I had a friend called Jide (I like to think that I still have a friend called Jide but we haven’t properly spoken in a while – Love you mate!). He’s a Liverpool fan, like myself, and played up front for Arsenal youth. He was a handy striker. Almost anytime he took to the pitch he would find the onion bag. I only actually watched him play a game once, he did score, but he hardly moved. Not exactly Luis Suarez, but then far from Emmanuel Adebayor either. His movement was economical so as to have the necessary energy to do what he needed to do when it was needed to be done.
I wasn’t great at football. Basketball was my game and I wasn’t really great at that either. What I did enjoy was the competition and the exercise. Whenever I did play football I normally gravitated to a left midfield position (John Barnes reincarnate), even though I am right footed and not exactly fleet of foot. Jide used to always say that he couldn’t play in midfield as he would have to defend, create and attack and didn’t want to knacker himself out. He was happy waiting for the ball to come, to use his skill and strength to turn or beat a defender, and then his quality on the ball and natural instinct would normally end with the ball in the back of the net.
I think I played up front once in a game over the park with my friend Damien and his mates and got very bored very quickly as I wasn’t as involved in the game as I would have wanted. I preferred to create rather than just finish and my dogged determination to win always saw me sprinting back to help out in midfield or defence. This rather laborious preamble brings me to my point of discussion. What has happened to the old school full back?
Although midfielders are required to help out in attack as much as defence, no other player is expected to cover the full length of the field quite as much as the full back. My good friend Kenneth and I regularly have a debate over what makes a good full back. I always say that a full back must be able to defend first and supplement the attack second. Kenneth, and a good few other people for that matter, argue that you can coach defending a lot easier that you can increase a player’s attacking instincts. I have noticed a shift over the past 10 or so years towards the latter. It seems that many full backs nowadays are failed wingers trying to learn the art of defending rather than defenders timing their forays forward and working on improving their end product, normally a cross into the box. Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s I have witnessed some of the finest full backs to have graced the English game. Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Rob Jones, Stevie Nicol, Stuart Pearce, Steve Staunton, Paul Parker, Gary Neville and maybe England’s arguably greatest full back Ashley ‘how much?? Skrrrt!!’ Cole.
The perfect full back should be able to balance supplementing the attack, whilst always being in the correct position to shepherd out a marauding winger or timing that last ditch tackle although, Confucius say (Paolo Maldini) that if you have to make a tackle, you have already made a mistake.
My issue with the failed winger for full back is that I believe that defenders should be defenders first, anything after that is a bonus. Gary Neville had a good career at full back by just being a no nonsense defender who developed a fantastic understanding with David Beckham timed his runs forward well and was able to put good crosses into the box. The benefit that Neville had of course is that he was supporting David Beckham so he only really needed to be in the correct position to defend any attack and watch Beckham pings balls onto Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke’s head. The key phrase here is ‘correct position to defend’. I find that with the modern day full back, being a winger by nature, they rarely find themselves in the correct position to defend. They seem to rely on their pace to get them out of trouble rather than being positionally sound, or they rely on the defensive midfielder to cover them as they lack defensive instincts. A heart breaking example of this is one Alberto Moreno in the 2016 Europa League final where he was at fault, in my humble opinion, for at least two of the three goals we conceded. I remember when there was talk of Liverpool signing him I mentioned on a Liverpool rumour fan site that I would much have preferred Ben Davies (now at Tottenham) as our left back. I got slaughtered but, it seems as though Jürgen Klopp and I have more in common than I would have first thought as even though James Milner is a midfielder, he has defensive instinct and is caught out of position a lot less frequently than Moreno. Add to the fact he is a right footed player playing at left back and we begin to see the talent and football intelligence this guy has.
I understand that the game is a lot quicker now than it used to be and that the players are generally fitter than they were back in the 80s and early 90s but, that shouldn’t take away from the fact that the modern full backs are no longer defenders. Lee Dixon has commented that during his playing days George Graham used to drill them daily on their defensive positions which in turn led to that Arsenal side having one of the best defensive units and I lost count of the number of times opposition players were caught offside. They were so well drilled that any member of that back four would know that if an opposing forward was beyond them, they were offside as they knew the other members of their defence would be in the correct position to give nothing away. This leads me across North London to Tottenham who apparently have the best full back pairing in the league. I have watched a few games involving Tottenham and while their statistics are impressive, both offensively and defensively as a whole, I would argue that the team’s defensive shape is good enough to cover the over exuberance of their full backs allowing them to attack with freedom and produce such good statistics. Speaking of Rose and Walker, Danny Rose started life as a number 10 and Walker I believe a winger. Early in their careers (and also at Euro 2016) they were both horribly caught out of position a number of times and personally I would still pick Glen Johnson over Kyle Walker at right back. He like Ashley Cole (originally a striker ironically) perfectly balanced defensive responsibilities with attacking support.
