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Investigating The Evolving Role Of A Modern Premier League Full-Back

We are in an era of ever-changing tactics in football and you can look no further than Premier League full-backs to highlight this.

Here we will look at the various types of tactics being employed to get the most out of full-backs in England.

In teams playing 3-5-2 formations, the full-back has become a complete wide player. This is the case with Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Arsenal in particular.

Why? Weaker sides double mark wingers and become hard to break down. A shift to wing-backs allows the players ahead to play more centrally, which in turn need to be marked in the middle.

This allows the wing-back to get at the opposition full-back in a one-on-one situation.

Fine exemplars of this are Danny Rose, Marcos Alonso and Hector Bellerin. There is a huge physical demand on this new type of wide player and rotation is needed.

Tottenham, who employ this tactic expertly, rotate on both sides seamlessly with Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier mixing with Ben Davies and Serge Aurier regularly for two slots.

Marcos Alonso provides Chelsea with balance and width down the left, which allows Eden Hazard a free role ahead of him. Chelsea can adopt a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3 as a result.

Teams who play with a back four utilise their full-backs in different ways. Jose Mourinho sees his full-backs at Manchester United as a tool to unlock defences as well.

He plays wide players who cut in on their stronger foot, which makes space for the overlapping Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Luke Shaw.

Again, they are a viable outlet, which will allow more players freedom ahead to come into the middle.

Andrew Robertson’s current form in this role for Liverpool epitomises the aim of managers employing this tactic.

These full-backs attack from deep are an ever-increasingly important part in the build-up play.

Even teams near the foot of the table are attempting to replicate this attacking standpoint with Allan Nyom of West Brom and Martin Ollson of Swansea further examples.

Antonio Valencia’s engine allows Manchester United to play wingers who cut inside as he overlaps providing constant width.

Pep Guardiola is a manager who continues to attempt to redefine football and he has sought to change the role of full-backs as well.

Last season, Match of the Day highlighted Manchester City’s approach and it is common to see their full-backs coming into central midfield positions when the team are attacking. This allows their wingers to hug the touchline and get at the opposition full-backs one-on-one.

You can see it this season with Fabian Delph and, more surprisingly, Kyle Walker not overlapping on the outside.

However, prior to his injury, Benjamin Mendy was often seen bombarding down the channel providing assists. Guardiola certainly has the tools for flexibility.

Despite possessing extreme athleticism, Guardiola often favours Kyle Walker moving into midfield rather than hugging the touchline when in possession.

With every change that takes place, there are often those who are the exception.

Look no further than 2015/16 title winners Leicester City. In Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs, they have full-backs who have the sole purpose of defending and playing the ball quickly to attackers.

It is not uncommon to see Fuchs playing a ball down the channel for Jamie Vardy.

It is this simple and effective play which helped them conquer an evolving Premier League and they have stuck to this.

Newcastle United and Huddersfield Town are among others who prioritise defence first in this role as well.

Simpson prioritises defensive shape rather than overlapping and getting to the byline.

The role of the full-back will continue to evolve. Increased athleticism and new insights into breaking teams down will ensure a full-back will continue to be a vital cog in attacking play.

In 2013, Jamie Carragher told Gary Neville on Monday Night Football:

“No one wants to be a full-back as a kid. If you’re a full-back, you’re either a failed winger or a failed centre-back.”

The role has changed significantly since then, with many young players striving to become a modern-day full-back.

Diarmuid O’Neill, Pundit Arena

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