According to football lore, it was former Ireland manager Jack Charlton who first suggested that fullbacks were the most important position on the field after the 1994 World Cup. His reasoning was that in a match pairing two 4-4-2 formations, fullbacks were the only position on the field without a natural marker and with space in front of them to exploit. And while he was an early adopter, it took more than 20 years for the market to catch up as it did in the 2017 summer transfer window. Premier League teams spent more than $280 million last summer on fullbacks. League leaders Manchester City spent more than $160 million on the position across three players in Kyle Walker (taking two awards for the most expensive defender and most expensive English player ever), Benjamin Mendy and Danilo.
The nine figure amount paid to fullbacks was the culmination of positional development more than a decade in the making. With emphasis changing from defending to getting forward, attacking fullbacks were named as one of the ten most important tactical trends of the 2000s. The initial blame was placed on Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal sides during that period. Ashley Cole, a former forward, and Lauren, a midfielder, eschewed traditional defending pedigree for speed and comfort on the ball. Former Tottenham and Liverpool sporting director Damien Comolli said that the position requires players to attack 70% of the time. And while fullbacks go no further than the halfway line during big matches for defensive solidarity, the focus on unlocking defenses outweighs the cautious, traditional benefits.
We’ve previously discussed the importance of Walker, Mendy, Danilo and Fabian Delph to Pep Guardiola’s record breaking City side. Delph - as with Philipp Lahm during the manager’s time at Bayern Munich - displays a new wrinkle with fullback as center midfield controller, yet with the athleticism to put out potential counter attacks. Walker is the traditional fullback, providing speed and athleticism to an otherwise controlled, possession side. Guardiola once said he wants a team of 1000 midfielders, although judging by City’s summer spending, that proclamation may now extend to fullbacks as well.
Antonio Conte spent on and developed his pair of wingbacks during Chelsea’s Premier League title run last season. Marco Alonso was a surprise signing for $30 million from Fiorentina on deadline day. Conte emphasized the importance of Alonso’s natural left foot in providing width to a side with three right footed fullbacks. In a move echoing Comolli’s observation, winger Victor Moses was moved to right wingback where his speed and powerful runs could find space in the box with late, blindside moves. It was Moses, during Chelsea’s 13 match win streak, who had many asking if wingbacks even needed to defend anymore.
But there is a counterexample for every full fledged declaration. For those still skeptical of the position, consider the opposite end of attempting to build a team with defensively subpar fullbacks. Alberto Moreno on Liverpool’s left side is an easy target. In blowing a 3-0 lead against Sevilla in a Champions League group stage match this season, Moreno’s role in their opponent’s three goal comeback was heavy criticized. It was a reminder while the fullback may be the defining position of this current era, speed and an instinct to get forward can be disastrous without a balanced side. The Spanish left back getting beat near post for a goal is highlight fodder. But equally responsible is Jurgen Klopp’s side lacking a true ball winner in midfield to protect his fullback when getting inside the opposition third.
Although in the world according to Klopp, his fullbacks are required to attack and win the ball, which absolves Moreno’s contributions and defensive lapses to a certain extent. He describes fullbacks as the new midfielders required to play in half spaces and gives his two cardinal rules for the position: be a passing option or be protection. The changing nature of the role is also symbolized in him persuading the center midfielder Milner to switch to the position. Milner voiced his protest of moving to left back because he wouldn’t get the ball. Klopp countered by saying Milner would always be involved and get the ball more than he could imagine.
The trend is not specific to the Premier League. Barcelona spent $36 million signing right back Nelson Semedo from Benfica. Held by Dani Alves for nine seasons between 2008 and 2016, the position has been in flux since his move to Juventus two seasons ago. In a Guardiola-esque move, center midfielder Sergi Roberto was moved to the position last year. And while the move had its growing pains, his comfort in possession and crossing ability kept Semedo out of the lineup for the last month.
Fullbacks played an incisive role in the biggest moments across the continent as well. In the first leg of Juventus’ 2-0 Champions League semi-final win against Monaco, Alves had two assists as he and left wingback Alex Sandro were credited with controlling possession and creating incisive chances against their opponent’s narrow formation. As Real Madrid beat Alves’ side 4-1 in the final, Dani Carvajal beating Mario Mandzukic on the wing with pace was credited as turning the game for the Spanish champions.
“No one wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville”, Jamie Carragher said four years ago. Trends are cyclical, and this one is certainly born out of the current era. With the focus on counter pressing and counter attacking, it was only a matter of time in which a certain type of player or a position would arise out of sprints, recovery and athleticism. Whereas once the answer was center midfielders, there are limitations with crowded middle areas in contrast to the open lanes of fullbacks. Tactics and trends come and go, but where there is space, there will be the players who shape it.