Over the years, the full-back position has evolved, with many managers using the defenders in an offensive sense other than their primary role of defending against opposition wingers.
Although the temptation to commit full-backs to the attack can sometimes be a risk, the right player with the right ability can prove vital to unlocking tight defences.
It will be very difficult to find Premier League champions who did not have the strongest full-back pairing in the league at that particular time. For example, Manchester City’s Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy and Alexander Kolarov were probably the best group of full-backs in the league last season, with Zabaleta proving that he is one of the best full-backs in the world over the past few years.
If a team has the luxury of playing a pair of talented full-backs, it opens up the possibility of the team adding further dimensions to their tactical play. Nowadays, the conventional 4-4-2 formation is rarely used. Instead, teams choose to adopt a 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or 4-1-2-1-2 formation that requires full-backs to commit to attacks, as good old fashioned out-and-out wingers are becoming more of a rarity, especially in the stronger Premier League squads.
With a team like Chelsea, there is a tendency for players like Oscar and Eden Hazard to cut inside and run at defenders instead of running down the touchline and crossing the ball. This has advantages for Chelsea as they possess players who can unlock defences through the middle. However, there still has to be the option of playing the ball out wide.
For Chelsea, Branislav Ivanovic has adapted his game brilliantly over the years in order to become a good attacking full-back, offering Chelsea the width they need. Due to the opposition’s priority with keeping out the likes of Oscar and Hazard, Ivanovic will often hug the touchline, where he will be able to find enough space to cross the ball as talented players will make space for their teammates. Therefore, the player with the most space on the pitch suddenly becomes the full-back, making it important for a player like Ivanovic to have enough quality to produce accurate crosses to the likes of Diego Costa or Didier Drogba lingering in the box.
Other teams like Everton and West Ham use the full-backs as a means to attack. Leighton Baines has become one of the best full-backs in the Premier League with his crossing ability and willingness to support the attack. The same applies to Seamus Coleman on the other wing – he has bags of pace so that he can get up and down the wing. If the defending full-back has a midfielder and full-back to worry about, the attacking team will automatically have an advantage, outnumbering defenders in wide areas.
Both Aaron Cresswell and Carl Jenkinson have helped transform West Ham this season in an attacking sense. West Ham have scored the second highest amount of headers in Europe with 12 goals, just behind Atletico Madrid with 15. This is because the full-backs are delivering quality crosses into the box, meaning the threat from out wide is one of the most important areas for West Ham as their attacking force of Diafra Sakho, Andy Carroll and Enner Valencia will convert good quality crosses into the box.
Although the need to attack is very important, the ability to recover must not be underestimated either. Southampton defender Nathaniel Clyne is a prime example. He can push very far up the pitch but has the pace and awareness to not leave gaps in behind for opposing players to exploit. Teams can have full-backs who are excellent at attacking but if they are lacking defensive ability – they will quickly be caught out.
This is why the full-back is tactically the most important position on the pitch. If the balance is right, full-backs can assist goals as well as providing vital cover for their centre-backs in the wider areas. Without this added advantage, teams can become very easy to contain and predictable, which is why many teams rely on the effect of a talented full-back week in, week out.