As Jamie Carragher so eloquently exclaimed on an edition of Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football, “no-one wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville”. The former Liverpool man’s comical dig at his fellow pundit struck a chord – it may have been a bit of banter, but it provided a searingly honest insight into how we perceive the full-back position.
Scoring long-range screamers or making a crunching last-ditch tackle is the stuff of dreams. Not hurtling yourself forwards for 70 yards to overlap the winger, only for them cut inside and smash it into Row Z. It’s certainly not, traditionally speaking, the most glamorous of roles football has to offer.
But in recent years in the Premier League, it has become an increasingly important position, and some of the top-flight’s biggest sides have really exploited its growing potential. Manchester City and Liverpool have been the key pioneers in shining a new light on full-backs, and that has undoubtedly been shown by the manner of their spending in the transfer market, and their influence on the pitch.
As more and more teams opt for this more modern approach of having wingers operate as inside forwards – think Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane at Anfield, or Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva at the Etihad – having full-backs who can help maintain the width is invaluable. In attacking phases of play, they can hug the by-line in the final third of the pitch, and either offer a crossing opportunity from deep, or a dangerous run in behind the defence.
Last year, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold showed the world just how effective they can be going forward despite being classed as ‘defenders’. The former racked up 13 assists across all competitions (11 of them coming just in the Premier League), and the latter went that little bit further with 16 assists in total (12 of them in the top-flight).
After one particularly impressive outing last season against Waftord, in which Alexander-Arnold registered a hat-trick of assists in a 5-0 win, Jurgen Klopp remarked: “It’s important. That’s modern football. If you ask a young boy ‘What’s your favourite position?’ I don’t think a lot of boys will say ‘I want to be a full-back!’ But football has changed. They became much more important.”
But whilst Liverpool have built their attacking charge with full-backs, Pep Guardiola at City has had a different use for them – namely as players with more central positions. The likes of Kyle Walker and Fabian Delph in previous campaigns have been seen to occupy spaces just in front of their two centre-backs, before firing the ball out wide to the wingers hugging the touch-line.
The Etihad side’s boss has always been keen to dominate the ball, and overloading the midfield areas with another of couple of players from more unorthodox positions really boggles the mind of the opposition.
Such is their importance to his team, that it is no surprise to see the Manchester outfit feature prominently in the list of most expensive full-backs in Premier League history. For all of the talk about City’s emphasis on scoring goals and having world-class attackers, they’ve spent serious sums on bolstering their options at full back.
The purchase of Joao Cancelo earlier in the summer really underlined how valuable Guardiola sees the unfancied position. Despite having Kyle Walker as a bona-fide first-team star, the Spaniard felt compelled to bring in a £60m man to compete for the one spot. Having technically proficient full-backs who can slot into central midfield gives the City manager another string to his tactical bow.
Gone are the days of a Nigel Winterburn or a Denis Irwin, intent on protecting the back-four and keeping clean sheets. Now they’re as much a part of the attacking game-plan as the number nines. So when this new generation of kids grow up, they may not be dreaming of becoming the next Neville. But there will be some dreaming of becoming the new Alexander-Arnold or Benjamin Mendy.
And doesn’t that just say it all?