Football is evolving. In past years, the footballing world had seen a shortage of fullbacks compared to other positions that were given more importance. Teams could be incredibly successful with full-backs such as Arbeloa, Rafael, Fabio, Abidal, etc. All these players have earned their silverware throughout their career, however, there was always that feeling that they were there to help compete and fill up spots, rather than to make a difference. Real Madrid got to the Champions League semi-final with Arbeloa as a starting right-back, and Barcelona won countless titles with Abidal as a left-back. But had they had the chance to sign a left-footed Dani Alves or a right-footed Marcelo, they probably would have.
Having said all of this, football is shifting towards more versatility and wing-play than ever before. If a team wants to compete at the highest level, and win silverware, it is absolutely necessary to have full-backs that make a difference in the game. Just look at the newest tactical trends in the Premier League, or the last Champions League’s top four. Both teams who competed at the highest level in England, Tottenham and Chelsea, gave a huge amount of importance to their wing-backs. With the 5-2-3 or 3-4-3 becoming more popular by the day, teams need the likes of Rose, Walker, and Marcos Alonso to make a difference in close games. Out of the four Champions League semi-finalists, three had full-back partnerships that won their team games throughout the whole campaign. Dani Carvajal and Marcelo were arguably two of the best players at Real Madrid this season, Alex Sandro and Dani Alves took Juventus’ game to the next level, and AS Monaco’s direct attractive football had a lot to do with Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe’s spectacular seasons.
Now that full-backs have made their statement in the last year, it’s time to take a closer look at certain characteristics that many of these players with break-through seasons possess.
The more versatile football becomes, the more a player is required to do. This is mostly true for this specific position. Full-backs are now required to attack and defend more than before, and at a quicker pace too. These trends have lead to full-backs evolving into more physical, faster footballers, with the technical ability to attack and the defensive commitment to not be a liability in defence. These traits are what teams are looking for in a full-back nowadays, therefore I have formed the conclusion that this is what full-backs will be like in the near future. To give a more specific example of what the future breed of fullbacks looks like, I have chosen to analyse Theo Hernandez, Djibril Sidibe, Benjamin Mendy, Thomas Meunier, and Andrea Conti. All five players had break-through seasons, and possess all the characteristics needed for the physical and tactical demands of the game. Let’s take a closer look at what they can do:
Let’s start off with their defensive capabilities. Up until now, full-backs could have been labelled as either defensive (Ivanovic) or attacking (Marcelo, Dani Alves). The problem with this was that the imbalance caused problems with the team’s structure. Barcelona often had problems in defence when Dani Alves stayed high up the field, same with Marcelo in Real Madrid. On the other hand, Chelsea’s right side of their attack sometimes seemed empty since Ivanovic was mostly in his defensive half of the field. With the next generation of full-backs emerging, this problem is slowly disappearing. They can neither be labelled as defensive or attacking, but rather as a player who can do both, depending on what each situation of the game asks for.
Their physical strength allows them to win a grand majority of their 1v1 duels. This attribute is mostly helpful in 50-50 balls, where they use their power and defensive abilities to snatch the ball away from opponents. Here is how the next breed of fullbacks uses their physical superiority to defend:
As shown, they have no problem bullying their rivals off the ball, since they are stronger than most wing-players. Not only are they extremely strong, but their ability to combine that with size and pace make them the most versatile type of footballer on the pitch.
Physical defending can only be expected when players are stronger and taller than others. ‘Next gen’ fullbacks don’t stop at that, however. Their superior reading of the game allows them to anticipate plays before they happen. They do a brilliant job at impeding the opposition from progressing up the field, either by clearances, smart interceptions, or slide tackles.
Winning The Ball Back:
Their talent to take the ball away from the opposition has proven key in each of these full-backs’ teams. Let’s take a closer look at how the ‘next generation’ use their attributes to defend and win the ball back.
Notice the numerous amount of ways to take the ball away. They are quick and physical to intercept the ball, and their acrobatic physique allows them to pull off some unique clearances.
Another important aspect to defending is tackling. When it comes to this, the newest breed of fullbacks are a step ahead of everyone. Here is just a glimpse of their incredible tackling abilities:
As you can see, they are quick to dive into tackles whenever they need to, and are very efficient at doing so. Their strength allows them to catch top speed before tackling the ball away from their rivals. What surprises me the most is the variation between tackles. They can tackle at top speed, slow speed, acrobatically, tracking back, and many other ways.
Their quickness to the ball allows them to track back better than any other type of player. They are rarely beaten with speed, and when they are, the newest breed of fullbacks have little trouble catching up to their opponents.
Here is an example of rival attackers having a head start on the ‘next generation.’ They have absolutely no trouble when catching their opponents on fast breaks. The ability to track back and tackle at such speed is what differentiates these fullbacks from the rest.
Again, having a fullback that has a great defensive contribution while possessing extreme attacking qualities can only be considered an advantage. But what exactly can they bring to the team in the final third? Let’s take a closer look.
Central Damage Through Half-Spaces:
First of all, it is important to understand half-spaces when analyzing how these full-backs attack. This specific half-space is basically an imaginary zone between the center of the pitch and the wing.
