Why Full-backs Have The Hardest Job In Football

From a limited defender making up the numbers to the modern team’s hardest worker, no player’s role has changed more radically than that of the full-back. FFT salutes the wide boys

Dreams of winning La Decima were fading fast. Carlo Ancelotti could almost feel the cold steel of Florentino Perez’s axe cutting into the back of his neck.

Real Madrid’s obsessive wait for a 10th European Cup looked set to continue as Atletico Madrid defantly hung on to their one-goal lead at Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz.

Ancelotti needed to fnd a solution. As the game approached the hour mark he looked to his bench and made a crucial decision.

On went Marcelo, off came Fabio Coentrao. In response, Diego Simeone switched from a 4–4–2 to a 4–1–4–1 to add width.

Wave after wave of attacks foundered against Atletico’s red and white barricade until finally it cracked. Sergio Ramos scored to send the game into extra-time, before a Gareth Bale header kick-started a goal rush.

Marcelo added a third and Cristiano Ronaldo completed the rout from the penalty spot to ensure Old Big Ears wore white ribbons once again.

On British shores, people remember Bale’s goal, but in Spain there is no doubt who the match-winner was.

“What did Madrid gain with the arrival of Marcelo? They won everything they didn’t previously have: space and increased attacking down the left fank,” wrote the Spanish newspaper, Marca. Ancelotti “found his goldmine” in the Brazilian, gushed El Pais, “his team’s most potent attacking player”. A humble full-back changed the game.

Traditionally, the full-back’s job was to support the centre-backs and stop the opposition attacking in wide areas, but they’ve evolved from guardians of the flank to highly-skilled multi-taskers in their own right — a defender, midfielder and winger rolled into one.

Only players with a wellspring of talents can manage this call of duty, which begs the question: do full-backs have the hardest job in football? FFT looks for answers…

Forget the hardest job for a moment — how about the unwanted job? “What kid wants to play full-back? I didn’t. I was a striker as a boy and loved the glory that goes with scoring goals,” admitted Liverpool’s Glen Johnson.

Full-back was a position for the unskilled worker; the player without the technical ability to fourish in attack, or the physique to dominate at centre-half.

But, thanks to buccaneering Brazilians and trendsetting tactics, that preconception has changed. “A lot has changed in football in the last 20 years, but the full-back in a back four is probably one of the biggest tactical changes,” explained former Manchester United captain Gary Neville.

“Roberto Carlos and Cafu broke the mould, with Brazil setting the tone for attacking full-backs — the player who is expected to be as good going forward as they are defensively.” Standing sentry was no longer enough.

Now, you were expected to charge out of your trench and behind enemy lines. This extra responsibility brought an added workload, drastically altering the demands of the position.

“The modern full-back’s attributes have changed out of all recognition,” says Brentford manager Mark Warburton.

“Think back to the days of Steve Perryman at Spurs: a reliable defender with decent distribution who would get the odd cross in.

“Now look at the physicality in terms of pace, height and even just the areas of the pitch where the full-backs are playing.

“You have real athletes playing at full-back — they’re quick, strong and dominate aerially. They have to be good technically; they have to be able to handle a football.”

Former Everton full-back Andy Hinchcliffe tells FFT: “Full-backs always used to be assessed on their defence, but now pundits ask: ‘How many crosses did they get in?’ They’re 15 yards further up the field in possession.

“I overlapped occasionally, but not much beyond that. Now, full-backs are the main outlet of width.”

If overworked full-backs are seeking someone to blame for their aching limbs, they should look no further than their forerunner — the wing-back.

The brainchild of legendary Argentina coach Carlos Bilardo, the wing-back was charged with providing both defensive protection and attacking threat down the fank in a 3–5–2.

As a full-back/winger hybrid, the wing-back starts further up the pitch, providing width in possession as the team’s sole outlet.

Clever managers found ways to exploit the system’s defensive flaws, but attack-minded coaches didn’t want to give up this new attacking weapon.

