Identity Crisis of Modern Fullbacks – Football’s Most Underappreciated Role

There is a new theory of football being a weak-link sport. Which is to say, a fullback like Nélson Semedo  is a more important purchase for Barcelona than Phil Coutinho, despite the Brazilian obviously being a superior player. Tom Bogert elaborates.
Identity Crisis of Modern Fullbacks - Football's Most Underappreciated Role
Art by Debanjan Chowdhury.

Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville truly are the best punditry duo on English-speaking football programming.

Football fans living in America wouldn’t have had any clue what they were missing had it not been for social media and the digital revolution, providing that demographic with a window to gather around and watch Carragher and Neville trade witty jabs while genuinely elevating the discussion.

That’s the impossible tightrope they’ve managed to perfect: No matter if a viewer is a diehard football junkie or someone ambivalent to the sport but was dragged in front of the screen by the aforementioned junkie, they’ll enjoy Neville’s and Carragher’s analysis.

In one of their best clips, Carragher, as the Liverpool legend is apt to do, spoke truth amid a humorous arrow aimed at Neville: Nobody grows up wanting to be a fullback.

On the surface, that’s a simply hilarious thing to say to someone who made 400 appearances in the Premier League for Manchester United as a fullback. But, deep down, Carragher is right. Nobody dreams of being a fullback; we’re obsessed with goals and fullbacks aren’t generally involved in them all too often. When they are, it’s normally because they’re at fault for conceding one.

As such, in the unglamorous life of fullbacks, they don’t get nearly enough love and nowhere close to enough credit.

This was excusable to all football fans in a world before social media and the oversaturation of analysis, highlights and takes – this is still excusable to modern football fans who maintain some semblance of a normal life by following the game at an arm’s distance.

But for the majority of us who have been under the unbreakable grip of football and follow it more obsessively, it’s inexcusable.

I’m to blame as well. Don’t worry; I’m not pontificating from some pedestal, wagging a disrespectful finger pretending as if I’ve been riding the fullback wave my whole life.

For too long, outside of the very best fullbacks in the world and whoever Liverpool had unsuccessfully thrown to the field, I’ve been ignorant to some great fullbacks. My football viewing experience has suffered because of my ignorance.

This blind spot is not unique. The appreciation for fullbacks is slower and more gradual than goal scorers and goal stoppers. A lot of the time, they’re not in a position to do anything spectacular. A viewer needs to regularly watch a fullback before, one day, being knocked over the head with the realisation: Wow, come to think of it, they rarely get beat and rarely lose the ball–they must be good.

Hell, it took one 80-yard sprint from Andrew Robertson for anyone outside of Merseyside to notice him. That clip against Manchester City, with vociferous Liverpool supporters roaring as he led a solo gegenpressing mission, didn’t even begin to encapsulate his true quality. It was just him trying hard.

It didn’t illuminate Robertson’s cultured left foot, a wand that bends a football to his will; it didn’t illuminate his ability to create width to balance the team, so Sadio Mane can have more freedom to roam in the attacking third; it didn’t illuminate the way he responsibly tracks runners despite the shift he puts in going forward; it didn’t illuminate his intensity, the defiant fuck-you-you’re-not-beating-me scowl he flashes opposing wingers in big games.

Such are the dog days of fullbacks.

Here’s to you, Mr. Robertson

The appreciation of great fullback play truly settles in after an extended period without it, similar to the appreciation of feeling simply normal after being sick. It’s wonderful, but many clubs have it yet can’t properly value it.

After years of tossing out the likes of Jose Enrique, Paul Konchesky, Jon Flanagan, Aly Cissokho, bad-Alberto-Moreno, and the corpse of post-prime-Glen Johnson, Liverpool fans had no clue what they were missing out on.

Now, with any combination of Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Nathaniel Clyne and a repented-Alberto-Moreno, fans are getting to experience the #FinerThingsClub, because for so long fullbacks have felt like a luxury position that the club could not achieve.

The best part is how little that quintet of players cost Liverpool. Clyne’s transfer fee is the most extravagant out of the bunch at £15 million, which is pocket change in the current acid-trip landscape of transfer fees.

