Over the years there have always been full backs who score and assist plenty of goals. Players like Denis Irwin and Stuart Pearce could score from open play while also being deadly from free kicks. But, in general, the role of a full back has changed greatly over the last ten years or so.
Full backs are now seen as an important attacking outlet, giving the team a strong foundation to attack from deep, in the wide areas of the pitch.
Gary Neville was widely regarded as England’s best right back for ten years or so, earning his England debut in the mid-nineties. But if we look now in the Premier League we don’t have many Gary Neville type full backs; full backs whose main focus is to defend first, then attack when the ball moves further up the pitch.
Full backs provide the majority of the width for teams. Wingers typically are inverted, cutting inside and looking to drive at goal, which gives the responsibility of creating width down to the full back.
The full backs aren’t just defenders, they are also expected to be an important element of the attack.
Driving forwards to support the attack as much as possible.
While looking to overlap and deliver balls into the box, or potentially drive with the ball toward the penalty area.
This season in the Premier League there have been numerous occasions where full backs have set up, or scored, important goals. Luke Shaw yesterday against Manchester City is a big example. Full backs are becoming more and more confident receiving the ball and driving forward, and in some cases, driving forward toward the opposition's penalty area.
The importance of full backs being able to drive forward and be creators is great nowadays. But the position is still changing, with City’s Joao Cancelo coming to mind.
A year or two ago and there wasn’t much talk of inverted full backs, but now, due to Pep’s tactical thinking, I am sure that they will become more and more popular. Joao Cancelo is a perfect example.
Primarily his position is as a full back, however when City have the ball he will make diagonal runs into the midfielder, in between the inverted winger and central midfielder. Doing this adds an extra player in midfield, creating an overload that is crucial for the way that City play.
The inverted full back steps into midfield with a diagonal run.
Giving more options in midfield, allowing to keep more possession or create attacking phases of play.
This overload allows City to press higher up the pitch with and without the ball. When they do have the ball the extra body allows for quick one twos and rotation of movement, making it incredibly difficult for the opposition to win the ball, and keep it.
But it’s not just that; Cancelo is so good on the ball that at times it actually looks like he is a midfielder. He can receive the ball on the half turn, drive at the defence while being able to use both feet. He chips in with a fair few goals as well, while assisting a number of opportunities for the blue side of Manchester over the course of this season. His ability is fantastic and he is a huge attacking threat, providing Manchester City with a great advantage over the opposition.
Cancelo’s development, and the use of attacking full backs highlights how important the full back has become to the modern team.
They don’t just hug the touch line, providing that movement up and down the pitch. They can now also cut inside, almost becoming an extra midfield player when they are in possession.
So full backs now must make sure that they are technically good on the ball, while being an attacking threat.
Since goal kicks were allowed to be passed to someone in the penalty area there has been a big change in tactics and the way the game has been played. Before this rule introduction, goal kicks were used to gain territory; they are now used to keep possession.
Centre backs stand either side of the six yard box, pushing the full backs wide as an outlet. Moving the full backs wider creates more space in the middle of the pitch to pass forwards and potentially break the lines. There have been many times where this has backfired, and teams have overplayed, causing them to lose the ball in these very dangerous areas.
However, using these tactics has shown just how good these full backs are. Each week you can see goalkeepers pinging out balls to the full backs, chest or head height, who bring the ball down under pressure and drive forwards.
Technically, the level of full backs around the league is outstanding and their importance is growing more and more, to the point where they may be one of the most influential positions, providing width, technical ability on the ball, and attacking threat.
Full backs now aren’t primarily there to defend, they are almost wing backs now, attacking with lung-bursting runs from one end of the pitch to the other, and then recovering to get back in their defensive positioning.
The full back may change even more so with more frequent use of inverted full backs, but one thing remains: their technical ability.
The technical ability of full backs such as Luke Shaw, Kyle Walker, Joao Cancelo and even Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies is incredibly high, and their importance to the team will become even more so.
So if you are a full back, practise as much as you can on your technical ability. Develop the skills to drive forward with the ball while under pressure while working on your first touch and control.
But the full back is no longer a supporting player, making over-lapping runs to give the winger space to cross, as Gary Neville was for David Beckham. The full back is a vital part of the attack.
Work on your delivery, and even your ability to be a goalscoring threat.
Over the next few years I think there will be an added impetus on the full back to score and assist more goals.
Full backs are fantastic players and we are seeing now that they are crucial to the attack, as match winner, Luke Shaw, showed yesterday.