It is a common situation in Sunday league football that a coach will play the least talented football players as fullbacks. I should know, that very scenario happen to me when I started playing at 16 years old. The theory seems to be he or she can do the least amount of damage if they are out near the side line and out-of-the-way of the main traffic of play.
As I got older and started to understand the game more and more I moved infield to become a central midfielder but this has never stopped me from being fascinated by the role that a fullback plays. From my time watching the Premier League on TV it seems to me the role of the fullback has become a bit more glamorous and more important to the team. With the apparent deaf of the winger in the game it is now the fullbacks job to give width to teams attack and to offer crosses into the box. Take Leighton Baines at Everton, Dani Alves at Barca and Philipp Lahm at Bayern Munich as examples to name just a few. Teams in the Premier League seem to no longer to play with traditional wingers, Man United being one of the exceptions when they are not experimenting with a midfield diamond. Now teams try to flood their midfield with bodies as they attempt to dominate possession. Man City , Chelsea and Arsenal typically play a 4-2-3-1 formations with over lapping fullbacks.
But really the attacking fullback is nothing new as the Brazil side of 2002 had two fantastic attacking fullbacks in Cafu and Roberto Carlos and you can go even further back to Carlos Alberto who scored in the 1970 World Cup final. Fullbacks have a long tradition of being an attacking position. It is this attacking threat that has seen some of Europe’s biggest sides invest large sums to get the best fullbacks. Barcelona paid Valencia €14 million to bring Jordi Albia to the Camp Nou and they also spent £23 million for Dani Alves. Real Madrid splashed out €30 million for Fabio Coentrao while Ashley Cole has been linked with a big money move to cashed up PSG. Clearly this is a position that is of some importance as clubs are willing to pay a fee that would usual be associated to a star striker or playmaker.
The modern-day fullback is expected to primarily do his defensive duties but also to be involved in attacks. They are required to start off attacks from deep as they have more space to move into as they bring the ball out from defense. Also you find they often run unchecked along the wing and have more time on the ball to cross the ball or shoot at goal. Fullbacks have more room to exploit as teams play a more narrow formation. With some sides not playing any wingers fullbacks are allowed more space so they need to good at exploiting that advantage. Part of the reason Man United abandoned their midfield diamond was because it left so much room on the flanks for opposing teams to exploit. In the Champions League FC Braga raced to a 2-0 lead at Old Trafford after they attacked United’s left flank. It’s interesting to note that United’s fight back to win 3-2 coincided when they switched back to using wingers which stopped Braga dominating the flanks.
It could be argued that fullbacks are expected to do more running than any other player on the pitch. Next time you watch a match watch how many times Rafel or Baines get up and down the pitch during the game. They are expected to drop back when defending but to also get up into the attacking third when in possession. It’s now not uncommon to see sides set-up to try to restrict the movements of an opposing fullback. An example of this was at Euro 2012 when France set up with two full backs in front of each other on the right (Anthony Reveilere and Mathieu Debuchy) to try stop the attacking threat of Spanish fullback Jordi Alba. The ploy didn’t work as Spain won the match 2-0 in fact Alba provided the cross for Spain’s first goal after beating both fullbacks.
So next time you find yourself being asked to play at fullback for your Sunday league side don’t be so quick to assume it is because your football skills are lacking. It could very well be a compliment as you are your side’s version of Roberto Carlos. But I doubt it.