Football | Full-back: The New Gamebreaker?



 

“If you are a full-back, you are either a failed winger, or a failed centre-back,” Jamie Carragher said on Sky Sport’s MNF last year. “Nobody wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville.”

While there are more players that adapt to become full-backs than any other position, Ashley Young and Fabian Delph are two notable examples from this season, Carragher’s comments could not have seemed further from the truth in the mid-week fixtures.

Arguably four of the best players on the pitch in the two Champions League ties were the four left-backs on the pitch: Marcelo for Real Madrid, David Alaba for Bayern Munich, Andy Robertson for Liverpool, and Aleksandar Kolarov for Roma. When you also consider the excellent performance by Joshua Kimmich on the right side for Bayern, it was a great week for full-backs.

Real-Bayern seemed like a battle between Alaba and Marcelo on each side of the pitch of who could create the most chances at times. Alaba worked tirelessly throughout the match, constantly getting to the byline to put in cross after cross, as the Germans dominated their Spanish opponents.

The importance of a good full-back was clearly shown in the first leg when Rafinha made a horrendous mistake to gift Real Madrid a goal. If Alaba had been on the pitch, it might have been a different story.

Apart from maybe Benzema, Real’s star player on the night was Marcelo, not for the first time over the last two seasons in the Champions League. In a team with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in the lineup, it felt like most of Real’s play was actually coming from Marcelo, and his cross led to the first goal on the night.

Marcelo also scored a crucial long-range goal in the first leg against Bayern, and an important goal in the game against Juventus. Marcelo is proving to be one of the most potent attackers in the game. From left-back. Marcelo is a modern day Roberto Carlos, with a less ferocious shot, but perhaps better technically. But while Carlos felt like an anomaly in his time, there are more players like Marcelo than ever before.

In the other match, it was Alexsander Kolorov that was a constant threat down the wing for Roma, where he put in a series of very good crosses. The Serbian had a shot that crashed off the post in the first leg. He has scored 52 goals over the course of his career. The best left-back on the night was Andy Robertson, though, who was been a revelation for Liverpool since he broke into the team earlier this year.

Robertson was a menace on Liverpool’s left side, making a number of outstanding maurading runs that led to openings in a crazy game with the Italians.

So enough about attacking. How did the left-backs defend, Gary Neville, might ask?

Not great. There were 20 goals conceded in the Champions League semi-finals, a record number. Real Madrid-Bayern finished 5-4 on aggregate, while Liverpool-Roma finished a crazy 7-6 on aggregate.

This was not just down to the full-backs, although Rafinha (first leg for Bayern) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (second leg for Liverpool) had particularly poor games over the two legs.

Alaba was poor for the first Real Madrid goal on Tuesday night, allowing Benzema too much space to head in Marcelo’s cross. Marcelo added to the general chaos in the Real Madrid backline, especially with winger Lucas Vasquez strangely picked to play right-back on the other side. Marcelo should have given away a penalty for a handball.

Kolorov and Robertson could not be picked out for anything individually, but being part of defences that concede 7 and 6 goals respectively in just two games is not something of which to be proud.

Yet are full-backs truly judged on their defensive contributions any more? Has the full-back evolved from Roberto Carlos, rather than Paolo Maldini, since the 1990s?

The full-backs have become key to a team’s build-up, given the prevalence of 4-3-3 and equivalents in the modern game. Although man-to-man marking is rarely used today, at a basic level, the 3 in midfield mark or cancel each other out, and the 3 forwards are marked by 4 defenders. That leaves one spare man, generally a full-back or a centre-back.

Previously the full-back would be expected to mark the winger. Yet, wingers are increasingly becoming like inside forwards. Playing on the opposite side to their strongest foot, they attack more in the centre-back zones than ever before. From an attacking perspective, the inside forwards also leave big gaps on the wing for full-backs to move into – which is why full-backs tend to cross more than any other player in today’s game.

With most teams having a solid defensive midfield stopper today, the full-back of the Marcelo type is given free reign to attack at will. In the biggest games, they are increasingly becoming the gamebreaker.

Marcelo has become the symbol of that modern full-back. A defender, who you would hesitate to call good at defending. Yet, that does prevent him from being one of the most effective players in the game today.

A sublime first touch of Marcelo’s from the first leg went viral during the week, and Marcelo has brought a lot of rep to the left-back position.

Carragher said that nobody wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville. But you could see a generation that would want to grow up to be Marcelo. The full-back has perhaps never been a more important position in football history than it is today.