The evolution of the full back role encapsulated perfectly by Arsenal

It is ironic to think that Brazil, known for their overt attacking intuition, would have been the first to shift to four defenders from the traditional W-M formation used so widely up until the late 1950s. A natural progression of having four defenders resulted in at least one of the full backs being responsible for complimenting attacking play. As England have lined up with Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson in these World Cup warm-ups we can see a marked evolution from the days, a decade ago, where the defensively minded Neville brothers were deployed in the same positions. What has caused the need for full backs to become attacking threats? Though Arrigo Sacchi would be sad to know – as with most natural progressions on the tactical front – it was a reactionary process that is still difficult to pin down.

One thing that is clear is Brazil’s 1950 World Cup final loss to Uruguay facilitated the national team change to 4-2-4 from the, then widely used, W-M. Both of Uruguay’s goals stemmed from an over exposure of the full back, Bigode, and the trauma of the defeat led to the introduction of an extra man in defence. As football punditry and managers alike often seem to misrepresent formations as ‘defensive’ it is only the application of formations that make them so i.e. the introduction of an extra defender is not a defensive move when considering the end product for the Brazilians.

In the 40s some Brazilian domestic teams used one of the three defenders in the W-M as a player responsible for moving forward when the team was in possession. This move would be compensated by a covering midfielder dropping back and such an instance of tactical malleability is indicative of Brazil’s latter successes – their 4-2-4 would really be a 4-3-3 when on the defensive and a 3-3-4 when in attack. 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 moving forward and Everaldo tucking in). This remains operational today as Chelsea have a central defender at right back (though Ivanovic has done very well to overlap when required) and Manchester United have the marauding Evra on one flank and the less adventurous Neville on the right – albeit this is as much due to a lack in personnel as it is a tactical imperative. Interestingly I think Evra has been United’s best player after Rooney this year and the change of system in Ronaldo’s departure has seen his responsibility in attack increase.

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The 1950 loss to Uruguay highlighted an interesting tactical point that we have seen occur in the 2000s in the Premier League and another reason why attacking full backs have gained importance. Brazil’s W-M successfully and comfortably beat all other teams using the W-M, but when facing the narrow Uruguay – using a sweeper – their attacks became less threatening. In the early part of this decade we can see (and I commented on this in a previous article) Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were clinically adept at overwhelming the flat 4-4-2 that oppositions would invariably put out against them. Wenger took an attacker from the youth team (Ashley Cole) and put him at left back and a passing midfielder (Lauren) and made him into a right back. The reason was to utilise the space that all full backs have when a 4-4-2 faces another 4-4-2, thus adding another dimension to attacking play. The difference between the full backs Wenger inherited (Dixon and Winterburn) and the ones he established (Cole and Lauren) encapsulates the evolution perfectly.

With tactical variation more prevalent the role of the full back has not diminished. Chelsea’s 4-3-3 under Mourinho devastated the flat 4-4-2 in a different way to Arsenal because by flooding the midfield, if wide men tried compensating for the numerical disadvantage in the centre of the pitch, the full backs had space in behind to threaten. A natural progression in tactical development has occurred due to the attacking full back; they have caused the deployment of defensive forwards. Park Ji Sung and Dirk Kuyt are prime examples of players whose importance have risen when considered against a threatening full back.

When teams face Barcelona, Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Chelsea or Manchester United a pressing concern for managers is to curb the influence of Alves, Maicon, Lahm, Cole and Evra respectively. That these players are considered some of the best in the world is indicative of the importance of the attacking full back at present.

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