The Question

Does a team win the World Cup because it has the best full-backs, or does it have the best full-backs because it wins the World Cup?

- Jonathan Wilson, June 17th, 2010

The question Jonathan Wilson poses above may not reach Macbeth-ian levels of examining life at its deepest throes, but with the 2014 World Cup at stake, may be just as important. To have attacking fullbacks, or to not have attacking fullbacks?

The reasoning for the position’s importance when Wilson first wrote about the topic in 2009 was systemic. With contemporary tactics focusing on having three center midfielders, fullbacks were the only players on the field with no direct opponent. In his 2010 World Cup preview a year later, he made note of fullback pairings from previous champions: Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu for France in 1998, Cafu and Roberto Carlos for Brazil in 2002, and Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso for Italy in 2006 (Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila started the World Cup final match for Spain in 2010). Each World Cup side featured a right and left back who were equally as strong in attack as defending. In an era of specialized role, fullbacks became the modern box to box playmaker. So, the chicken, or the egg?

An Immediate, Tangible Impact

On the surface, a side’s fullbacks are a stylistic harbinger. Teams with more conservative fullbacks are content to soak up pressure and hit on counters. Teams with adventurous fullbacks are modern, pressing and attack with fearlessness and speed.

Sides with attacking fullbacks are benefitting already in the first week of the 2014 World Cup. It began in Day 2 of the group stages, with Daley Blind’s cross for Robin Van Persie’s acrobatic opening goal against Spain.

The two late matches in Day 3 were decided by winning goals set up from wide. Italian fullback Matteo Darmian, playing off winger Antonio Candreva’s inside runs, received the majority of his passes inside England’s half (although a lack of tracking back did Barnes no favors as he was up against Darmian and Candreva by himself on Balotelli’s game winning goal – and also note that Darmian was caught out of position on Rooney’s assist for Sturridge’s goal, an unfortunate by product of adventure).

And in the next game, down 1-0 against Japan, Ivory Coast’s game tying and game winning goal came off crosses sent in from right back, and perennial Arsenal target, Serge Aurier. Blind and Colombia one man width provider Juan Cuadrado are tied for the tourney assists lead with three (Blind also has as many assists in the World Cup as Johan Cruyff). Aurier and Swiss left back Ricardo Rodriguez have two assists each.

The individual moments go on: Australian right back Ryan McGowan served Tim Cahill’s goal of the tournament contender from just beyond half field. The aforementioned Rodriguez sent in the cross for Switzerland’s game winning goal in the 94th minute against Ecuador. And it was Fabian Johnson who won the corner kick that lead to John Brooks’ game winning goal for the U.S. against Ghana.

Their contributions haven’t directly translated into the score sheet, but Mexico’s fullbacks Andres Guardado, Miguel Layun, and Paul Aguilar have been essential to their team’s success in possession – showing the diversity in which fullbacks can be used in attack. In their scoreless draw against Brazil, Guadrado, Layun and Aguilar pinned their counterparts Alves and Marcelo back in defense, creating a stalemate of width. Attacking is another form of defending. Or, you could translate events like Darmian’s positional lapse or Baines’ covering crosses as a form of liability. Between recklessness and goals is a thin line.

Messi and Hazard: The Rule Breakers

It’s easier to highlight tourney favorites who are without the service of two productive backs. In his preview of dark horse Belgium, Michael Cox reminds us of past winner’s world class fullback pairings. Seven out of the eight defenders on Belgium’s team are center backs; the side started four center backs in their opening match. This is either an opportunity to recalibrate the value of the position, or a fatal, foundational flaw.  

The same hypothesis goes for tourney favorites Argentina. While Pablo Zabaleta fits the marauding mold on the right, left back Marcos Rojo is a converted center back in manager Alejandro Sabella’s 5-3-2 formation. It was only in the second half, when Sabella reverted back to a 4-3-3, that the team’s clockwork passing, and Messi’s game changing skill came to life. But Spain had Xavi in 2010; Italy had Del Piero, Totti, and Pirlo in ’06; Brazil had Ronaldo in ’02; France led by Zidane in ’98. Sometimes winning is as simple as having the best player in the tournament.

Yet there must be some glitch of sanity and pattern to World Cup success, and to a sport newly discovering Moneyball inspired analytics. If teams were built entirely on spreadsheets and equations derived for past success, signing a pair of attacking fullbacks must surely enter the conversation. France, Brazil, Italy and Spain can’t all be wrong.

Or perhaps the question Wilson poses at the beginning is more a reflection of how fast the game evolves, even in just four year. In that span, tiki-taka rose, failed to evolve, and died. Plus, 2014 is the year of the playmaking center back anyway. Tactical trends, like the open spaces fullbacks are known for attacking, eventually get closed down.