A reason for the need to have more attack minded full backs is maybe due to the fact that coaches nowadays feel the need to flood or dominate the midfield and they nearly all have a tendency to play right footed wingers on the left, and vice versa, so that they may come in field and shoot at goal with their stronger foot leaving their sides with no natural width in attacking areas. In a team like Bayern Munich for example, Arjen Robben was regularly played on the right despite being almost completely left footed. Every time he got the ball you knew what was going to happen but, the talent he possesses is so immense that he is virtually unstoppable as he would collect the ball cut inside, and one or two feints later he was unleashing a shot at goal which would invariably trouble the goalkeeper. As a result David Alaba became an auxiliary winger, overlapping Robben to provide the team with width and with this new found phenomenon the old school full back died a quick death. The larger, or more successful teams end up being a template to other teams as new methods are found by more innovative coaches to get the most out of their players to dominate the ball and win games or, as Leicester proved last season (2015/16) to let the opposition have the ball and still win games. Quite a handy trick that! An example of two less successful teams copying more successful teams with differing results is the Spanish national side with Barcelona and the English national side with surprisingly, Barcelona.
Spain hadn’t won a major tournament for 44 years before taking on the tiki taka method of dominating the ball with short passes made famous by Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona side, with players technically great and able to interchange with each other almost at will. England have tried the possession based game but, just have not had the confidence in their own technical ability to execute it properly and a lot of their games has seen sterile possession, with sideways passes, very little cutting edge and few genuine opportunities to score carved out. My feeling now though is that with the emergence of new formations in the Premier league and the influx of foreign managers who put a greater emphasis on pressing the ball in high areas compounded with the ‘emergence’ of Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Luke Shaw and Nathaniel Clyne as marauding full backs a new system may have come onto the scene that may very well help England be a more effective side on the international stage.
Recently 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 has become a popular formation for certain football teams and the game recently where Tottenham played Chelsea is a prime example of both sides using the system and the weakness of having a winger playing at full back. For Tottenham’s first goal Victor Moses was quite far behind the defensive line allowing Dele Ali the opportunity to open the scoring on the stroke of half time leading to Tottenham defeating Chelsea and halting their 13 match winning streak. Moses is not a defender and as a result was too busy watching the game rather than reading the game and being in the best position defensively. By comparison Alonso, the left full back and an actual defender, was in position the only member of the back line out of position was the winger in the full back role. As a further comparison Chelsea were restricted to very few chances as their forwards and defenders in wide areas were constantly pinned back by both Rose and Walker who had, offensively, very good games.
I think it would be remiss of me to write a piece on full backs without mentioning certain players who made turned the role into an art form, and while I am not able to indulge myself in my admiration for Dani Alves, Lilian Thuram, Stuart Pearce (this man walked off the pitch with a broken leg!), or Steve Finnan I must comment on a full back pairing which I believe were polar opposites in terms of their defensive capabilities but equals in the their attacking prowess and equally effective as members of the 1994 and 2002 World Cup winning Brazil national team. I really didn’t get Roberto Carlos. It was hard for me to criticise him openly to people as he played for Real Madrid and Brazil, but I found his defending shocking. Maybe being part of such attacking sides and being so quick and such a character allowed coaches to turn a blind eye to his deficiencies. My brother knows only too well that when I say side show, I am talking about Roberto Carlos. I may be being unfair but I seem to recall only 2 (maybe three) free kicks he took actually going in, let alone hitting the target but a sure as day follows night, if there was a free kick to be taken (pre Zidane at Real and Ronaldinho for Brazil) he would be at the front of the queue. By contrast on the other side of the defence Cafu had a more measured approach to the game. He seemed to be everywhere, up front firing in crosses or, at the back blocking crosses. He was a machine and very rarely, if ever, caught out of position. I can only deduce that playing for Milan helped in that regard at a time when Italian football was seen as very defensive which, would have been the complete opposite of what Real Madrid were trying to achieve with their football. It was no surprise he was the captain of the national side in 2002 and less of a surprise that they won the tournament and quite fitting for a player of such calibre.
But as the curtain slowly falls on Pablo Zabaleta’s career I do miss the simpler times when full backs were wanted as defenders 75% of the time and supplementary attackers 25%. It now seems as though they are now sprinters with football boots thinking more of their assist statistics than clean sheets. At a time when Kyle Walker is spoken in terms of being one of the most effective players for club and country I think we should all take a moment to share a thought, or a memory of an old school full back.
Written by Saffa Kallon
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