One recurring trend of the current season seems to be the rise in large score-lines, with various sides, seemingly, sacrificing defensive stability for attacking power. This alteration is embodied by the changing role of the full-back, with the individual being encouraged to concentrate on supporting their forwards, rather than helping to provide a solid base for the team. The likes of Kyle Walker, Glen Johnson and Gael Clichy epitomise this shift, with all three being defensively suspect, but able to provide an attacking threat.
This new breed of progressive forward-thinking football has taken some influence from Barcelona’s fluid attacking philosophy, where both full-backs are, primarily, chosen for their ability to support the front line, as opposed to protecting their goalkeeper. This approach works for the Catalan club, who operate with a deep-lying defensive midfielder, normally Sergio Busquets, who drops back alongside the central defenders, when both wide defenders push on. The advancing of Daniel Alves and, current left-back, Adriano allow the wider of the forward three players to tuck in, becoming inside-forwards, supporting the focal point of the trio, whilst providing further options for the midfield.
With Barcelona’s success using this system, it’s understandable that other sides are adapting to it, striving to emulate such play. This has seen a surge in shaky defensive performances in the Premier League this season, with high scoring encounters becoming increasingly common with attacking set-ups gaining strength whilst backlines become weaker. The need for this type of player has increased over the course of the past few seasons, as Premiership sides increasingly move away from the traditional 4-4-2 formation to line-ups such as 4-3-3 and 4-5-1. These systems allow for greater strength in the centre of the field, allowing the team to hold possession for longer by introducing an extra body, but can leave the focal point of the forward line isolated, unless the full-backs can provide width, allowing others to support.
The problem for Premier League teams, as it stands, is a failure to adapt the midfield to suit the bombing movements of the modern wing-back. Under Jose Mourinho, Chelsea’s use of the 4-3-3 was particularly successful due to the presence of Claude Makelele and Michael Essien, both of whom sat fairly deep in the midfield, chiefly the Frenchman. Due to the narrow central set-up, Ashley Cole and Paulo Ferreira were required to provide the width, as the advanced wingers tucked inside in search of the ball. With this approach the ‘Special One’s’ Chelsea side became, arguably, the greatest Premier League force for a short while, securing the title in 2004-05 and 2005-06.
As of yet nobody has really discovered a set-up to rival that of the Blues during their successful era. Tottenham and Manchester City look the most effective adaptations this term, providing attacking intent and relative solidarity at the back. Perhaps the nearest player to the Makelele is Liverpool’s Lucas Leiva, who rather than supporting the attack, prefers to remain the deepest of the central midfield set-up. The Brazilian may not be physically imposing, but his reading of the game, and desire to aid the defence, allow the Reds’ full-backs to charge on. It surely cannot be a coincidence that Liverpool’s poor form of the mid, and latter season has occurred during the holding player’s injury absence.
With the phasing out of 4-4-2, an increased level of attacking responsibility has been heaped upon the full-back. No longer is it enough to offer a solid base, wide defenders have to offer an attacking threat, which has seen the slow deterioration of the traditional right and left backs.
Are old-school full-backs a thing of the past? Comment or follow @Alex_Hams to have your say
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