I absolutely agree with the view. And being a Liverpool supporter, it was not a surprise for me that last season’s first buys that Rafa did were full backs 🙂
Why are full-backs the key to winning?
by Jonathan Wilson
All the hype in football is about forwards and fantasistas, but increasingly the battle is won and lost among the full-backs
It was, strangely, Jack Charlton who first gave voice to the thought, claiming after the 1994 World Cup that the most important attacking player on the team was the full-back. At first, it sounds preposterous, until you consider that every World Cup since has been won by the team with the best pair of attacking full-backs: Jorginho and Branco for Brazil in 1994; Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu for France in 1998; Cafu and Roberto Carlos for Brazil in 2002; and Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso for Italy three years ago.
Now of course, to an extent, that is coincidence. Nobody wins anything simply by having a pair of good full-backs, but what the trend highlights is the importance of full-backs to the tactical side of the game. Take, for example, Spain’s victory over Russia in the Euro 2008 semi-final. The game tends to be remembered for its 3-0 scoreline and used in evidence against Andrei Arshavin, but it started very evenly.
Arshavin, it’s true, struggled to escape the marking of Marcos Senna, but the decisive moment of the game came after 34 minutes, when David Villa was injured. Off he went, on came Cesc Fábregas, and Spain switched from 4-1-3-2 to 4-1-4-1. That brought Andres Iniesta and David Silva into more direct confrontation with Alexander Anyukov and Yuri Zhirkov, the Russia full-backs whose marauding had been such a feature of the tournament. With their forward surges inhibited, Russia lost fluency, Spain took control of midfield and went on to score three times in the second half. Counter-intuitively, without the tournament’s top scorer, they played more effective football – a useful reminder that goals are a measure of success, not a means to it.
Or consider the first leg of Manchester United’s Champions League meeting with Internazionale. In the first half, Park Ji-Sung, presumably selected ahead of Wayne Rooney for the purpose, restricted Maicon’s attacking surges from right-back, which, given how narrow Inter’s midfield was, allowed Patrice Evra to advance. If it looked at times as though United had an extra man it’s because, effectively, they did.
After the break, though, as Oscar Cordoba replaced the hapless Nelson Rivas at centre-back, Estaban Cambiasso was able to play higher – in the first half, he had almost become an auxiliary centre-back, so deep had he dropped to bail out Rivas – allowing Zanetti to push further to his right and so restrict Evra. Accordingly, the second half was far more even than the first had been.
The full-back, in the modern sense, developed in Brazil in the fifties. The genesis of the 4-2-4 is complex and disputed, but what is significant here is that at the 1958 World Cup, Brazil were using it and nobody else was. It may seem counter-intuitive that it should have been Brazil, with their reputation for attacking flair, who pioneered the use of four defenders as opposed to the three of the W-M, but formations are neutral; it is their application that gives them an defensive or aggressive aspect (which is another way of saying, yet again, that 4-5-1 is not inherently negative).
Terminology here is surely significant. In English the term “full-back” is used as a hangover from the days of 2-3-5. Those two defenders were pushed wider by the backward movement of the centre-half (another confusingly antiquated term) in the W-M, and then wider still when another midfielder (usually the left-half) was pushed deeper to form a back four (this is why the classic numbering of an English back four, reading from right-to-left, goes 2-5-6-3).
In Brazil, though, (and, for that matter, in Spanish-speaking countries as well) a “full-back” is a ‘lateral’. The term gives a notion of width, but not of depth: he was, in other words, a wide player, but not necessarily a defensive one, a mindset that was inherent in Brazilian football almost from the start. Arsenal toured in 1949 and, although broadly successful, were bewildered by what they found. “Suddenly, a bloke comes dashing through and he’s had a shot at goal and the ball went wide,” said the full-back Laurie Scott, describing Arsenal’s 5-1 win over Fluminense in Aidan Hamilton’s An Entirely Different Game. “And we started looking around to see who we’d got to blame for this. We couldn’t find it. We found out it was their full-back. See, they didn’t care. I never went up there like that.”
That exuberance had been a problem for Brazilian football – they won only two Copa Americas before the second world war, and it’s significant that both of Uruguay’s goals in the final game of the 1950 World Cup resulted from the left-back, Bigode, being caught out of position. The 4-2-4, though, gave just enough structure for those attacking tendencies to flourish.
Given the space in front of them, the full-backs were encouraged to advance, while at the same time providing immediate cover. Once marking had ceased to be man-to-man, it became a simple process for the fourth defender to react to the forward movement of the full-back by not pushing out himself, leaving his side still with the three-man defensive cover they would have had in the W-M. The pairing of Nilton Santos and Djalma Santos is often overlooked, but they were key to Brazil’s World Cup victories of 1958 and 1962.
