“No one wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville.”
Jamie Carragher’s remark in the Sky Sports studio may have appeared nothing more than a whimsical jibe directed at fellow pundit Neville, however, intentional or not, it was far more nuanced. The humorous insult corresponded with the changing times. In its formative years, the Premier League’s full-backs were generally characterised by their defensive qualities of being able to support their centre-back and occasionally overlapping their fellow wide midfielder.
As we now know, though, this is an antiquated concept. Modern day full-backs have far more emphasis in the attacking third and build-up phases of the game, with defensive principals in some cases becoming almost an afterthought. Even centre-backs are now tasked with carrying the ball out from deep and aiding transitions and – as is often the case – these responsibilities were embedded across the continental European game long before becoming culturally accepted on English shores.
Players like Franz Beckenbauer were pioneers, giving new meaning to what it meant to be a defender. A talented midfielder in his early playing days, Beckenbauer was moulded into a sweeper due to his unique outlook on the game. Der Kaiser could bring the ball out from the back and had an uncanny knack for splitting opposition lines with pinpoint passes. Despite the Libero role essentially becoming obsolete in the modern game, the basic principles of what the German stars game encompassed still resonate today.
Regarding full-backs, the positions current fundamentals can be accredited to the influence of great Brazilian sides of yesteryear. World-renowned for playing with captivating flair, the iconic yellow strip has always been the embodiment of attacking excellence. The Seleção’s full-backs have proven to be no different, with players as early as the 1958 World Cup demonstrating their offensive panache.
The tournament winners bucked the trend of using the universal W-M formation at the time and sought to play using zonal marking. As South American football expert Tim Vickery notes, full-backs Nílton and Djalma Santos brought the tournament to life and by doing so “set the template for the position.”
Brazil’s blueprint of what the role should incorporate has provided unequivocal success in generations gone by and perhaps reached its apex in June in the Champions League final, with no fewer than three of the four starting wide defenders hailing from the South American peninsula. Indeed, the electric form of Dani Alves, Marcelo and Alex Sandro helped carry Real Madrid and Juventus to Cardiff respectively and only further accentuated the nation’s proclivity for its production of these sublime talents.
The former has been a pillar of success throughout the past decade for both club and country and is arguably one of the greatest right-backs to grace the game. Alves was methodically utilised by manager Pep Guardiola during his time in Catalonia as someone who was integral to maintaining the Blaugrana’s width. With inverted wingers Pedro and David Villa often drifting inside to create overloads in central areas, Alves’ sheer lung capacity allowed him to offer an outlet on the flank, and in turn prevented his opposite number from tucking inside to create a narrow defensive unit.
Of course, not everyone can dominate the ball like Barcelona and so this takes us to Italy. The Azzurri have long been admired for their defensive resoluteness and – according to football historian Jonathon Wilson – are the nation that originally gave the game what we know today as wing-backs. Many Serie A sides, as well as the national team itself, currently play with a back three or five, providing defences with requisite protection and thus allowing full or wing-backs ample license to roam forward and wreak havoc.
This was evident not only in Juve’s 2016/17 Champions League run but also at the 2016 European Championships. Antonio Conte had implemented a 3-5-2 system with wide defenders Mattia De Sciglio and Alessandro Florenzi helping to alleviate pressure. Their presence shored up the back line in times of threat and allowed the Italians to pin opposition wingers in their own half through surging forward runs. Although the tournament ended in bitter defeat after a penalty shoot-out loss to Germany, they could leave France with their heads held high.
Conte has since gone on to manage Chelsea and has taken the Blues atop of English football’s summit. He has done so via a sagacious variation of his Italian formation, opting for a 3-4-3 which has seen two relatively underwhelming players in Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses blossom playing as auxiliary wing-backs. Runners-up Tottenham also chose a similar system with Danny Rose and Kyle Walker lauded for their ability to command an entire flank by themselves.
The dexterous athleticism personified by these players can often leave their opponents looking pedestrian, however to just credit their immense cardiovascular ability would be doing them a disservice. A recent trend in the last five years has seen many journalists and pundits use the term ‘inverted full-backs’. Much like the wingers, full-backs are now also being tasked with tucking inside and helping support their defensive midfielders.
This tactical switch – again championed by Guardiola – has showcased the wonderful technical aptitude some of these lateral defenders are blessed with. With football mirroring the game of chess, as so many of the game’s great thinkers elude to, the switch makes sense as it shields the centre-backs and goalkeeper with added protection – much like moving a rook or bishop in front of the king and queen.
After Philipp Lahm was deployed as a pivot, many other coaches sat up and took notice, with some then experimenting for themselves. In certain circumstances, it has proved an instant success and some cases have even seen full-backs make the permeant move to a midfield birth. This is true of both Raphaël Guerrero at Dortmund and Fabinho in Monaco. Managers Thomas Tuchel and Leonardo Jardim have often been praised for the tactical nous and progressive strategies with this being just one example.
The latter has been given further reason to move Fabinho inside, if not for his newly discovered skillset, then for the stellar breakthrough campaigns of both Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibé. The duo have been the platform upon which the French club’s attacking philosophy has been built. They have transformed Monaco from a very much cautious-first side into a vibrant attacking football utopia. With the principality outfit conquering their domestic league and earning global plaudits en route to a Champions League semi-final, both players alongside numerous teammates are unsurprisingly in high demand.
With English club’s initial disdain ostensibly over, they have finally come to realise the complete use of a full-back and the impact they can have. Couple this with transfer fees only rivalled by the likes of China, and it’s little wonder this type of modern defender is now football’s most sought after asset. Perhaps budding youngsters no longer harbour ambitions of becoming a Gary Neville per se, but in today’s game, who wouldn’t want to be a full-back?