Tactics: An Ode to Fullbacks

They are literally everywhere

Of all the football positions, full back is perhaps the most versatile. During a tactical battle, they can often be the most fascinating element to observe.

What makes these players so intriguing?

History

In one of the earliest popular formations, fullbacks were pure defenders on either side of a back three. Along with a deeper central defender, sometimes a sweeper, the full-backs contributed to the “WM” – the three defenders had two “half backs” in front of them, creating a “W”. 

As football evolved, a “back four” became the norm, particularly the classic 4-4-2. Now with two central defenders marking the two strikers, full backs were exclusively concerned with the opponent’s wide midfielders. 

While individuals continued experimenting, it was Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team that popularised the modern “attacking fullback”. The likes of Dani Alves and Jordi Alba were quick, creative players who could overlap their teammates on the wing and put crosses into the box. 

They still had to get back and defend though, meaning they also had to have tremendous fitness and desire to get up and down the flank for 90 minutes. Perhaps the best example of this was Liverpool’s Andy Robertson (a converted winger) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (a converted midfielder). The duo shone in 2019/20 when they won the Premier League title, laid on 25 assists combined, and conceded just 33 goals. 

Nowadays, a common sight is the “inverted full-back”. This sees one or both fullbacks tucking inside – or “inverting” – into the center of the pitch.

Using a full back inside allows teams to overload the midfield, giving them an advantage over their opponents in the most congested area of the pitch.

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Where did the idea come from?

Under legendary coach Johann Cruyff, Barcelona started with their classic 4-3-3, but would then invert one fullback.

This created a diamond shape, allowing Barcelona to play just a single pivot player but still have an overload in midfield. 

That pivot player was Pep Guardiola. As a manager, he went on to invert both of his fullbacks at Bayern Munich. And when Liverpool beat his City team to the title, Guardiola responded by inverting his fullbacks once again.

What does it achieve?

Inverted fullbacks can be very useful in possession. Passing the ball can be sorted roughly into three different categories: 

  • Retentive: passes that allow your team to keep the ball
  • Progressive: passes that progress the ball toward your opponent’s goal
  • Creative: passes that create a chance to score

Nowadays, most teams want to press high. This means that, even though defenders now get to play out from the back, they’re often under pressure to do so.

One way of retaining the ball is to “circulate” it – passing it from one side to the other in a sort of semicircle.

But this is risky. Whenever a full back gets the ball out wide, their passing options are limited because the touchline is next to them. They can only pass in three directions, which makes it easier to block them in.

Inverting one fullback adds an extra player in the center, making it easier to pass forwards rather than endlessly circulating the ball.

It also helps teams progress the ball under pressure. Typically a midfielder will function as the “pivot” player during buildup. They drop into their own defensive half and receive the ball…

…before playing either a retentive or progressive pass.

However, pivoting your whole game around one player makes it easy for opponents to disrupt you by targeting them.

Some teams address this with a second midfielder acting as a “double pivot.” This makes it easier to progress the ball, but it means sacrificing a more attacking player further forwards.

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The inverted full back gives the best of both worlds: they can invert alongside the double pivot, receive the ball, and then progress it to a range of attacking players higher up the pitch. 

By the way, just to show how circular football tactics are: what does this shape with one inverted full back look like?

Case Study: Ange Postecoglou

What about creative passing? 

We can see this with Tottenham Hotspur under Ange Postecoglou. The former Celtic and Australia coach likes to use two inverted full backs alongside a single pivot.

 

However, he also tasks his midfielders higher up the pitch to drop wide and create a triangle to further support ball progression.

Once this has been achieved, both the midfielders and the full backs are invited to get up the pitch and recreate these triangles in attack. The individual roles become less important than the creation of triangles. You might see a winger in midfield, a midfielder dropping deep, and a full back running down the wing.

These rotations and triangles create constant motion that confuse defences and allow Spurs to overload their opponents. 

Why doesn’t everyone do this?

All of this is fun, in possession stuff. But what about the “back” part of the inverted full-back?

Whenever a team is defending, it’s important to cover the central space and both wings whenever possible. Defending with a back three is challenging as teams either have to drop off and allow opponents space out wide, or go out wide and create gaps in the centre.

This is why a back four exists in the first place. So when one or both full backs invert during possession, they have to be prepared to dash back to their wide position once the ball is lost. 

The time it takes to transition can be exploited with counter attacks.

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The other sticking point with each type of full backs is that it requires a specific profile of player. For example, inverted full backs must be comfortable on the ball under pressure (like a midfielder), solid defensively in 1v1 (like a defender) and able to contribute to the attack (like a forward.) 

The likes of Alexander-Arnold and Joao Cancelo have been excellent inverted full backs. They’ve also been fairly criticised for at least one aspect of their game leaving their team vulnerable. 

Full Circle on Fullbacks

This brings us back to the beginning: why are full backs so interesting? A big part of it is how flexible they are. Depending on the profile of player, you can have defensive full backs, progressive full backs, attacking full backs You can have full backs that invert, full backs that overlap, full backs that assist, full backs that score. And because there are two of them, you can have combinations – an inverted full back on the left and an attacking full back on the right, for example. And some teams don’t play with full backs at all, but wing backs! 

Even from looking at a team sheet, we can start to decipher how a team is going to use their full backs – and how their opponent might fare against them. Next time you watch a game, keep an eye out for this battle.

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