Arsene Wenger’s recent comment that attacking full backs win games highlights the rise and rise of the position. Players like Djalma Santos and Nilton Santos in the Brazil team in the late 1950s and later Roberto Carlos and Cafu set the trend for the multi tasking defender and it is a position that has been built upon greatly. Take the top English teams for example: Man Utd have Rafael and Evra, Man City have Richards and Clichy, Chelsea have Cole and Bosingwa, Arsenal have Santos and Sagna, Tottenham have Walker and Assou-Ekotto and Liverpool have Johnson and Enrique. How many of those players’ defensive abilities would have warranted them a place in the famous Arsenal back four of the nineties, or Liverpool’s defence in the eighties? Perhaps Evra, Cole and Sagna but the rest have sacrificed defensive solidity for attacking prowess. That is not to say they are not good players, far from it: they are all good players, but the style of their play is indicative of what is now expected from full backs. If Wenger was looking for a defender whose main asset was his defending then he would not have bought Andre Santos; however that does not detract from his usefulness – he has already scored against Chelsea in the league and Olympiakos in the Champions League.
The rise of full backs has coincided with their role as a tactical necessity for many teams in world football. Take Dani Alves for example. The right back spends more time in the opposition half than he does in his own. Why? Because every time Barcelona line up against a team that isn’t a real threat (so most of the time) the opposition half will play the game with ten men behind the ball. Subsequently the need for extra men to break down the opposition defence for Barcelona requires players like Abidal and Alves to get forward. Not even Barcelona can break down opposition defences all the time Alves plays a crucial part in making sure that it happens more often than not. The same can be said for Marcelo at Real Madrid, or Maicon at Inter or Phillip Lahm at Bayern Munich. In fact how many young brilliant full backs coming through academies do you hear of these days that do not have the extra weapon of going forward as one of their attributes? It has become a necessity.
With a change in formation the role of the full backs has also become more important. With more and more teams playing 4-3-3 than ever before the full backs are required to come forward to fill the gaps where the wide midfielders of a 4-4-2 would otherwise have been. This is most noticeable at teams like Arsenal and Barcelona. Obviously Arsenal utilised attacking defenders even when they played 4-4-2 but since they switched to their current formation the full backs have become more and more attacking. Without their full backs advancing up the pitch teams who play a 4-3-3 risk being dominated in the midfield due to their play being too narrow
A need for an attacking element to your game is not just confined to the full backs either. More and more we are seeing centre backs who not only posses better technique but who also enjoy marauding into the opposition half. Recent arrivals in the Premier League such as Vermaelen, David Luiz, Sebastian Coates and Christopher Samba are all demonstrative of this. In other leagues to Pique, Pepe, Thiago Silva, Vertonghen and others all represent a new era of defenders, defenders from which managers demand an extra gear to their game.
Football is like any other aspect of life in that there will always be a form of evolution changing and driving on our sport. It is only natural for not only managers;’ tactics but also the roles of all positions to become more complete. Just in the same way that wingers must defend and strikers must be involved in build up play then defenders must attack. Isolated cases throughout history suggest that this is far from a totally new phenomenon but what is new is the frequency and importance of such players. You will never again see a team like Arsenal with the back four they had in Wenger’s first couple of years just in the same way that you won’t see Liverpool like that either. Some will consider that a shame but whilst it may not be working out perfectly for either of them at the moment any evolution has teething problems. The future for full backs is bright, and it contains a lot more than their used to too.
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