The evolution of modern football has seen the responsibility of full-backs increase in the attacking phase of the game. Indeed, the full-back is now tasked with maintaining the width of their team in order to stretch the game and get into dangerous areas to attack the opposition.
The likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Achraf Hakimi, Alphonso Davies and Andy Robertson are custodians of the attacking full-back as immense success playing in this way has shed the light on attacking with width.
While a defender occupying a winger’s position allows the forwards to create overloads in the centre of the pitch, some defensive-minded full-backs can counter this tactic depending on the defensive structure of their own team.
Par for the course, natural centre-backs who possess the qualities to play wide are often shifted to add some extra defensive expertise to the full-back positions. This may be seen as a defensive mindset in previous years but top managers are beginning to field central defenders on the flank.
The FootballCastle evaluates the instances when ‘defenders’ have been asked to fill the full-back role, either as backup or as a tactical game plan.
The England centre-back is an experienced ball-playing centre-back who is known for his composure, range of passing, vision and defensive skills. Despite making his name in the centre, Stones has been fielded out wide when Pep Guardiola is rotating his side amidst injuries and suspension in defence.
Nevertheless, the 28-year-old lives up to his manager’s demands on his inverted full-backs which sees Stones tuck into midfield alongside Rodri in the buildup, while he moves to the right-back position off the ball in order to pressure opponents high up the pitch.
This allows the Cityzens to build up play in a 2-3-5 shape as the defender’s incredible quality on the ball shines through with his 93.1% pass completion in the league this season. Hence, he has played 20 games in all competitions this season, starting seven of those at right-back.
Stones is surprisingly much more progressive when deployed at right-back than Kyle Walker usually does, and the higher positions he occupies in midfield frees up attacking space for the likes of Kevin De Bruyne.
The player himself has admitted that the versatility helped improve his understanding of the game, telling The Athletic;
“Different positions to receive the ball, different movements to get there. We’ll move the ball from centre-half to right-back often and having now played that position (right-back), having received those passes, I now wouldn’t play them as a centre-half.”
The versatility possessed by such an intelligent player is a luxury for Guardiola, pertinently, that fluidity of positions resulted in Stones’ wonderful goal from the right half-space against Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Champions League group stage.
The Dutchman was wanted by Chelsea last summer but his decision to stay is proving a masterstroke as he is enjoying his best run of form and playing time in a sky-blue shirt.
Aké is a more conventional option at full-back as he had played on the left oftentimes throughout his career, the 28-year-old has filled in that role 12 times already this season.
The Man City man is a reliable and composed defender on the ball, with 90.1% pass accuracy and an average of 1.19 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes in the league, according to fbref.
Playing at full-back sees him make most of his passes in the middle third of the pitch, but he is less attacking-minded for club and country as Guardiola seeks to balance out the rest of his backline when building-up play and maintaining the shape.
The talented central defender was one of the best performers in La Liga in recent seasons but has played half of his games for club and country at full-back this season. Since his arrival at Barcelona, Koundé has been the first-choice right-back due to the lack of options in the position and the wealth of centre-backs available.
The right-sided defender’s agility, athleticism and technical ability make him a well-rounded right-back as his lung-busting runs, strength in individual challenges and in the air (65.7% aerial duels won) have won over Xavi.
Koundé also played at full-back during France’s run to the World Cup final, with his ability to progress possession via medium and long-range passes or carry the ball out of defence by accelerating, making him look comfortable in the role.
Despite preferring to play at centre-back, the 24-year-old has been involved in a career-high 1.46 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes in La Liga and Xavi favours his explosiveness out wide. Although the ex-midfielder would switch the Frenchman in-field for the big games against Real Madrid, leaving Ronald Araújo to deal with the tricky Vinícius Júnior.
Tactically intelligent, technically superior, and versatile, Arsenal’s huge investment in their most expensive defender in 2021 is paying huge dividends in the 2022-23 season.
The ball-playing centre-back has slotted to right-back with the emergence of William Saliba this season and he has been one of the understated elements of the Gunners’ rise to the top of the Premier League table. White has taken over Takehiro Tomiyasu’s spot with his surging forward runs with the ball helping to create quick counterattacks from deep.
Much like Guardiola’s inverted full-backs, Mikel Arteta lets White tuck into the midfield in the build-up or to create a back three when Oleksandr Zinchenko drifts from left-back into midfield. This creates a lot of variability with the 2-3-5 or 3-2-5 build-up shape.
Furthermore, the 25-year-old’s standout ability on the ball makes him an asset in advanced areas of the pitch where he can link play or create overloads with elite ball progressors like Bukayo Saka and Martin Ødegaard across Arsenal’s right side.
White completes 83.4% of his passes per 90 minutes while averaging 2.34 shot-creating actions, he ranks fourth in the Premier League for progressive passes (190) and fifth for passes into the final third (168). Elsewhere, the England international is excellent in defending 1v1 situations and is no slouch aerially, given his centre-back education.
Deploying central defenders at full-back is an option coaches will continue to take due to the defensive security it guarantees, as well as the opportunity to balance out the team or provide playing time for others.
Nevertheless, the athleticism, versatility and supreme technical ability of the modern-day player makes it a cheeky tactical wildcard for some forward-thinking managers.
Watch this space in the coming years.