The role of the modern fullback, or an outside defender, revolutionized soccer and how teams play.

When fans and pundits alike discuss positions on a soccer team, some garner more comments than others. Strikers, wingers and occasionally midfielders get praise for goals. Goalkeepers are heroes with good performances or the enemies when they make mistakes.

The soccer position that is often left neglected is that of fullback.

The modern game

What is important to realize is that soccer has been moving into a modern era for a number of years. Teams used to field slow, physically imposing and hard tackling back fours. Height and strength was a desired characteristic up top in addition to defense. Then, teams would ‘kick and chase,’ so to speak. It is an entertaining, albeit ugly, spectacle. A duel of physical prowess with the odd sprinkle of speedy finesse.

Technical players were commonplace, but not the dominant force. Every team had one or two technical operators to augment the brute physicality of their rosters.

What we see now is a far cry from this antiquated playing style. Teams tend to play in a much more possession based style. This favors technically composed talents over the physically imposing players that are often not as adept technically. Sure, some teams still use a more physical approach and have a healthy reputation for it. For instance, West Ham United is a ‘gritty’ side. Fans associate the Hammers with using set pieces to grind out results.

But in the top tier of European football, the possession based game is dominant.

Speed of play is what makes this style so devastating. Quick one, two touch passes can open up a team. Suddenly, there are spaces for the attacking team to play through. Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid use this formula so successfully. It is why they are the top teams over the last decade. They turn passing, technicality and speed into a devastating attack.

The role of a fullback in modern soccer

Fullbacks are a huge aspect of this style of play. They provide the width, and, nowadays, a midfield outlet, too. Depending on the type of team they are lining up against, fullbacks can be deployed in a variety of ways. In some instances, they are actually the most versatile position on the pitch.

Take Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, for an example. City typically play a 4-3-3 formation, with a flat back four. And when they are in defensive shape, it looks exactly as you would imagine a 4-3-3 should look. However, when in possession is when the real change happens.

João Cancelo, the left back, and Kyle Walker, the right back, both drop into central midfield positions. They are now a passing outlet for any player in possession. The two center mids in front of the holding mid, usually İlkay Gündoğan or Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, then have the license to roam. They can stay wide. Or, they can run in behind the opposition. This creates overloads on the wings. Manchester City creates numerical advantages in relatively obscure parts of the field that overwhelm the opponents outside defenders.

All the while, they are not leaving the midfield exposed on the counter. The two outside backs tucked into the midfield are technical enough to maintain possession and drive forward. At the same time, they are defensively minded and quick enough to prevent a fast break the other way. It works a treat. City dominates possession and does not allow the opposing team to break the press and get out on the counter.

Providing for the attack

Another great example of modern fullback usage in soccer is Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Andrew Roberston, the left back, and Trent Alexander-Arnold, the right back, are two of the most productive attacking players in the world. In their Premier League careers, Robertson has provided 53 assists, and Trent Alexander-Arnold 45. The numbers go up further when looking at European and cup competitions, where Liverpool has had great success under Klopp. Virtually once in every three games they are each getting an assist from outside back. It is truly remarkable.

Why is their attacking output so high? The way Liverpool plays is quite the opposite to Manchester City’s usage of their fullbacks. Liverpool also play a variation of a 4-3-3 formation. Also in line with City, the formation is evident when the Reds defend. However, when Liverpool attacks, the wingers pinch to become basically right and left forwards. They maraud the sidelines on the outside of Luis Díaz and Mohamed Salah with overlapping runs. The 4-3-3 briefly becomes a 2-3-5.

This allows the outside backs the time and space to attack consistently. Together, Robertson and Alexander-Arnold rain in pinpoint crosses to a narrower front three. Díaz, Salah and Darwin Núñez all eagerly await their sumptuous deliveries instead of taking on defenders alone far out wide. Of course, both Salah and Díaz have the skill to do that, explaining Liverpool’s exceptional talent in attack.

In short, more space out wide to run into and cross, and more bodies in the box to be on the receiving end of the crosses. It is simple, and incredibly effective.

The fullback era

Alphonso Davies at Bayern Munich, Nuno Mendes and Hakimi at PSG, Carvajal and Ferland Mendy at Real Madrid, Luke Shaw and Diogo Dalot at Manchester United, all of these fullbacks are utilized in various modern ways, far different from the antiquated and stagnant playing style of fullbacks in the past.

Keep a close eye on fullbacks as the game continues to evolve. Often neglected in conversation, you will start to realize that in reality, the usage of fullbacks in a team’s style of play is more often than not the defining factor in how that team plays, and the success or lack of success they manage to attain.

Fullbacks rejoice, you are no longer overlooked.

PHOTO: IMAGO / Sportimage