The solution? Find a system and a player that could achieve these goals without compromising defensive stability.

Enter Pep Guardiola and Dani Alves. The then-Barcelona boss — a man who often sets the tactical agenda in world football — saw the potential in a full-back who came alive in the final third as part of a 4–3–3.

“They [Messi and Alves] are the two best players on the right flank, and if they play well we’ll have the best right side,” said Guardiola upon recruiting the Brazilian for £23.5m from Sevilla.

And play well they did, forming a terrifying double-act. In fact, such was Alves’ influence, Guardiola could afford to move the mercurial Messi into a central position, leaving the right-back to provide the width as Pedro and David Villa lurked dangerously infield.

During Guardiola’s four years in charge at Barcelona, the barnstorming Brazilian created an astonishing 45 goals.

Only Messi and Xavi provided more assists in La Liga during the same period. After winning 14 trophies at Barça it was time for a new project and a new system for the coach: a 3–4–3 with Bayern Munich, something he had experimented with during his final season at the Nou Camp.

Once again, the full-backs were central to Guardiola’s thinking. He moved Philipp Lahm into midfield, with Rafinha operating as a right-back — but not as we know it.

Rather than galloping up the pitch, the Brazilian — and left-back David Alaba, himself a converted attacking midfelder — would tuck inside to create numerical superiority in possession and a hybrid playing position: ‘the inside full-back’.

If the opposing team decide to mark the inside full-back, they leave the fank open, creating clear passing lanes to dangermen Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery.

If they choose not to mark the inside full-backs but defend the fanks, Bayern can quickly shift play through the centre.

When the team is defending, Rafinha and Alaba shuffle back into more traditional full-back positions.

Did Guardiola’s plan work? In his first season in Bavaria, Bayern won the Bundesliga, DFB Cup, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA World Club Cup, as well as reaching the semi-fnal of the Champions League.

Whether you’re playing at Europe’s top table or fighting in the Football League, full-backs have become the catalysts to a tactical revolution.

Not only can they add an attacking dimension out wide; they can also influence the opposition’s game plan.

“They adopt a high position and when they’re attacking they can dictate to an opponent,” says Warburton. “You have situations where one full-back will go very aggressively and one will stay, or sometimes both will go. Then what does the opposition do? You’re asking tough questions.”

And NFL quarter-backs thought they had a hard time learning a playbook. Try learning two playbooks: offense and defense. Digesting all this information and executing it effectively demands acumen.

“It’s all about positioning — that’s why Alves stands out,” says Hinchcliffe. “The good players now are the ones with brains. They understand the role.

“Alves is the example of the new role done well. My kids ask where he’s playing and it’s hard explaining he’s a right-back. He creeps forward all the time. He’s the design that teams want to follow now.”

Hours in the classroom learning tactics have to be supplemented by blood, sweat and tears in the gym — otherwise a lot of jobs are going to get neglected.

“Full-backs used to be bog-standard defenders; now they’re more athletic,” explains fitness coach Karl Halabi, who has worked with Chelsea, Reading and Watford.

“These guys don’t just need to be fast, but super-ft. They must be able to sprint between 40 and 100 times and complete 60 minutes of high-intensity work during a game, covering 11–12km.

“If they’re playing a pressing game they need to be able to accelerate and decelerate, which puts a big physical load on the legs.

“They also need the capacity to jump, absorb the jump and run again, and that has to be trained.” Tired yet? There’s more. “On top of that they need to be able to deal with collisions, so they need core strength.”

Even Gary Neville, who won 15 major honours during a 19-year career at Old Trafford, concedes he would have struggled to make it in the modern era.

“Full-backs are becoming the extra edge you need — they’re expected to do so much more than in my day,” he said. “I think I got out of the game at the right time.”

So you’ve nailed the tactics, forged the fitness of an Olympian and developed your attacking prowess. All done? Nope. You forgot your most important job: defend.

