Ahead of Wednesday night’s 8pm kickoff, Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola both faced the same dilemma; who to start on the right-hand side of their defensive lines.
Even during the match itself, both managers changed their minds. Fernandinho appeared to occupy the right-back berth for small periods for Manchester City, taking over duties from moved-back winger Jesus Navas, whilst Cesar Azpilicueta’s venture out of the back in the absence of Victor Moses lasted just 45 minutes, as the Chelsea gaffer reinstated him in defence and dragged Pedro into the wing-back slot at half time.
Clearly, neither manager is completely convinced by the quality and depth currently available to them in those roles, so it’s more than likely both will look to address the situation in the transfer market this summer.
Full-backs or wing-backs seem to be increasing in importance with every passing season – long are the days when they simply tucked in alongside the centre-half – and have become pivotal in representing the philosophies of their sides. Tony Pulis often lines up with centre-backs on either flank at West Brom; whereas Navas’ abrupt emergence at No.2 tells all about Guardiola’s devotion to attacking football.
Perhaps as a consequence, it’s becoming a more universal role than it once was, with all types of players featuring there this season. Take Barcelona’s Sergi Roberto for instance, a playmaking central midfielder by trade, West Ham duo Cheikhou Kouyate and Michail Antonio, not to mention the aforementioned Fernandinho, Navas and Victor Moses. All have been deployed as right-backs, wing-backs or both throughout 2016/17 for pretty much the first time in their careers.
But for two sides who look set to be battling it out at the very top of the Premier League again next season, when the competitiveness between the top six should jump up yet another gear, a right-sided specialist could well prove the difference in the title race. Furthermore, both sides need essentially the same kind of player, albeit in slightly different roles; someone who can provide quality in attack but won’t let his side down defensively and can burst from one box to the other continuously for ninety minutes. Someone action-packed, dynamic, industrious and creative. In a nutshell, the modern-day full-back.
Exotic talents from abroad will inevitably be considered, but there are options in the Premier League as well. Tottenham’s Kyle Walker and Everton’s Seamus Coleman instantly come to mind, but when factoring in likely availability, Southampton’s Cedric Soares emerges as the real standout candidate.
Since arriving at St. Mary’s in summer 2015, Soares has consistently impressed. He helped Southampton to their best-ever finish in the Premier League last season, sixth place, making 24 appearances, and was a regular in the Portugal squad that unexpectedly lifted the Euro 2016 title in France – something that highlighted his potential to play at the highest level.
After a year to settle, we’re unquestionably seeing the best of Soares this season; powerful runs on the counter-attack, rasping crosses into the box and full-blooded tackles in an attempt to intimidate opposition wingers. Taking the reigns from Nathaniel Clyne, his balance between defence and attack, coupled with the similar styles of Ryan Bertrand on the other side, has been a defining feature of the Saints’ play not only under Claude Puel but also predecessor Ronald Koeman.
Statistically speaking, Soares may well be the best right-back in the Premier League this season. Although his interception return is on the short side at 1.3 per match and he’s not as consistent on the ball as the aforementioned Coleman and Walker, he ranks first throughout the division’s right-backs (to have made more than 15 appearances this season) for shots at goal, key passes and accurate crosses per match, whilst coming joint-second for tackles.
The question is whether Soares can make the step up to top-of-the-table football, where his side will have more of the ball and he’ll be expected to do a lot more with it, whilst committing fewer errors defensively. Producing the fifth-fewest fouls of the 15 right-backs in question certainly pays testament to his testament and positioning, not needing to commit himself too often, and Southampton are very much a possession side – keeping the most of any team outside the top six this term – so the transition may not be quite as overawing as assumed.
That being said, just 41 passes per match is on the slim side when compared to the rest of the Premier League, especially considering Saints’ dominance of the ball, whilst 0.9 dispossessions and 1 unsuccessful touch per match, ranking fifth and fourth respectively throughout the right-backs in question, also hints that he may not be the most comfortable in possession. Soares certainly seems more effective when something direct and instantaneous, such as a cross or a tackle, is demanded of him.
But at the age of 25 and already crowned at international level, the timing feels right for Soares to take the next step in his career. Chelsea and Manchester City have both been linked already, whilst some sources claim he’s also caught the eye of Barcelona, potentially taking over from the aforementioned Sergi Roberto. They’re reportedly prepared to pay £25million, but that fee is well within Chelsea and City’s grasp as well.
In fact, amid an era in which full-backs are amongst the most important players on the pitch, and for one who has already proved himself in the Premier League and on the international stage, who would suit both the industrious demands of Chelsea’s wing-back role and the creative flair Guardiola requires from all his players at City, £25million seems like a bit of a steal.