Even by 1962, though, the shape had changed, with Mario Zagallo shuttling up and down the left rather than acting as a traditional winger – as Garrincha most certainly was on the other side. England, in 1966, operated without wingers, using something that would today probably be described as a 4-1-3-2. Their full-backs, George Cohen and Ray Wilson, while nowhere near as flamboyant as their Brazilian forebears, had vital roles, and were noted for their overlapping runs. This, of course, is a natural evolution: if there are no wingers to defend against, the full-back can be more adventurous; and at the same time, if there is no winger, there is a need for the full-backs to advance to provide width.
In 1970, Brazil operated with just one attacking full-back, Carlos Alberto, with Everaldo tucking in on the left to provide balance. That was a function of the highly idiosyncratic development of that side, but it was symptomatic of a more general trend. Most European sides who used a libero tended to deploy one attacking full-back, balanced by a more defensive player on the other flank, who tucked in and operated as a marker: Giacinto Facchetti and Tarcisio Burgnich in Helenio Herrera’s Inter, for instance; Paul Breitner and Berti Vogts in West Germany’s World Cup-winning side of 1974; or Antonio Cabrini and Claudio Gentile in Italy’s World Cup winners of 1982.
In those last three combinations, the left-back was the attacking one of the pair, which was the orthodoxy. Gianluca Vialli has a theory that the right-back was always the worst player on the team. If he showed defensive ability, and was of average height or above, he would be moved into the centre; if he was good on the ball he would be pushed into midfield. The only players left to play at right-back, then, were those who were outstanding neither defensively nor technically. Left-backs were different, partly because left-footers are rarer and tend to be nurtured, and partly because of the example of Facchetti. That thinking has changed over the past 20 years.
The advent of wing-backs can be seen as attempt to liberate both full-backs again – particularly in a world without wingers, but as the gradual move to a single striker has led to a return to a back four, the full-back has again taken on attacking importance. That Dani Alves can be hailed as one of the greatest players in the world is an indication of how crucial the role has become.
Few sides today play with wingers who stay wide. Part of the point of a 4-2-3-1, in fact, is to restore dribblers to the game without risking becoming over-manned in the centre. Even in a 4-4-2, the wide midfielders rarely play high up the field, which means that, as Charlton said, the full-backs are the only players on the field who regularly have space in front of them, and where there is space there is opportunity: if there is no direct opponent, there is the chance to overman, as United showed in the San Siro.
Trying to counter the full-back
The danger, of course, is that sides become over-reliant on the full-backs to provide attacking width, as happened to Russia in that Euro 2008 semi-final. Equally, Chelsea under Luiz Felipe Scolari, after early success with Jose Bosingwa and Ashley Cole pushing forwards (a Brazilian coach employing a typically Brazilian tactic), found themselves restricted as teams began to deploy midfielders to pen them back.
The rise of players like Park and Dirk Kuyt, wide men who play high up the field but are capable of taking on a defensive brief, is one of the most striking features of the past couple of seasons (or look at the job Wayne Rooney did in Barcelona last season). In a sense they are modern incarnations of players such as Jair, who operated on the right for Herrera’s Inter. He was a tornante (literally “returner”), a wide midfielder characteristic of classic catenaccio, whose role was to occupy the opposing left-back and track his forward surges.
Most fascinating is what happens when genuine winger and attacking full-back clash, as happened in last season’s Champions League final. Cole has probably played Cristiano Ronaldo as well as anybody, and so Sir Alex Ferguson switched Ronaldo across to the left, putting him up against Michael Essien.
For half an hour, Ronaldo destroyed him, not merely twice beating him on the ground, but even leaping above him to head United into the lead. The temptation must have been to try to double up on Ronaldo, but Chelsea ended up doing the opposite. Essien drove by him again and again. That effectively gave Chelsea an extra man in midfield and as they came to dominate, Ronaldo became increasingly marginalised. Frank Lampard’s equaliser, of course, came from a half-blocked Essien drive. The course of the game mirrored exactly the ebb and flow of that battle between Essien and Ronaldo.
England’s 4-1 victory in Croatia, similarly, can be seen as a tale of winger and full-back. Danijel Pranjic had looked excellent in the Euros, his overlapping runs allowing Ivan Rakitic to drift infield off the left flank on to his favoured right foot. Faced with the pace of Theo Walcott, though, he never had the confidence to abandon his man and surge forward, which had the effect both of stymieing Croatia as an attacking force, and of exposing his own defensive shortcomings. That Walcott scored a hat-trick underlined the point, but came almost a bonus alongside his primary role of disrupting Croatia’s left flank.
Come next summer’s World Cup, of course, all the build-up will be about the forwards and fantasistas – Lionel Messi and Franck Ribéry, Wayne Rooney and Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto’o and Robinho. Perhaps though, what we should be concentrating on is the full-backs: Sergio Ramos and Philipp Lahm, Alexander Anyukov and Patrice Evra, Dani Alves and Ashley Cole. For it is there, increasingly, where the battle is lost and won.
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