“The most important thing is to have maximum concentration at all times,” Real Madrid and Selecao legend Roberto Carlos told FFT in 2014. “You can surprise the opposition by attacking at speed, but the danger is leaving space in behind for the opposition.”

And that’s what separates the top full-backs from the rest: decision-making. “A badly-chosen moment to join the attack could spell disaster for your team,” Chelsea right-back Branislav Ivanovic explained to FFT.

“You always have to be aware of your team-mates’ strengths and estimate whether they can cover the space you’re leaving when you join the attack.

“Equally, if one of your defensive partners decides to go upfront, you must be ready to react and cover the space at the back. It’s all about making sure you time it right, because the duties of a defensive player are really complex.”

Positioning and timing are two of the fundamental skills that a full-back must master. Then, when they find themselves in their default position — standing up to the opposition winger — they must be able to stop them in their tracks.

But here’s where it can get tricky for the modern full-back. “Nowadays, you’re often playing against a different opponent every five or 10 minutes,” explained Neville, who retired from the game in 2011.

“The Portugal team of 2006 that had Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Simao were one of the first teams I played against that had the flexibility to swap positions.

“That was when I realised that as a defender you had to prepare to play against two or three forwards in a match, not just one.”

It could be a feet-footed trickster, a sprint king, a precision crosser, a mobile centre-forward — it could even be the opposition’s full-back, who has decided the best form of defence is attack. Defending against a platoon of varied opponents demands adaptability and polished technique.

“As a defender you want to show a winger onto his weaker foot, but if you do that, he’s going to get the cross in — and if you show him onto his other foot, he’ll have a pop at goal and could score,” Tottenham and England full-back Kyle Walker told FFT last year.

“You have to get tight and be physical, but don’t overcommit in the challenge because they might have the skill to beat you.

“You can’t let them turn, because they’ll run at you and can go either way. Ultimately you want to steer the player away from your goal.”

Managers often tell their players to win their battles — the one-v-one duel occupying their area of the pitch. But again, this is where the full-back’s job differs from other positions.

Quite often, it’s not a one-v-one contest — it’s two-v-one, as teams look to create overloads. And the player you thought would sympathise with your struggles is often the one making your life hell. You have to show him who’s boss, says Roma left-back Ashley Cole.

“If you’re playing an attacking full-back, make sure he keeps having to defend,” the former England man explained to FFT. “If he pushes on, he’ll leave space in behind him, so as soon as my team gets the ball, I sprint into that space and he’ll have to chase me. “The key is to fight fire with fire.”

Just when full-backs thought their role couldn’t get more complicated, Guardiola changed it all again. In his second season at Bayern, Pep has replaced full-backs with inverted wing-backs. When Bayern thrashed Roma 7–1 in the Champions League group stages, they played with three at the back — Alaba, Jerome Boateng and Mehdi Benatia.

In front of this trio were two holding midfielders, Xabi Alonso and Lahm. So, who was patrolling the flanks? Juan Bernat and Robben. Yep — Robben. He found himself in acres of space because Roma couldn’t work out who was supposed to mark him.

If Cole was sucked out of position, he left a gap in behind for another Bayern forward to attack. Robben could roam menacingly into midfield, knowing Lahm would cover him at wing-back.

The German created one of Robben’s two goals, before the winger laid one on for Ribery. Guardiola, the man responsible for maximising a full-back’s influence in wide areas, has now found a way of using them in central positions.

The full-back used to be the player who couldn’t play anywhere else. Now he’s the one who can play everywhere.

Hardest job in football? Best job in football, according to former wannabe striker Glen Johnson. “I love my current role at right-back,” he said. “Embrace it. You’re Action Man!”

Originally published in FourFourTwo in March 2015.

Football writer specialising in sports science and performance. His work has appeared in FourFourTwo, Men's Health and The Independent https://www.benwelch.org/

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