The evolution of the full-back

The full-back position is one that is often undervalued. A position which is considered as less important or somewhere to cut costs – the notion that players don’t require an in-depth skill-set to play there. The case for this idea was a lot stronger in the era of the classic 4-4-2, but the expectations of a full-back have now evolved.

For your standard park-the-bus team, your full-backs are only ever going to be expected to competent in their defensive duties: good positioning, difficult to beat and not a shambles when on the ball. These three aspects are enough to get by if you’re playing for a draw, but not if you’re playing for trophies.

 

Monaco’s Benjamin Mendy is the perfect example of a modern-day full-back. Leonardo Jardim presents how to utilise the position; it’s not there to carry someone just making up the numbers. It’s no surprise to see Monaco top of the French Ligue 1 with 87 goals – their fluid style of football caused havoc for Pep Guardiola and in particular, Manchester City’s ageing full-backs.

The Catalan manager has been fairly negligent in regards to some areas of the team – their defence at times has looked terrible. With just the FA Cup left to challenge for, Guardiola is in threat of ending year one in England without a trophy. As well as over-tinkering with the side, negligence in the transfer market is also partly to blame – it’s not like the Citizens don’t have the funds – why have they not signed a full-back or two?

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It’s unlikely you would ever see a Nacho Monreal making a run like that. The French left-back is amongst the elite – his athleticism alone makes him levels above the majority of Premier League fullbacks. Teams simply aren’t paying enough attention to the position, and at European level, it’s being exploited – look at Alberto Moreno’s performance in the Europa League Final last season.

Jurgen Klopp has already shown his negligence towards the position with his conversion of James Milner from midfield. Whilst the Liverpool man has done a more than reasonable job in the position, it is vs weaker opposition where teams are setting up to defend where he has struggled to make an impact. He’s not the quickest, so it makes him much easier to defend for opponents than it would against someone like Jordi Alba or David Alaba.

When a team is setting out to defend – as many teams in the French Ligue 1 have against Monaco, the fullbacks are what create the space for the attack. Effectively, in some games, the full-backs are the most important position on the pitch. Premier League teams who are left frustrated by the likes of Burnley and West Brom need to take note from Les Rouges et Blancs if they want to replicate the French side’s 87 tax-free goals in 30 games.

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Europe’s elite cut no corners when it comes to full-backs – so why should English teams? It’s almost like teams are stuck with the outdated version – Jamie Carragher even played right-back in some games, that sums up the evolution of the position alone. Whilst one of Liverpool’s best ever defenders, he would not look forward to facing a player like Alex Sandro who was consistently making runs in behind.

It’s clear where teams need to be improving in the summer – the flexibility which a solid wing-back can provide can make it very difficult to park the bus – Monaco and Juventus have both shown how it’s done. They have shown the new role of a fullback when playing at the top level, it’s no longer a position where you can throw anyone in and “see how they do” – the gulf in class and difference they make to the attacking side of the game are what separate the great teams from the good.