Propelling himself from the coat-tails of Southampton’s Premier League ascension in summer 2012, left-back Luke Shaw has endured a meteoric rise over the last 18 months.
From a 15 minute senior debut in the FA Cup back in 2011, the 18 year-old has since become one of the brightest prospects in English football, heralded as the world’s first £30million full-back by the British press and expected to receive his first Three Lions call-up to face Denmark next month.
Now, with 48 top flight appearances under his belt and his rapid progression a matter of national interest, a Mexican transfer stand-off for Shaw’s services between Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea looks set to ensue in the summer transfer window.
That £30million benchmark price-tag represents many things; firstly, the combination of Shaw’s age and talent – many have compared the defender to fellow Saints academy product Gareth Bale, and although a transition to an attacking role in his later career seems unlikely, it’s nonetheless a glowing testament to Shaw’s immense athletic and technical abilities.
Secondly, his home-grown status, which not only tends to bump up one’s valuation in the Premier League but also provides all the prevailing fringe benefits of contributing positively to squad nationality quotas and the potential to one day become a huge media profile in the UK. Cash-cow marketing ploys could be just around the corner for the to-be England star.
But thirdly, and most importantly, that £30million label represents a significant and most recent evolution in the tactical side of the beautiful game – the growing importance of attacking, adventurous and athletically gifted full-backs.
Jamie Carragher once described full-backs as ‘either failed wingers or failed centre-halves’ – cheekily enough to Gary Neville’s face in the Sky Sports studio – and for the most part, that categorisation is probably true.
But it’s not so long ago that full-backs were all central defenders that unfortunately ended their pubescent growth spurt a few years too early. The notion of wingers being deployed as part of the defence, at least in the Premier League, can be attributed first to Arsene Wenger, who ousted Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn in favour of Ashley Cole and Lauren at the turn of the millennium. Originally, the former was a forward in the Arsenal youth ranks, and the latter a midfielder at Mallorca.
It wasn’t all that ground breaking – Italian sides have been using wing-backs for years, and Brazil have churned out an endless supply of full-backs who could easily have adopted attacking positions higher up the pitch (Roberto Carlos and Cafu, for example). But in English football, it did change the complexity of what had previously been a monotonous repetition of 4-4-2 formations on a weekly basis.
As with any position or role in a professional team, the job of full-back has its own cycle where during certain periods defensive-minded full-backs are preferred and in counter-acting trends, those who venture forward tend to be more in vogue.
But in the last few years, the full-back role has taken another revolution of its evolutionary wheel, and as the Godfather of tactical discussions, Jonathan Wilson, dubbed it in 2010, it’s now the most important position on the pitch.
Luckily for Luke Shaw, he appears to embody almost every trend of the new full-back breed, that would most likely have been written off as hard-working wingers in a previous time.
Much of this evolution has to do with Barcelona, and now Germany’s answer to Barcelona, Bayern Munich. There’s nothing new about the notion of full-backs supporting the attack and providing overlapping width, but the Spanish and German champions have taken that idea to its furthest extremes over the last few years. Both sides keep the midfield play as narrow and technically demanding as possible, which in turn leaves the full-backs as customarily the only players on the pitch able to operate in significant space.
At the same time, should a full-back be able to provide the pace and quality of a natural winger, it gives clubs such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich a much wider area to play in, where through fear of penetration upon switching the ball to the flanks, opposition defences aren’t able to bog them down in the middle of the park. In other words, full-backs have had to become attacking outlets in their own right in order to keep an increasingly possession-based game as open as possible.
Always lagging behind its counter-parts in philosophical understanding, it’s only in the last few years that this dual role of full-backs and its vitality to the ethos of possession football has truly come to the attention of Premier League clubs.
Much more is required of full-backs than ever before, and although I described that trend previously as a cycle, the movement towards a greater athletic and technical demand of wide defenders appears to have little respite, and neither does the beautiful game’s continual gravitation towards more creative, adventurous and possession-based patterns of play.
With that in mind, Shaw decisively personifies the future of the modern full-back; as prolific in attack as he is resolute in defence, expected to contribute heavily and continuously at both ends of the football pitch, and possessing the stamina and pace to do so for a full ninety minutes without being caught on the counter-attack. This new breed, of which the Saints startlet is undoubtedly one of the youngest and most promising champions, are wingers and defenders combined, athletically dominant enough to coalesce both roles and patrol entire flanks with relative ease.
Having a full-back that can undertake that task effectively changes the whole tactical complexion of the team – it removes the need for an adjoining winger, thus allowing for added bodies in the central area and in turn producing a greater control of possession – and it’s clearly the next philosophical step Premier League football is heading.
In the years to come, one can already envisage every midfield in this country playing as width-less as possible, and every full-back being in some way an imitation of Dani Alves, Leighton Baines or Luke Shaw.
When Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United go to war in the summer over Shaw’s services, they won’t be investing £30million in his future, or even the club’s future, but rather, £30million is the cost to pay to remain at the forefront of the beautiful game’s tactical future.