Clyne, who has been quickly forgotten in his season-long injury absence, has personified the elusive consistency Liverpool have been striving for. No matter what, Brendan Rodgers and Jurgen Klopp knew what they were getting out of Clyne when they put his name on the team sheet.

When Clyne was first injured, fans were hopeful that a timeshare between Alexander-Arnold and Gomez would be adequate until Clyne returned. Instead, TAA and Jo Go have nearly been every bit as good as Clyne, in their own ways.

Midfielder turned fullback, Alexander-Arnold gets forward unlike either of them and Gomez provides the comfort of an extra centreback to the team’s normally-shaky backline.

Being that Alexander-Arnold is aged 19 and Gomez aged 20, there are growing pains and mistakes that young players are liable to make. But, the pair has been better than any seasoned Liverpool supporter in the Kop could have dreamed.

With Robertson enjoying Team-of-the-Season form since becoming a regular in the starting XI, Liverpool are playing better than they have in a decade.

And with Alexander-Arnold currently riding the same wave of form, Liverpool, not so coincidentally, are more consistent than they’ve been in what feels like a lifetime.

Fullbacks: The chink in the armour?

In youth football, the best players are generally located in the middle of the pitch: striker and central midfield. The less adept young footballers are typically filtered to fullback, the same way the worst fielder in little league baseball is sent to the position least likely to have to field a ball: right field.

When there’s such a disparity between the ability of players at a younger age, the difference between a youth team’s best player and worst player can be quite large, given that the player pool is humongous.

Some high school coaches in America live off these probabilities; their whole game plan is to divide and conquer opposing fullbacks. Attack them when in possession; funnel the ball their way while out of possession.

Obviously, this tactic is too simple for the game at the highest level and the fullbacks are wonderful footballers themselves. But still not quite good enough to be a no. 10. Banking on a fullback in the highest divisions of the game to be simply inadequate at simple techniques would be a doomed plan.

Still, the sentiment remains. Imagine Philippe Coutinho being wasted at fullback?

This is why Barcelona were willing to spend an exuberant £142 million on Coutinho but a comparatively miniscule £27 million on Nelson Semedo.

But, if you subscribe to Chris Anderson and David Sally’s theory of football being a weak-link sport, then Semedo was a more important purchase than Coutinho, despite the Brazilian obviously being a superior player.

Anderson and Sally’s theory, one of many detailed in their book “The Numbers Game”, essentially contends that a club’s worst player is more impactful than its best. It doesn’t matter how great Luis Suarez was for Liverpool in 2013/14, they were still trotting out the low-budget backyard-wrestling tag team of Johnson and Flanagan for the majority of the season.

The specific example used in their book was to look at why Real Madrid’s Galacticos experiment didn’t exactly work out to plan.

“Again, galoots are more influential than stars,” Sally and Anderson wrote. “The differences add up: a one-step decline in the form of your weakest link rather than your strongest link means 4.6 fewer points over the course of a whole season.”

They proved those points quite convincingly with a handful of experiments and deep analytics. Their methods are esoteric, because they are two brilliantly smart humans, so a simplified version would be to point back at Liverpool.

The club had long neglected (or misfired) on improving their weakest areas. How many times did pre-repentance-Moreno, pre-repentance-Dejan Lovren or never-changing-Simon Mignolet directly cost Liverpool points?

This season, Liverpool appear to have solved their issues over the course of two transfer windows. With less than a full season of Robertson and less than half a season of Virgil van Dijk, the club has (finally) done roadwork on their gross potholes.

The best clubs are in perpetual motion of fixing weaknesses–like Manchester City.

Last summer, ahead of City’s tremendous title-winning side, Pep Guardiola, backed by a cartoonish bottomless pit of money, was able to improve his already fantastic squad however he saw fit.

Clearly, Guardiola decided his set of fullbacks was like dressing up a Rolls Royce with rims from a value lot: not detrimental, but not the same quality of the parts surrounding.

So he spent nearly £130 million on three fullbacks.

