From Domingoes to Alexander-Arnold this is how the role of full-backs has changed over time.
Every nation has had its own defensive fortification. In China, the Great Wall has stood for centuries barricading the nation from an onslaught. In Europe, under communism, the iron barrier blockaded the East from the West. In Ancient Mesopotamia, the wall of Babylon served as a mighty protector against anyone who sought to attack the city.
In Brazil, that great fortification was Domingos da Guia. The right-back was the first of his kind.
The early 1930s was a time, when a full-backs primary job was to defend and Domingos da Guia was one of the best in that role. Opposition attackers would flit by him in vain, with Domingos almost always prying the ball away from their feet.
Domingos was revered for his defensive skill. He was also a revolutionary. He was extremely composed on the ball and renowned for being able to bring the ball out in a leisurely tempo.
Domingos lacked pace, and played the game with grace and elegance, but he was one of the first defenders to contribute in attack from the flanks too. His calm and slow style of bringing the ball forward was coined the domingada in Brazil and it would be the catalyst for a new way of utilising the full-backs.
Almost three decades after Domingos, his fellow compatriot would revolutionise the full-back role even further.
Carlos Alberto began his career at Fluminese during the 1960s.
Even at a young age he stood out for his astute reading of the game which made him an impeccable defender. But unlike many of his predecessors Carlos Alberto’s game was not simply one dimensional.
Carlos Alberto could slalom past opponents and make mazy runs down the wing bringing the ball forward from defence. He was one of the first full-backs who would actively join the attack in the final third and conjure up offensive opportunities for his teammates. He embraced the essence of the Brazilian ginga style and was perhaps the first defender to do so. At times Carlos Alberto played more like a winger than a full-back.
His goal in the World Cup Final against Italy in 1970, where he made a marauding run from defence into the Italian penalty area and thumped the ball into the back of the net, perfectly demonstrated Carlos Alberto’s offensive ability.
As the Brazilian set a precedent more and more teams started to deploy offensive full-backs of similar ilk.
In Europe, Italian Giancito Facchetti was one of the first innovators of the overlapping full-back. Despite Facchetti playing further forward in the academy, the Inter Milan coach, Helenio Herrera, opted to deploy Fachetti in the full-back role. Herrera recognised Facchetti’s physique and energy could be utilised in attack and it paid dividends.
Facchetti was a key cog in Herrera’s Inter side which deployed a unique counter attacking system called catenaccio that concentrated on defence and a swift onslaught on the opposition once in possession.
Facchetti was so prolific he managed to score ten goals in a single Serie A season.
In the totaalvoetbal deployed by the great Netherlands side of the 1970s, full-back Wim Suubier was the linchpin. Technically gifted and possessing great stamina, just like Facchetti, Suubier was a marauder going forward.
But, what made Suubier’s role even more astute was that as he went forward, the Netherlands would send cover to ensure the full-back would not be exposed in a system where players changed positions seamlessly.
During the 80s as an antithesis to totaalvoetbal the physically brutal combative English style emerged. Full-backs like Liverpool’s Phil Neal and Alan Kennedy would still launch forward to help the attack, but their contributions were made first and foremost in defence.
It wasn’t until the mid-90s that attacking full-backs saw a resurgence.
Roberto Carlos was the first. An explosive and rapid player who started out as a forward, the Brazilian would become one of the most offesnsive full-backs of all time.
Dangerous from free kicks and blessed with impeccable technique Roberto Carlos scored over 100 goals in his professional career playing predominantly as a full-back.
In the same Brazil side of the 90s, on the other flank Cafu was another icon at full-back. The AC Milan legend played the more archaic domingada style. Both cultured and possessing great technique, he still contributed going forward but he was more the master of guile rather than pace.
In the early 2000s, it was more the Cafu breed of full-backs who thrived. The likes of Philipp Lahm, Javier Zanetti or Ashley Cole were all industrial players. They were accomplished defenders who were capable of surging forward if needed. Though they weren’t necessary pivotal cogs in their club’s attacking play, it was rather their defensive traits which were valued.
Recently as the modern game has started to evolve, the role of the full-back has become an integral position on the field.
Gary Neville, another accomplished full-back in the same ilk as Cafu, has made an interesting point writing for Sky Sports. Neville talked about how the role of wingers has changed in the last decade. Teams are now churning out players on the flanks who score goals regularly and as Neville describes more like ‘forwards’ rather than traditional wide-men.
This has made an evolutionary impact on the role of full-backs. The full-backs are now often the most energetic and fastest players on the field.
Both Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp use their full-backs as secondary wingers, while the wingers themselves actually take-up a more central role as Neville has pointed out.
Under this system, a new breed of full-back has emerged. The pioneering star of the new era is undoubtedly Trent Alexander-Arnold. The Liverpool right-back has managed to dominate the game from his full-back position and is one the biggest creative architects for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Full-backs now play a key role in setting up and creating chances. Alexander-Arnold has an xGBuildup of 0.38 per 90 minutes which is only behind Kevin De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez in the Premier League. Alexander-Arnold’s teammate Andy Robertson has an average of 0.32 which is also not far off the top either. The pair of them have a higher xGBuildup than their more ‘attacking’ teammates in the team, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
Meanwhile Hakimi has an xGBuildup of 0.50 per 90 minutes and that is higher than the likes of Thomas Muller or Julian Brandt who play in more central positions. Alphonso Davies is also at the top of the XgBuildup charts with an average of 0.87.
Much has been noted about some of these players’ defensive frailties. Alphonso Davies has often been criticised for making too many recovery runs. However, the Canadian international’s ability to rapidly make-up the ground against his attacker is an asset rather than a weakness and the same can be said for Hakimi and Alexander-Arnold.
The modern day full-back is now first and foremost an athlete. They are usually the fastest and most energetic players on the field and cover the most ground.
The position has evolved into a fluid role with an emphasis on defence, but one that is also essential and integral in creating attacking opportunities. The role of full-backs has gone from simply ‘defending’ and proving inconsequential in the outcome of the game to now being a position from where the game can be dictated and from and where the primary source of attacking build-up comes from.
In the future, the position could see its first ever candidate for the Ballon D’or with Cafu having already tipped Trent Alexander-Arnold to become a future recipient of the award.