June 17, 2010


Will attacking full-backs win the competition?: The last four winners relied on marauding defenders but is a tactical change under way in South Africa? (Jonathan Wilson, 6/17/10, The Guardian)

Before making any judgment on the importance of full-backs, though, it first must be established why that correlation between attacking full-backs and success exists. This is a subject I've dealt with in greater detail before, but essentially it comes down to the point Jack Charlton made after the 1994 World Cup, that when a back four meets a team playing 4-4-2 or 3-5-2, the full-backs are the players who tend to have the most space in front of them, and thus the most time on the ball, and the most opportunities to make relatively risk-free runs into unexpected areas.

Increasingly, though, teams are not playing 4-4-2, and so the advantage Charlton highlighted no longer exists. When a back four plays a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, the full-back no longer has space in front of him, but a winger. That complicates matters for an attacking full-back. If he is playing an attacking wide player, then he can effectively fight fire with fire – as, for instance Roberto Carlos did against David Beckham when Real Madrid beat Manchester United 3-1 at the Bernabéu in 2003, or Michael Essien against Cristiano Ronaldo in the final hour plus extra-time of the Champions League final in 2008.

That, though, is a risk: Theo Walcott didn't just score a hat-trick in Zagreb in 2008, he destroyed Croatia's entire left side by making Danijel Pranjic, a full-back so attacking he usually plays in midfield, try to defend. So it may be safer for even an attacking full-back to sit deep and try to absorb the threat, as Ashley Cole did against Ronaldo in Euro 2004. If they are going to sit back, then it probably makes more sense for the full-back to be a naturally defensive player (Arsenal's Lee Dixon on Newcastle's David Ginola in a League Cup tie in January 1996, Manchester United's Gary Neville on Arsenal's José Antonio Reyes in October 2004) in which case the hegemony of the attacking full-back may be over.

That's not to say that the attacking full-back is outmoded, but that they are not such an advantage as they once were. If that is so, then the likes of Argentina and Holland may not be so hindered by their lack of attacking full-backs as it seemed they might be. There is always the chance in tournaments that a team reverting to a formation that seems thoroughly outdated will shock the opposition by setting them a problem they have forgotten how to solve. It worked for Greece when Otto Rehhagel reintroduced man-marking at Euro 2004, and it may be that a back four of essentially defensive players is such a novelty that opponents struggle against Diego Maradona's Argentina.

...that there are so few great central defenders these days that almost no one can afford to waste one on the outside of their formation. Lee Dixon, for example, would start at center back on this England squad.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 17, 2010 5:59 AM
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