How the 2000s changed tactics #10: The advent of attacking full-backs

January 19, 2010

England’s first competitive fixture of the 2000s saw them start with the Neville brothers in the full-back positions. England’s first competitive fixture of the 2010s will see Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson there – the shift in that position from solid, reliable players to pacey, positive players could not be more marked.
It’s difficult to say when it became clear that full-backs’ attacking qualities were so important. The basic reason they became crucial is that they were constantly the only players in any real space. If a 4-4-2 plays a 4-4-2, with wide midfielders picking up wide midfielders, full-backs are the only players left with space in front of them to move forward (below left) meaning they often see as much as the ball as any other player on the park. Consequently, post-game statistics also show that full-backs generally run a greater distance than any other player.

The fashion was epitomised by Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side in the early part of the decade. Having inherited a side which contained two classic ‘old school’ full-backs in Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn, Arsene Wenger replaced them with two players who weren’t even defenders when Wenger first saw them. Ashley Cole was a promising forward in the Arsenal youth team, whilst Lauren had impressed for Mallorca as a ball-playing midfielder. That Wenger deliberately chose to drop more offensive players into the full-back positions demonstrates quite how important it was that his full-backs were excellent on the ball. The same happened around Europe. Gianluca Zambrotta (right), a promising right-winger in his early days at Bari and Juventus, was switched to left-back by Marcello Lippi, and became the best full-back in the world.

Jonathan Wilson, the guru on football tactics, now believes that full-backs are now the most important players in the team.

The situation has now developed so far that wide midfielders are often deployed primarily to stop the opposition full-backs advancing – Sir Alex Ferguson has done this brilliantly in recent years – Wayne Rooney and Park Ji-Sung play this role excellently and Antonio Valencia did a superb job on Ashley Cole earlier in the season.

Failure to do this can be suicidal – Tottenham capitulated against Arsenal at the Emirates because they fielded no left-sided midfielder, allowing Bacary Sagna the freedom to get two assists, whilst Arsenal’s similar mistake on the same pitch against Chelsea allowed Ashley Cole to cross twice within three minutes for two identical goals.

How long the prevalence of ‘attacking’ full-backs will continue remains to be seen – with many sides fielding their most creative, dangerous players in wide attacking positions (Lionel Messi, Andrei Arshavin, Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo), there is perhaps more need for full-backs to be strong defensively, compared to the start of the 2000s when there was a dearth of wide players, and many sides used central attacking playmakers.

Regardless, the 2000s was the decade when the full-back role changed hugely. If anyone has typified this, it has been Maicon of Inter – another brilliant right-back from the country which produced Carlos Alberto and Cafu. Here he is wrapping up this season’s first Milan derby.

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