The best clubs care about fullbacks

Benjamin Mendy (£52 million, Monaco), Kyle Walker (£50 million, Tottenham) and Danilo (£26.5 million, Real Madrid) each arrived in Manchester to be the defensive flanks of Guardiola’s imperious brigade.

Unfortunately for City, fans of consistently brilliant crosses from the left flank, and humans with empathy, Mendy’s season was ended with a damaged knee after just four Premier League starts. Still, Walker and Danilo helped transform City from a side that finished third last season to a team that mathematically wrapped up the title with about a month to spare.

For a team like City–or Barcelona, or Real Madrid, or Bayern Munich, or Juventus, or PSG, or any other opulent powerhouse, such a spending spree isn’t much stressful. In fact, it’s almost malpractice that City didn’t sooner do what they did this summer. Ditto for those other clubs who haven’t a financial worry in the world.

All of those clubs, to various degrees, care about quality fullback play.

Barcelona spent big money on Jordi Alba before it was cool; Madrid has had Marcelo for a decade; Bayern replaced the eternally great, eternally underappreciated Philipp Lahm with, essentially, a younger version of himself in Joshua Kimmich; Juventus has helped make Alex Sandro a star; and PSG splurged on Dani Alves.

Fullbacks matter.

For some managers like Klopp and Guardiola, they’re given huge responsibility to underpin the tactical enterprise. They are expected to bomb forward in attack, providing width to allow the world class wingers more freedom while regularly being isolated to defend a one-on-one with a ton of space due to high pressing. It’s an emphatically difficult job.

Identity Crisis

Every fullback, at some point in their footballing career, is told to play there. Normally, that first time isn’t voluntary or internally planned.

The joke is that every fullback is either a failed centreback or failed winger. They are never there on their own volition for the first time.

It’s true. Look around world football and many quality fullbacks have once been wingers: Antonio Valencia, Andres Guardado, Juan Cuadrado, Ashley Young, James Milner (for a season), Alberto Moreno (though he’s still a winger at heart, clearly), Jordi Alba, Dani Alves, David Alaba–the list goes on and on.

Also remember the infamous headlines dug up after Gareth Bale turned world class about how Blackburn were going to buy him for £3 million and install him as their leftback? The craziest part of that experience is that it wasn’t a ridiculous conclusion to arrive at. Struggling British winger? Throw him at fullback–it works.

As modern football shifts closer and closer to  “total football”, the transition on the pitch has gotten easier than it once was. Especially with wingbacks being so en vogue, it’s not a difficult stretch to put a winger at wingback. For some managers still deploying stone-age tactics,  wingers are already stuck playing as pseudo-fullbacks.

But, internally, it might not be so easy. Confidence is the fuel that powers wingers. They need it to have the audacity to fulfill their duties over 90 minutes. Cautious wingers that are replaced.

It’s a seldom considered phenomenon: what happens when that same winger is told he’s not good enough and is required to change positions?

This is almost exclusively a fullback-specific issue. When strikers are moved, it’s to other attacking positions where they just play like strikers. Central midfielders are moved to other central midfield duties–box-to-box to defending, or attacking to box-to-box. Not exactly an earth-shattering change.

As always, fullbacks are being overlooked.

The most important role in football?

Few kids will ever dream of being a fullback. It’s natural; why would you ever dream of being a supporting actor or actress than the star? What ten-year-old kid dreams of being positionally responsible, tracking a winger, and forcing a pass backwards?

But, as the collective appreciation and knowledge for the nuances of world-class football continues to grow, and as clubs look to find every miniscule competitive edge they can possibly conjure, fullbacks will begin to receive more credit.

Once the European season is finished, and all the leagues have crowned domestic champions and the Champions League Final has been played in Kiev, take note of the medal-winning fullbacks.

Watch that final in Kiev with a special eye on the fullbacks, too. There’ll be enough highlights of the goal scorers, goal creators and goal stoppers. Be different.

Then, get on a pedestal and start pontificating about the importance of fullbacks while wagging a disrespectful finger at your peers, and encourage them to join you.

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Tom Bogert

A fan of repetitive disappointment and frustration, I hold Liverpool and the New York Red Bulls near and dear to my heart.