Out of all the traditional positional slots in modern football the fullback role has perhaps undergone the most significant change over the last 15-20 years. With space on the pitch now at a premium with the increase in teams that press with a high intensity in central areas the available space has more and more moved out to the wide areas.
As a result at the top level of the game the role of the purely defensive fullback has now become outdated with the position now home to multi functional attacking players with the athletic ability to play effectively in both the attacking and defensive players. Increasingly we are seeing players who identify as wingers being moved backwards to the fullback positon with clubs believing that it is easier to teach defensive positioning to a winger than it is to teach attacking flair to a fullback.
Consider the Champions League final where we see Juventus facing Real Madrid. The Italians have Dani Alves at right back while the Spaniards will field Marcelo at left back. Both are admittedly Brazilian but they are identified more through their attacking talents than through any defensive instincts they may possess.
We are seeing a similar trend throughout Europe and in the English Championship a young left back has become one of the narratives of the season following his switch from the wing to a deeper positional slot. The youngster in question is Ryan Sessegnon.
That Sessegnon has made his professional breakthrough at 16 is impressive enough but that the fullback has already scored 5 senior goals is testament to his attacking prowess. He possesses a blend of speed and control that make him extremely difficult for an opposing defensive scheme to account for.
Despite his tender age the giants of English football are circling with a view to signing Sessegnon this coming summer and German side RB Leipzig are known admirers of his talent.
What though will these clubs be getting in Sessegnon?
Strong defensive play
As much as fullbacks are used as attacking outlets in the attacking game they still have to be able to contribute to the defensive phase and Sessegnon is strong if unspectacular defensively. He uses his pace well to cover for the occasional lapse in concentration defensively and possessed sound defensive instincts when using his body shape to cover and block attempted crosses in to the penalty area.
Sessegnon tends to passive in defending the far post from high balls and needs to be more assertive in this area given that he stands 5ft10 in height, this should however improve as he gains more experience.
Here we see the opposition attacking and looking to switch play out to the wide area. Sessegnon is initially tucked inside with the defensive line having pivoted over to cover the ball positioned on their right.
As the ball is switched over to the Fulham left flank Sessegnon is able to shift over to cover the pass and win the ball comfortably before transitioning quickly in to the attacking phase.
The pace of Sessegnon allows him to cover central and wide areas of the field comfortably.
Here we see Sessegnon playing for his country’s youth team as the ball is played out in to the wide area. Sessegnon takes up a position to block any attempted cross or pass and to try to force the man in possession of the ball to move towards the constricted space of the byline.
Initially when Sessegnon engages the man in possession it seems as though he is off balance as the wide player tries to fake Sessegnon in to thinking that he is looking to attack centrally before moving along the outside.
We see the balance and awareness of Sessegnon as he retains his poise and blocks the route in to the penalty area.
Ability in one on one situations
As befits fullbacks today the ability to beat a defensive player in a one on one situation when moving in to the attacking phase is key. As mentioned previously space on the football field in today’s game is a rare commodity and the ability to beat an opponent when isolated against them can be key in creating space and penetrating an opponents defensive structure.
As a converted winger and indeed as a player who is still comfortable fulfilling that role when called upon Sessegnon is excellent when given the opportunity to run with the ball in to advanced areas of the field.
As Sessegnon takes the throw in here he immediately takes possession back before looking to isolate and attack the defender on the outside.
He is able to beat the defender with relative ease before producing a good cross in to the penalty area despite slipping and losing his balance.
He shows good attacking instincts in choosing to make the cross as opposed to driving further in to the penalty area.
This time Sessegnon receives possession of the ball in the attacking transition with the play relatively broken and the opposition defensive structure not yet set.
As he takes possession the immediate expectation is that he will attack the defender wide on the outside looking to make it down to the byline. Instead Sessegnon cuts the ball back towards the centre of the field before making space for a shot which he unfortunately puts wide.
Ability to link play
As well as having the physical profile to be explosive in possession of the ball Sessegnon is also comfortable when being asked to link in with team mates whether in the wide area or in the central areas.
When moving forward and combining with other teammates we see the ability that Sessegnon has to manipulate the ball and pick the right pass at the right time.
In this example we see Sessegnon link in with teammates on the left hand side of the field. As the ball is circulates inside to the player in the half space we see the young fullback make an attacking run behind the oppositions defensive line.
The ball is fed though in to the path of Sessegnon and again we see his composure and awareness on the ball as he chooses to cut the ball back to the edge of the penalty area for a teammate to attack in space.
On this occasion Sessegnon collects possession of the ball in his own half before driving forwards along the left hand side of the field and committing two opposition players.
As he moves in to the oppositions half of the field instead of looking to continue the run as many young players would he instead cuts the ball back inside to where one of his team mates is advancing in to a pocket of space.
Sessegnon then looks to continue his run forwards to stretch the defensive unit horizontally and vertically.
Ability to finish chances
As mentioned previously for Sessegnon to have scored five professional goals at the age of 16 and from left back is extremely impressive.
He shows composure in the penalty area that belies his age but shows that young players today are being encouraged and trained as universal footballers who are capable and confident in any phase of the game.
The fact that Sessegnon attacks the penalty area so effectively shows that he does not stick exclusively to the wide areas of the field in the attacking phase. Instead he quite often cuts inside either when carrying the ball or when looking to receive possession of the ball from a teammate.
In this clip we see Sessegnon taking advantage of some broken play from the opposition defence to finish a chance.
As the ball breaks in the area and is picked up in the penalty area we see Sessegnon read the space ahead of him well as he cuts in to the central areas of the penalty area.
Sessegnon picks up the ball from his teammate and finishes easily in to the goal.
Here we Sessegnon in an extremely advanced position as the ball is wide on the right hand side of the field. When the ball is crossed over he has drifted in to the central area of the penalty area and when the ball breaks to him he is quick to attack the second ball.
The key lies in the way that he retains his composure to finish the second chance when his initial strike does not go in.
For a left back to retain such a goal threat increases the value that Sessegnon has in the transfer market.
Given his tender age there is no doubt that Ryan Sessegnon is one of the premier talents in British and indeed in European football.
An attacking fullback with the potential to develop and spend 15+ seasons at the top level carries significant transfer value and if Fulham fail to win promotion this season we could well see Fulham look to cash in on this value.
It would be interesting to see Sessegnon take the path less travelled and move out to Leipzig or a similar side in mainland Europe. For a young player to take a risk in this way carries its own set of risks but the benefits in terms of professional and personal development are significant.
Whatever happens there is little doubt that Sessegnon will have the footballing world at his feet sooner rather than later.