No position has seen more change in the last fifteen years then the position of full-back. The demands placed on the full-backs of today are huge, especially in an attacking sense, and there are so many different interpretations of the position. This tactical analysis will discuss full-back developments in general but will mostly focus on the attacking potential of using wrong-footed full-backs (a right-footer on the left and vice versa). Particularly, this is true of inverted wrong-footed full-backs.
The different roles of full-backs
First, we need to look at the different roles of full-backs. It is also worth mentioning here that by full-back I refer to the two widest defenders in a back-four, as the widest defenders in a back-five are normally thought of as being wing-backs these days. When the role of libero was in fashion, with a sweeper behind the back-four, the widest defenders would be referred to as full-backs, but today, we would probably still consider them to be wing-backs in a similar shape.
Traditionally, full-backs were largely picked on what they contributed defensively. The main tasks for the full-back was to provide cover for the centre-backs when the ball was on the opposite side, stopping opposition wingers from getting crosses into the box and defending the back post when crosses came in from the other side of the pitch. Usually, a right-sided full-back was right-footed and the left-back was left-footed, if there were left-footers in the squad. If not, it was not uncommon to see right-footed players playing left-back, with Paulo Maldini being the obvious and most successful one, while others include Denis Irwin, Giacinto Facchetti, Gianluca Zambrotta and Javier Zanetti (at different points of his career).
No coach has had a bigger influence on the various full-back roles of today than Pep Guardiola. The Catalan made attacking full-backs mainstream with his use of Dani Alves at FC Barcelona. Sure, there have been plenty of other attacking full-backs before Alves’ exploits, such as Patrice Evra, Ashley Cole and Roberto Carlos, but everybody was inspired by that Barcelona team and tried to copy aspects of the way Guardiola’s team played. Also, very few full-backs have played as far forward as Alves actually did, with the Brazilian often acting as a right-sided forward who looked to get in behind the opponent as Messi rotated infield.
Moving on from Barcelona and Alves’ ridiculously high position, Guardiola inspired coaches again with the way he positioned his full-backs when coaching at FC Bayern München. In Munich, Guardiola adapted to the ruthless counter-attacking ability of many German teams and looked to stop counter-attacks at the source. Therefore, he rotated his full-backs into midfield to create attacking structures as the one in the image below. This allowed Guardiola to keep his world class wingers (mainly, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry) in wide positions in which they thrived.
Using inverted full-backs in this manner can give you greater defensive solidity in transition as you can counter-press effectively in midfield with good spacing behind the ball, the team’s ‘rest defence’, if you will, while wingers can play in positions where they thrive and attacking midfielders can push on into more dangerous positions. Additionally, the positioning in midfield allows the full-backs to quicker get back into position when possession is lost than if they were the highest players on the wing. This is beneficial since most coaches would rather have their full-backs defend the wide spaces rather than having midfielders or centre-backs moving out there.
Consider the setup below, a 4-3-3 with very high full-backs and inverted wingers. If the ball is lost, the full-backs have a lot of distance to travel before they get back into shape. This will often result in central midfielders or centre-backs having to defend the wide areas in transition as full-backs hurry to get back into their defensive positions.
By contrast, the setup below allows full-backs to quickly get back into position if the ball is lost and it is also easy for the central midfielders to drop back into their defensive positions. Thus, all players have shorter distances to get back into the defensive shape, resulting, hopefully, in quicker defensive transitions.
Since balance in midfield is provided by the full-backs, creative central midfielders can move higher and look to impact the game around the opposition’s box. Inverted full-backs can therefore provide a platform both for creative midfielders and for specialist wingers who can remain in wide areas to attack full-backs. Additionally, inverted full-backs negate the need for chance creating full-backs since crosses and final third passes are provided by others. All full-backs are not as creative as specialist attacking full-backs such as Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson and Luke Shaw, so this could lessen the creative burden placed on full-backs who instead can focus on making shorter passes and dealing with defensive transitions.
This brings us to the main focus of this tactics piece, wrong-footed full-backs. As mentioned, this is not a new notion as many right-footed players have played as left-backs for long spells of their careers. Very few left-footed players have consistently played at right-back, though. This is logical in the sense that there are more right-footed players than there are left-footed, but I think a left-footed right-back can open up intriguing attacking possibilities.
First of all, it could open up a lot more passing angles, especially when teams look to press the full-back towards the touchline. Many teams use the touchline as an extra defender and look to steer the ball to full-backs and then press aggressively. This will often result in right-footed right-backs and left-footed left-backs turning towards the touchline and be limited to very few passing angles. This is logical, since players turn to their preferred foot when put under heavy pressure and since teams look to press from inside to out, the natural thing to do is to turn towards the line, but this severely limits the options the full-back has.
Consider, by contrast, a left-footed right-back receiving in a similar situation. By shifting the ball to their preferred left foot, the full-back automatically open up central passing options to escape the pressure. As highlighted in the image below, the ball near central midfielders would be possible and, if a team really overloads around the ball, the ball could be switched to the opposite wing and the pressure would have been evaded. Of course, if the pressing is good and the full-back is trapped along the touchline, the next pass with the weaker foot could be problematic, but I think the positives outweigh the negatives here since more options to evade pressure would prevent themselves.
The idea of wrong-footed full-backs is most intriguing, for me, when using them as inverted full-backs. With a left-footed right-back positioned in the right-sided half-space, this player can, if positioned on the half turn, receive on their back foot and then take the next touch, such as a pass, with their best foot. Crucially, this would be achieved without taking an extra step in between the first and second touch as would be required if the player took their first and second touch with the same foot. As such, this would open up the possibility for quicker passing in central areas for a team looking to combine quickly in central areas. The image below highlights a few natural passing options available for an inverted left-footed right-back.
An inverted wrong-footed full-back would allow for a specialist “correct-footed” winger on each side, which could be a natural and logical development in the next few years as I believe big, powerful centre-forwards will come back into fashion as teams increasingly look to crowd central areas.
Defensively, it has benefits to have wrong-footed full-backs when defending against wrong-footed wingers who look to cut inside on their preferred foot. When those wingers cut inside, the full-back will have their preferred tackling leg facing inwards, just like the attacker’s preferred foot. We have, for example, seen a right-footed full-back such as César Azpilicueta excel when playing as a left-back due to this attacking trend of modern football.
The only real issue would be how to deal with overlapping runs from a natural, correct-footed wide player, since then the preferred tackling leg would not be the one the defender would have to block the cross with. We can see such a scene below as a winger drives inside and a full-back overlaps. The red right-sided midfielder moves across to stop the winger while the red right-back deals with the overlapping run of the white left-back.
Full-back is perhaps the most tactically intriguing position in modern football, with plenty of different interpretations on the position noticeable in today’s game. We see full-backs acting as traditional full-backs (Aaron-Wan Bissaka), as situational “third” centre-backs (Kyle Walker), inverted full-backs (Joao Cancelo, Danilo), playmakers (Trent Alexander-Arnold) and very attacking wide forwards (Jordi Alba, Andy Robertson), but inverted wrong-footed full-backs might be the most intriguing tactical possibility going forward. We are yet to see this on a consistent basis (although, of course, Cancelo and Danilo both sometimes rotate inside from the left), so it will be interesting to see who first starts using left-footed right-backs, in particular. Whoever does might at the same time revolutionise the game as we know it today.