Brazil’s attacking fullback lives on

At this World Cup so far it’s been easy to see the impact that one attacking fullback can have: Philipp Lahm in Germany’s 4-0 group win against Australia, Maicon against North Korea and Chile, and Sergio Ramos in last night’s match against Portugal. The advent of attacking fullbacks goes back to the 40s and 50s but, for the younger generation, it is Cafu and Roberto Carlos who best represent the type and their memory certainly lives on in the game today.

In 2006 it was Grosso and Zambrotta, in 2002 it was Cafu and Roberto Carlos, in 1998 it was Lizarazu and Thuram, and in 1994 it was Jorginho and Branco. The team winning the World Cup has boasted the two fullbacks in the finest form – albeit a circular argument. It was Brazil who first shocked the world football consciousness by outmoding the W-M following their 1950 World Cup final defeat to Uruguay and shifting to a four-man defence. A natural progression of having four defenders resulted in at least one of the full backs being responsible for complimenting attacking play.

What’s interesting to note is how opposing formations of the era facilitated the attacking forays of fullbacks i.e. when a flat four-man defence lined up against a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 it was the fullbacks who had the space to run forward, relatively unopposed. But now less and less teams field a 4-4-2 (especially a flat one) and it has led to a diminished capacity for both fullbacks to advance. So what we’re seeing, again, is something similar to the 1970 Brazil outfit; the advent of one attacking full back and another more disciplined one, tucking in when the former is out of position to provide balance is precisely how Brazil operated in 1970 (Carlos Alberto moved forward and Everaldo tucked in). Lahm/Badstuber, Ramos/Capdevilla, Maicon/Bastos and (to a lesser extent) Van der Wiel/Van Bronckhorst all work in a similar mode.

Players like Roberto Carlos needed to be addressed, tactically, and the natural choice was to deploy an attacking winger in a bid to pen the fullback to defensive duties. But as we can see from Manchester United’s 2003 encounter with Madrid at the Bernabeu, the danger is for the fullback to continue his attack regardless. Madrid played supremely well, beating United 3-1. When it works it is devastating but the dangers are very clear: Walcott dismantled Croatia’s attacking left back Pranjic in Zagreb two years ago by pushing up very high and utilising his frightening pace. The prominence of attacking fullbacks has led to a second method of dampening their threat; the deployment of defensive forwards. Park Ji Sung and Dirk Kuyt have grown in stature over the past three or four years because they are specialists, to a degree, and are prepared to track the forward inclinations of a Maicon, Alves, Lahm, Cole or Evra.

What is intriguing, from a defensive point of view for the fullback, will be how a team wishes to address the issue of Robinho in the current Brazil setup. Instead of being a left sided winger he operates as an auxiliary forward out wide with zero defensive responsibility. The danger for a team will be if they try to call Dunga’s bluff on that flank and push their right back forward to gain the numerical advantage in attack because it plays into Brazil’s counter attacking strengths. Or the fullback may be instructed to sit defensively, leaving others to contribute in attack. There is also the option of a three man midfield shifting laterally to address the lopsided shape, creating very interesting choices for Van Marwijk; Kuyt will probably be used on Maicon’s wing and Robben on Robinho’s side, leaving Bastos and Van der Wiel to marshal the most important areas on the pitch.

The fullbacks’ ability to maraud has lessened since the 2002 Brazil World Cup victory but Roberto Carlos and Cafu are still very much in the memory of every team that utilise the tactic.

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