Whenever we hear the word full-back in football, there seems to be a varied concept in people’s minds circling around. Back in the day, the job of a full-back was to stay close to their centre-backs and defend, occasionally making runs forward. However, the modern-day usage of a full-back is something different, not really alien to the previous version, but a bit more attacking and adventurous.
A right-back or left-back now acts as a winger in possession moving forward at every opportunity. They should have the awareness of making recovery runs or staying in good positions while defending. As a result, many managers in the past decade have their front-line very narrow, because they depend on the full-backs to provide the width on both sides of the field.
There are two such managers in the Premier League who make use of these players in a contrasting way: Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. The former’s 4-3-3 system is quite different to the 4-3-3 of the latter, so let’s take a closer look at how Guardiola and Klopp employ their full-backs.
Usage of full-backs by Jürgen Klopp
Klopp deploys his front-line in a narrow but flexible way, interchanging positions to keep the defenders guessing. Whenever they are trying to build from the back, the full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson move forward as wingers and become an outlet for diagonal balls or slide-through passes.
The next phase is crossing into the box, which becomes a headache to defend because the forward players are making all sorts of movements to cause havoc. If a team is not disciplined in terms of their wide players tracking back, Robertson and Alexander-Arnold will have a field day in wide areas putting crosses in regularly.
There were two instances this season when the latter had loads of room to work in every time he had possession. Against Crystal Palace, Jeff Schlupp was supposed to track back and mark Alexander-Arnold, however, due to Liverpool’s midfield domination, he had to tuck in centrally. As a result, the space out wide was evident.
It was similar against PSG, when Neymar failed to tracked back. This allowed free space to the right-back who became an easy out ball for Liverpool time and time again.
If we take a look at their player persona and important action points, we get an idea of how they are utilised as both wingers and full-backs simultaneously.
The dashboards of Alexander-Arnold and Robertson clearly show their impact in a game in wide areas of the pitch. We can vehemently conclude their contributions both as a winger and as a defensive full-back in a game. We can take a look at their attribute graphic (Player Personas via Footballwhispers.com) and see where they are strongest.
The above images are attribute graphics of the Liverpool full-backs. They both are very high on crossing which signifies their work in attacking wider areas of the pitch. They are not bad in pinging accurate long balls when required, enhancing their game with the ball at their feet.
Usage of full-backs by Pep Guardiola
Pep Guardiola’s tactical subtleties are interesting to analyse when it comes to how the Spaniard deploys his full-backs differently in almost every game. Last season he was without first-choice left-back Benjamin Mendy, which forced him to make fantastic use of Fabian Delph, who is a left-sided midfielder.
It was a game against Chelsea away last season, when the Englishman started for the first time as a left-back. And his action points varied in and out of possession.
As signified by the above graphic, the attack/on the ball and defending points are similar to what a wide midfielder does. Some of his off the ball positions were very centrally tucked, along the lines of the half-space. This allowed City to dominate midfield and made recovery runs easier as the player didn’t have to cover 50 yards to catch an opponent in behind him. It was the best illustration of how Pep is a master of making use of full-backs in quite a varied fashion.
The 4-3-3 system of Guardiola is markedly divergent to Klopp’s, in terms of the shape their teams take in possession. The former makes his full-backs cut inside and act as inverted wingers tucked along the half-space at times. The wide forward players are then allowed to hug the touchline to stretch the defence at every possible moment.
The main rationale why the Manchester City manager instructs his full-backs to be more central and not be wingers all the time is to have a better shape on the ball to prevent counter-attacks.
While at Tottenham, Kyle Walker was one of the best right-backs around, with his running and energy up and down the pitch. His attribute of making recovery runs and grasping defensive situations, in tandem with attacks is fantastic. This was why Guardiola bought him last summer. However, the Spaniard has also changed the way Walker plays his football to some extent.
The 28-year-old is now a better ground passer of the ball, and can play differently from the same right-back position. He can function as an orthodox attacking full-back, can tuck in centrally in half-spaces, or stay deep as a third centre-back. The Englishman has performed each of those roles this season already.
This versatility on the right-side allows Guardiola to give more freedom to left-back Benjamin Mendy, who generally plays as a left-winger in possession.
The above graphics show how both fullbacks perform differently in games. While Benjamin Mendy’s on the ball actions are more towards the left wing area, Walker’s action points are more spread out.
Comparing the player persona charts, both have high crossing indulgence, just like Alexander-Arnold and Robertson. However, Walker’s build-up passing is on another level. The Englishman is markedly different in this as compared to the other full-backs, due to the fact the team can start the attacking phase using him in the build-up.
We have compared and analysed how Guardiola and Klopp use their full-backs. The former has many ways to do it, while the former is more rigid in his system of play. In any way, both managers play their football in an attractive manner, which makes up for a gruelling watch whenever Liverpool and Manchester City are in action. It will be fascinating to see how the full-backs are used when the teams clash in two weeks. Guardiola and Klopp will have something up their sleeves, no doubt.