Manchester City, Tottenham show how fullbacks are critically important in modern soccer

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Not so long ago, the fullback position was an undesirable one for any aspiring player. The willing souls who took the position were lampooned for lacking the defensive skill to be centre-backs, or the speed and creativeness of wingers.

They sat squarely in the middle of the Venn diagram of positional undesirability; no kid on the playground wanted to be a fullback.

Today, however, the players who occupy the position are rockstars. They often play as wingers, who attack as much as they defend. They provide pace during transition and are typically the main source of width for an elite side. It’s why you load your fantasy team with fullbacks: they earn points for defensive and attacking movements, which reflects their versatility and importance in today’s game.

Take Benjamin Mendy, for example. During Manchester City’s epic Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Tottenham, the Frenchman spent the majority of the match in an advanced role, seldom crossing back into his own half.

His heatmap from a match against Huddersfield earlier in the season shows how he essentially operates as a left winger:

Before his injury, Mendy was Manchester City’s leading assist provider, who earned five assists in his first six starts of the season. The Premier League assist charts for the season contain plenty of familiar fullback names. At Liverpool, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have provided more assists than any other players this season (nine and seven respectively), while José Holebas, Héctor Bellerín and Marcos Alonso have also been involved in plenty of goals in this campaign.

Traditionally, a 20+ goal-per-season striker was considered the most important position on a team. The Harry Kanes and the Sergio Agüeros of this world. But these days, in a game where a greater proportion of goals come from attacking midfield, it’s arguably the fullbacks who service the forwards that are more crucial.

The evolution of the modern fullback may be traced back to La Liga, around a decade ago. While Marcelo and Dani Carvajal were racing up the Bernabéu touchlines to provide support for Ronaldo, the position was truly evolving at the Camp Nou.

The blueprint for Mendy’s positioning at City undoubtedly comes from the manner in which Pep Guardiola used Dani Alves at Barcelona. The Brazilian was effectively a right midfielder, who was often found camped on the right edge of the penalty area, providing an extra wide option for the front three.

Manchester City's Benjamin Mendy battles with Spurs' Kieran Trippier during the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg match at the Etihad Stadium on April 17, 2019 in Manchester, England. (Getty Images)
Manchester City's Benjamin Mendy battles with Spurs' Kieran Trippier during the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg match at the Etihad Stadium on April 17, 2019 in Manchester, England. (Getty Images)

Such a role requires stamina, tactical nous, confidence on the ball and a willingness to take players on. This is exactly why Pep spent over £122M ($158.5M) upgrading his fullbacks in the summer of 2017. Many fans guffawed at the decision to spend around £50M ($65M) each on Mendy and Kyle Walker — but the high price is a fair reflection of the importance of the position to the team.

When City have possession, Guardiola’s 4-3-3 formation becomes a 2-5-3, or a 2-3-5 in the final third. The fullbacks Guardiola inherited at City, all of whom were over 30, did not have the pace and mindset to be able to participate in this rapid kind of transition.

A large proportion of City’s goals follow a very similar pattern: a rapid counter attack sees the midfielders tuck into the “half space” (the area between the flanks and the middle of the field) while the fullbacks advance and create width. This creates an overload as the ball is driven to the touchline and cut back across the box, on the floor, for an attacker to tap into an empty net. It’s the archetype Guardiola goal, made possible by dominant possession, high press and fullbacks who advance with the transition.

The importance Guardiola places in the fullback position is evident in the amount of players he has converted to the position. At Bayern Munich, he retrained Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba as fullbacks to great effect. At City, Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko have both been moved from their native positions to cover left-back. (Zinchenko is a particularly fascinating case study: the Ukrainian cost only £1.7M (and looked as if his City career was over when he endured an unsuccessful loan season at PSV Eindhoven, playing on the right of midfield. But Pep clearly saw he had the attributes of a fullback, who has put in some outstanding performances covering for Mendy this season. In the League Cup Final victory over Chelsea, for example, he was the best player on the field.)

While Guardiola’s fullbacks may help the build-up with small passing triangles or by switching play to the midfield, Klopp’s fullbacks tend to be more direct. His “gegenpressing” style relies heavily on moving the ball in transition up the channels, where Robertson or Alexander-Arnold will whip in crosses. It’s the reason why they have 16 combined league assists this season and why Liverpool rank second in the league for headed goals, with 13.

Tottenham, incidentally, have the most headed goals this season (14), as Mauricio Pochettino’s fullbacks are the main source of attacking width. The physical exertion the Argentine coach expects of his fullbacks has been made clear by the manner in which he has had to rotate them during his Tottenham tenure.

The performances of Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier in the recent Champions League clash with City, however, showed the potential flaw of the modern fullback: if they do not commit fully to defending, or if they commit too many mistakes in advanced positions, they can let the entire side down. Trippier was at fault for two of City’s four goals, which nearly cost the Lilywhites their place in the Champions League final four during a frenetic encounter.

Interestingly, City’s defensive failings in the match generally did not come from the full-back position: centre-back Aymeric Laporte had an uncharacteristically poor game, in which he made two errors leading to goals.

Rose and Trippier are among the Spurs players who may be sold this summer. If they are to be replaced, their new incumbents will likely take up a significant proportion of the transfer budget.

Manchester City, Tottenham and top six rivals Liverpool all deploy fullbacks in slightly different ways, but with the same end goal of providing width in attacking transition. The days of a fullback sitting in a flat back four and occasionally preventing crosses are long gone: thanks to Guardiola and his rapid counter-attacking ilk, they are the most important pieces on the beautiful game’s proverbial chess board.

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