Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Masters of Nothing: The Sad Story of the Full-Backs

After playing second fiddle to Porto this season and exiting the Europa League at the semi-final stage, Benfica left-back Fabio Coentrao is headed to Real Madrid for the sum of 30 million Euros, around £27 million. Such an extravagant fee isn't unusual for Real Madrid, but it has gotten me thinking about the importance of full-backs.

Who do you think the worst World Cup winning captain is? It's a difficult question, and almost an oxymoronic one. The winning captain is the leader of a team that has just been crowned as the best in the international game. It seems silly and almost insulting to try and find the "worst" one, but let's do it for the sake of argument.

As you might expect, it's quite the list. Fabio Cannavaro, Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Moore, Giuseppe Meazza; these are outstanding, legendary players. But the worst? Cafu.

And that's a real wrench, as he's one of the best full-backs to ever play the game. He was the quintessential Brazilian full-back, marauding up and down the touchline with boundless energy and ability. But he is, ultimately, a full-back. It's the least important position on the pitch. Note that I'm talking strictly about full-backs in a back 4, such as Ashley Cole or Coentrao; wing-backs in a 5-3-2 are very important to that formation, but it is a subtly different position.
Cafu is one of the finest full-backs of all time.
Unfortunately, he is still a full-back.

Let's take your average 4-4-2 as an example. If you had to get rid of two players, where would you take them from? You couldn't do without the goalkeeper, obviously, or the central defenders. The wide midfielders are very important from an offensive point of view (and sometimes from a defensive one) and the central midfielders are important for controlling possession.

You can do without one of the strikers, maybe - but that would depend which striker. For instance, if I had a striker capable of playing on their own, such as Didier Drogba or Darren Bent, and they were partnered with someone like Javier Hernandez or Michael Owen, I could maybe do without one of the latter two  if I could get the necessary support to the remaining, solitary striker. However, this is hardly ideal. That just leaves the full-backs.

These are players who are not quite defensively strong enough to be centre-backs and not quite skilful enough in the final third to be wingers. Don't get me wrong here; I am not seeking to put down full-backs as unnecessary. It is still an important position, just not as important as the others. As an alternative, you could say that they are designed to be balanced, to find a middle ground between defence and attack.

However, when is the last time you can honestly say you have seen a full-back really win a game from that position? Elano was deployed there for Manchester City once or twice as an emergency option and excelled. Steven Gerrard ended up there in the 2005 Champions League final and put in an almost legendary performance - but there are few other examples.

Even the players considered the best in that position such as Daniel Alves and Maicon are rarely genuine man of the match contenders. It's a shame, given how important Alves' partnership with Messi on the right side has been to Barcelona's dominance of European football, but it is also completely understandable; he is only there to support the maestro, not to overshadow him.

Indeed, Alves being second fiddle to Messi is not an unusual occurrence. One might recognise when they play well, but they will be overlooked when deciding the man of the match; an aggressive and dominant performance from a centre-back or defensive midfielder, an elegant and efficient playmaking performance, or a display of goalscoring ability from a striker are all far more likely to attain that accolade. Even those rare games where a goalkeeper keeps a team at bay seemingly single-handedly are more common then a full-back being lauded.

Coentrao is not the first big-money full-back:
Daniel Alves cost Barcelona £23 million.

Yes, full-backs  are definitely becoming more important in the modern game. Manchester United phasing out the balanced and "solid" Gary Neville in favour of the more attacking Rafael is one example; you might also point to Barcelona's use of Alves or Chelsea recently unleashing Ashley Cole into a more attacking role, leading to an increased goal tally for the England player.

When a full-back runs from deep, they can break teams down in a different way. A winger could run out of space to run at their full-back. However, if you were to put an attack-minded playmaking midfielder on the flank, that player could cut inside and create space for an attacking full-back, giving him more space to run at the opposition. This is a strategy Harry Redknapp has occasionally deployed with Gareth Bale, with Luka Modric the player deployed on the left of a 4-man midfield. Redknapp clearly wishes to do more often with his insistence that Bale will end up in that position.

Maybe it is in light of this new role the full-back is developing that Real Madrid elected to spend so much money to "fill" a position already occupied by Marcelo, who enjoyed an excellent season in 2010/11. It still seems like an odd decision and an extreme sum of money, but with Real Madrid's near-limitless funds, they will always be held to ransom.

Ultimately, though, If I was to make an all-time best XI, I probably wouldn't include full-backs. There are so many centre-backs out there that dominated the game, it would be a shame to include only two; it'd be a three-man defence. I'd exclude full-backs (though Cafu would be the right-back of choice, if I had to), just because being a "great full-back" is an extremely relative term. They are jacks of all trades but masters of nothing; players of importance but never superstardom.

Subsequently I feel rather sorry for Fabio Coentrao - or at least,  as sorry as one can feel for a player about to join Real Madrid for what will probably be a 6-figure weekly wage. For £27 million, I would be wanting a real difference-maker. Coentrao will not do that for Real Madrid - but as a full-back, it's something of an occupational hazard.

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