The functioning left-back

It was once thought that the full-back was the least important position in football. Caught between not being an out-and-out centre back and unsure over its attacking possibilities, the full-back was marginalised and labelled as insignificant.

Players with technical skill were upgraded to central midfield, those with strength and presence were edged slightly sideways to centre back, while players with pace and quick feet were presumed fit to play as wingers. Once upon a time it was thought that those players filling the role of right and left back were lacking in upper body strength, couldn’t read the game well enough to play central midfield and simply didn’t have the manoeuvering of a modern-day winger.

Through the modern revolution of tactical overhaul that we have been witness to in recent decades, each and every position now has a distinctive role to play. No one is marginalised and no one can be deemed a bystander. With regard to full-backs, with their origin dating back to the discarding of the W-M 3-2-2-3 system in the early 1960’s, the position has seen itself become manifested and fixated upon by the rise in possession orientated and attacking football.

The first full-backs served only to bolster their team’s defence, not even considering the notion of attacking the opposition. However it soon dawned on modern pioneers of the game that this position avails of unrecognised amounts of space not afforded to wingers, playmakers or strikers. As demonstrated most clearly in a flat 4-4-2 versus another flat 4-4-2, each striker is man-marked by a centre-back, each central midfielder is man-marked by another central midfielder and each wide midfielder likewise. Therefore the only player other than the goalkeeper with no established marker is the full-back.

The past fifteen years has seen the role of left and right backs as attacking contributors been taken hold of and pushed to its limit. Earlier examples of Roberto Carlos and Cafu were early indicators of the trend to come while more recent illustrations are evident in Daniel Alves, Marcelo and Maicon. (The Brazilian trend can be argued to be of no coincidence when citing the influence of World Cup winning captain Carlos Alberto) These full-backs are characterised by their unmatched speed, dribbling capabilities and ability to run up and down the flank for the entire ninety minutes of a game.

However even more recent years has seen the rise of another alternative category of full-back: the functioning left-back. The functioning left-back, as an alternative to the modern day full-back, can be categorised by their robust physical strength and presence, their defensive fluidity, positional discipline and technical ability to play with the ball.

Prominent examples of this new role come in Schalke captain Benedikt Höwedes, FC Barcelona’s Thomas Vermaelen, José Holebas of AS Roma and Bayern Münich’s Holger Badstuber. These players do not resemble the contrasting cases of Alves, Marcelo and Maicon at all, with the outstanding difference being their defensive solidity. Although Alves, Marcelo and Maicon alike do possess attacking traits that see them act almost as wingers more than positional defenders, it is the defensive conservatism witnessed in the functioning left-back that makes them an appealing alternative.

As seen in Germany’s World Cup winning campaign last summer, Benedikt Höwedes, by nature a centre back, did not seem in the slightest out of place at left back and was in fact picked over Borussia Dortmund’s recognised left back Marcel Schmelzer. Lining up alongside Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng and captain Philip Lahm, Höwedes was a significant cog in the machine that was Germany at the World Cup – a side that conceded only four goals in their seven games. Since the World Cup in Brazil however, Höwedes has only played one game at left back (significantly, a 1-1 draw against champions Bayern) with former manager Jens Keller as well as new boss Roberto Di Matteo preferring the 26-year old at centre back. This point only further underlining the player’s defensive flexibility.

Likewise, with Holger Badstuber in his earlier years at Bayern and Thomas Vermaelen’s first two seasons at Arsenal, both of these players show similar traits to Höwedes. All three being centre backs by trade, but at the same time all three completely comfortable at left-back. Badstuber particularly showcasing the range of passing shown by a functioning left-back with diagonal and defence cutting passes commonplace before his long line of injury set-backs that saw him sidelined for nineteen months. Vermaelen was so unique as an attacking left-back when he entered the Premier League in 2009 that he ended his first season at Arsenal with eight goals – a statistic which showcases the attacking possibilities of a functioning left-back.

These new full backs although similarly direct in nature to modern full-backs such as Jordi Alba and Dani Alves, are cautious of the limitations of attacking too frequently and are therefore more conservative to attack. That said, when they do attack, their physical strength is nearly unmarkable for modern wingers and full backs who do not have the physical power to obstruct them. They are also for the most part technically gifted footballers. Because these particular examples of Höwedes, Vermaelen, Holebas and Badstuber are by nature centre backs within teams that play possession-based football, such positioning at left-back shows them to be confident with the ball at their feet meaning that they can distribute the ball over both short and long distances. Three out of these four examples being left-footed players playing on the left-hand side of the defence is also significant as defenders are normally played on the side of defence that corresponds with their stronger foot. However in the case of these bulkier left-backs, the decision of their managers to play them to maximise their attacking threat is unusual.

In the case of Holebas, we are also witness to a competent dribbler of the ball. Common to all full-backs, the players that play these positions require a lot of stamina and endurance to be able to run at the opposition’s wingers and full-backs to make it to the by-line to be able to make a cross. In keeping with this skill is the art of dribbling. An early description of dribbling found in Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, written in the 1870’s by an unknown source reads as follows, “A really first-class player will never lose site of the ball, at the same time keeping his attention employed in the spying out of gaps in the enemy’s ranks, or any weak points in the defence, which may give him a favourable chance of arriving at the coveted goal.

“To see some players guide and steer a ball through a circle of opposing legs, turning and twisting as the occasion requires, is a sight not to be forgotten. Skill in dribbling necessitates something more than a go-ahead, fearless, headlong onslaught of the enemy’s citadel; it requires an eye quick at discovering a weak point, and nous to calculate and decide the chances of a successful passage.” Holebas, unlike other central defenders, right and left backs, is a possessor of wonderful dribbling ability. Skipping by one and two opponents before exchanging passes with teammates is a common site at the Olimpico.

It is the conservative nature of this new breed of full-backs that makes them such an appealing alternative. Not all teams are afforded the luxury of attaining 60 per cent possession and must therefore set up their eleven men in a different manner. Included within this is the full-back. The recent phenomenon of bolstering and speedy full-backs is common among the European elite at FC Barcelona, Bayern and Real Madrid. However it is in slower and more tactically fought competitions such as World Cups and Serie A that the functioning left-back can thrive. Driven by defensive discipline but at the same time allowed to roam forward, these players ration their attacks and use them when the occasion is required. Physical, robust but still fast and technical, this unique brand of full-back is as effective as it is rare in its use in today’s offence-driven club football.

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