David Kennedy discusses the importance of full backs to Liverpool’s style of football, and that Brendan Rodgers may have acquired two gems in Moreno and Manquillo.
Christian Ziege. Djimi Traoré. John Arne Riise. Stephen Warnock. Fabio Aurelio. Emiliano Insua. Andrea Dossena. Paul Konchesky. Jack Robinson. José Enrique. Aly Cissokho.
The preceding is a list of left backs that have been tried by Liverpool since the treble-winning season of 2000/01. Illustrious company, no doubt, all sharing the common trait: failure to establish themselves as a cutting edge full back.
Each has their own story, of course. Riise was beloved for his thunderous shot but ultimately offered little else; Warnock was a local lad who never really got a chance; Insua was thrust into the limelight at too young an age and suffered badly in terms of confidence; Dossena lobbed Edwin van der Sar and blasted past Iker Casillas in the space of four days; Fab Aurelio was the best footballer to ever hail from Brazil but had legs of chalk.
Over the last decade or so, Liverpool have struggled to find the answer to their problem position. Jon Flanagan, like fellow local lad Jamie Carragher, played there out of position last season but will probably revert to the right for the upcoming campaign, just as Carragher did before becoming a centre back in 2004. Glen Johnson, Daniel Agger and Stewart Downing have also had spells on the left of the defence under the current manager.
The latest incumbent is Sevilla’s Alberto Moreno, already off the mark after scoring a brilliant goal in Sunday’s 3-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. Two games into his career on Merseyside, the signs have been there that he may be the player Brendan Rodgers has been looking for.
The Northern Irishman made no secret of his desire for a left back, stating as far back as last July that he was looking for cover in that area. The subsequent loan signing of Cissokho was clearly no more than a stop-gap solution, and Moreno’s emergence as a regular in the Sevilla first team alerted someone at the club.
A summer-long pursuit of the Spanish international ensued with the deal dragging out until August, not in time for the start of the new Premier League season.
Moreno was ready to make his debut at the Etihad Stadium on Monday last and gave something of a curate’s egg of a performance: he started off tidy and cagey, keeping the ball with simple passes to his centre backs, before swinging at a loose ball with the wrong leg to allow Stevan Jovetic in to put Manchester City ahead.
In the second half, particularly after the introduction of Lazar Markovic ahead of him, the 22-year old began to show glimpses of his quality, surging down the flank on two second-period occasions to create half-chances in a game where Liverpool looked blunt going forward.
After coming in for criticism after the 3-1 defeat, the Moreno that appeared in North London at the weekend seemed determined to bounce back in style. Targeted immediately from the off when Christian Eriksen switched Spurs’ kick-off directly to his flank, he soaked up pressure well and led a couple of neat breaks, showing sublime pace on two occasions when he was the furthest man breaking from a corner.
His second half goal was no more than he deserved for a complete modern full back performance and it summed up all that was good about his day – positivity, aggression, speed and quality.
On the other flank, Javi Manquillo was a less spectacular but equally impressive presence. The right back berth has been slightly less of a poisoned chalice with the likes of Steve Finnan, Alvaro Arbeloa and Johnson all having good spells at the club over the last few years. However, the latter’s alarming dip in form over the last 18 months (having been an extremely underrated attacking weapon throughout 2011/12 and the first half of 2012/13) has resulted in the need for another option in that position.
Manquillo, though also Spanish, is a different type of full back – less marauding, less pace. Indeed, he rather resembles Finnan in his playing style in that he focuses on winning his battles and looks solid. Weaknesses still reside in his game, of course, which is completely natural for a 20-year old with little first-team experience.
For instance, with two yellow cards in his first two Premier League appearances, his tendency to be a rash in the challenge is already evident. That said, he coped admirably with the burden of playing one foul from an early bath at the weekend and didn’t ever look close to picking up another booking.
Rodgers’ ultra-modern approach to the game and its tactics places a lot of onus of full backs in his systems. In a 4-3-3, the wide forwards are expected to come inside to provide a goal threat, allowing space for the full backs to overlap and get to the byline.
When playing with a midfield diamond, there is even more need for the full backs to get forward as they provide the only true width available to the side. Out of possession, the task is harder still; often, without help from the outside midfielders, full backs can be outnumbered in defence should opposition teams choose to overload those areas.
A full back in this day and age essentially needs an extremely long curriculum vitae of skills: pace, strength, positional awareness, tenacity, discipline, tactical awareness, dribbling, passing, crossing, tackling, aerial ability and the potential to chip in with five goals per season.
It’s incredibly rare to find such players, but Rodgers looked to have struck the balance on Sunday (even if his options are far from finished articles). Moreno, the rampaging attacking outlet and Manquillo, the dependable, composed alternative on the other flank.
Perhaps most importantly, both constantly look to press their wingers high up the pitch and win the ball back – see Manquillo at the start of the move that brought Liverpool’s opener on Sunday as well as Moreno’s obvious dispatching of Andros Townsend for the third.
Too often recently, hindered by Johnson seemingly wearing his boots on the wrong feet, the Reds have looked an attacking threat light when playing against packed defences. The x-factor of Moreno’s bursts could provide the answer to a that problem and the decade-long one of the left back position in general.
David Kennedy, Pundit Arena.