To clarify, the half-space is everything under the number 2 area. Although they provide width when their teams have the ball, full-backs often turn to half-spaces to carry their attacks. This allows them to quickly shift either out wide, or toward the middle, depending on what the play asks them to do. The picture above is a rough estimate of Monaco’s starting XI’s placement on the field. Area 1 is where the fullbacks provide width, and area 2 is where they get to decide where they are going to run towards. Here are a few examples of these left-backs occupying Area 2 for the majority, if not all, of the play.
The first clip illustrates Meunier beating Neymar 1-on-1, then deciding to occupy the half space until he recognizes the unoccupied space left by Busquets. He continues to drive the ball until eventually assisting Cavani. The second clip shows Theo running at full speed (occupying half-space) towards goal, and his first touch is a clear example of which path he chose for the play to take. The third clip shows Conti starting out wide, yet remaining in the half-space during the entire play, even as he let the ball go. Had the Italian attacker taken a cut backwards, he would have been able to easily find Conti in a dangerous position. This area throughout the field allows them to be a constant threat to the opposition. The last clip shows Theo’s power, pace, and crossing abilities to find Deyverson.
Taking On Defenders:
Again, their great speed allows them to easily beat defenders all over the field. Their ability to accelerate so fast in such short time makes it nearly impossible for the opposition to catch them when they are on a break. Although mostly Theo, here are some videos of the ‘next gen’ using pace and strength to run up the field.
Their dribbling abilities are also similar to that of some skillful wingers. They are good at taking people 1-on-1, and have a great dribbling technique that continues to surprise opposition fullbacks and wide players. Here is Alex Sandro making a fool out of those who decides to put some pressure on him:
Similar to Neymar, Hazard, Dybala, etc., the Brazilian is constantly brought down to stop quick attacks. The ability to dribble with spot-on technique, all while satisfying the physical demands of the position, is just one of the few things that makes this group of footballers unique.
The most outstanding attribute this next generation of fullbacks possess are crosses. Their ability to cross the ball make them a constant threat to the opposition, as they never fail to find attackers in scoring positions. To further analyze their crossing abilities, I have divided them into three categories: normal crosses, aerial crosses following a run, and ground crosses following a run.
Normal crosses refer to both aerial and ground crosses into the box, however they don’t involve much action from the fullbacks beforehand. This means crosses not resulting from a dribble or a run. Here is an example of these normal crosses:
As shown, they have no problem finding people in scoring positions whenever they place their crosses. Their pinpoint accuracy when whipping the ball in has proven deadly this 2016/2017 campaign.
Again, combining pace, dribbling abilities and power to produce goals and crosses are what makes these outstanding footballers so unique. Let’s see how they manage to create time and space for themselves before crossing, and put in a good aerial cross into the box for the forwards to do some damage:
As stated, their constant threat from the wings is one of the things that makes them so valuable. Here we can see the ‘next gen’ take on defenders, sprint, pass, and many other things just before performing a cross in the air. The same is true for ground crosses.
Probably the deadliest crosses of them all, the next breed of fullbacks have added a lot of goals to the team’s tally after assisting so many players with ground crosses. These crosses come from runs and dribbles as well:
Here we can see just a few examples of how good they are when dribbling at defenders out on the wings. They can easily beat their obstacles and put a dangerous cross on the ground. These ground crosses accounted for most of these fullbacks assists, especially Mendy and Meunier.
Not only can these footballers cross the ball with extreme danger, they can also account for many scoring opportunities. As they occupy half-spaces and decide to drift centrally, they tend to participate a lot in headers and shot taking. Here are some heading clips where their aerial threat is accurately depicted:
These fullbacks attacking relevance can be seen in Sidibe’s goal, where one fullback performs the cross and the other finishes. Notice Sidibe and Conti carefully timing their runs into the box, the space given by defenders, and the power behind their headers, all signs of elite heading qualities. Meunier uses his strength and tall reach to come from behind and perform a towering header. Alex Sandro wins a corner kick with many defenders around him. This shows the variation in headers, adding to their unpredictability.
When talking unpredictability, it’s impossible to not think of the ‘next gens’ ways to score. They add goals to their teams from long shots, headers, free-kicks, one time finishes, solo runs, and most impressively, astonishingly acrobatic goals. Don’t believe me? Have a look for yourself:
Out of all these clips, the most significant would be Alex Sandro’s goal against Empoli. After abandoning the half-space, he enters the box and automatically acts as a ‘number 9.’ He creates space for himself, anticipates, uses his physical attributes, then finishes into the bottom corner. These fullbacks can do just that and more, which makes them extremely hard to defend. Not only can they cause danger from the wing, but they can drift inside and score as well.
The next generation of full-backs are here, and ready to impress the footballing world with their unique versatility. Their breakthrough 2016/2017 seasons were just a glimpse of what these fullbacks have to offer. Most of these young full-backs have loads of potential, with Theo being the youngest (18 years-old). Let’s see what the future holds for this role. But for now, it is safe to say that these group of players represent the future breed of full-backs.