ferraris, then the fullback would have been a Ford Focus. Nothing too flashy would be expected from them and any forays into the opposition half of the pitch would be very limited. They would often be the players that would receive a 6 out of 10 rating and generally wouldn’t receive too much notice during a game. Players such as Gary Neville and Lee Dixon would have been noted for their defensive abilities first and their attacking instincts second.

However, over the past number of years this previously unfashionable role has become the latest tactical fad. There are a number of factors that have contributed to this radical change. Tactics guru Jonathan Wilson believes that modern football formations have caused the fullback to be one of the most important positions on the field.

In years gone by the majority of a team’s attacks would begin with one of the midfielders receiving the ball from a centre back. However it’s very common now for teams to use three players in the centre of midfield which has resulted in space in the middle third of the pitch now being at a premium. In addition many teams employ the full court press made popular by Barcelona which has meant that midfielders are subjected to much more pressure than before. This has led to the fullback being given the responsibility of starting attacks from the back because they are afforded the most time on the ball.

This redefinition of the role has resulted in many attacking players being converted into fullbacks. Dani Alves, Fabio Coentrao, Marcelo, Jordi Alba, Kieran Gibbs, Ashley Cole, Douglas Maicon and Steven Ward have all started their careers in attacking positions and later been converted into fullbacks. When pundits consider the attributes of fullbacks these days it is often their attacking abilities that are mentioned first while defending seems to be a secondary consideration.

This increased importance on attacking fullbacks has also had an effect on the price that these players are commanding in the transfer market, with Alves (€32.5m), Coentrao (€30m) and Aleksandar Kolarov (€20m) costing astronomical fees. While these players are more effective when in possession, they are often found wanting when it comes to the more mundane task of defending. Many Irish fans will be familiar with the sight of Steven Ward often getting caught out of position and he will clearly be targeted in the European Championships. Man City manager Roberto Mancini has often had to select the more dependable Pablo Zabaleta ahead of Kolorov, who is not the greatest defender.

It’s noticeable that when both Man United and Arsenal have suffered injuries to their fullbacks they have often selected attacking players such as Francis Coquelin and Antonio Valencia, rather than moving across one of their centre backs. In fact during this season Arsenal have suffered a number of injuries in this position, with the club having no fit recognised fullback at various stages. During this period their attack suffered greatly as their replacement fullbacks were unable to effectively carry the ball forward and go on overlapping runs. Since the return of Bacary Sagna and Gibbs Arsenal have enjoyed their best form of the season and both players have being instrumental in their success. The two players even managed to get on the scoresheet in recent games.

Barcelona are another team that rely heavily on their fullbacks to provide an attacking threat. When watching their games Alves and Eric Abidal can regularly be seen in the final third of the field, with Alves scoring 4 goals and providing 8 assists this season. These are stats that a more traditional fullback would be proud to have over an entire career.

The increasing use of inverted wingers, left footed wingers playing on the right hand side of midfield and vice versa, has also contributed to the rise of the attacking fullback. If for instance Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben who is very left-footed and will always tend to cut inside, is playing on the right hand side of the pitch, this will leave a lot of space for the right fullback to go outside him. It’s no coincidence that the usual fullback on this side for Bayern is the Brazilian Rafinha who is very attack minded.

This situation is also repeated at Barcelona where Lionel Messi and Alves have formed a devastating partnership on the right hand side of the Barcelona attack and also at Man United with Patrice Evra and the right footed Ashley Young on their left hand side. A team that plays an inverted winger needs an attacking fullback to play on the same side of the pitch to give the team balance. When Chelsea play Daniel Sturridge on the right wing the team can often look unbalanced if Branislav Ivanovic is playing behind him at right back. Ivanovic will usually receive a lot of time and space on the ball in this position but he isn’t very comfortable in attacking positions.

As football has become more about retaining possession and in conjunction winning the ball back quickly, more pressure is being applied in the centre of midfield. This has resulted in more responsibility being placed on fullbacks to start attacks. The popularity of inverted wingers in recent seasons has also meant that an attacking fullback is a crucial component for successful teams.

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