Football News: Football Ed001ucation – Part 2
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Part 2: Full-Backs
In a lot of respects this is even more difficult to write about than the goalkeeper, though it is much easier for someone watching at home to assess a full-back. The problem is that there are so many variable play style for full-backs in the modern era. In the past they were a defender first and foremost, what you judged them on primarily was their defending, but that is not always the case now. Though, in my opinion, the basics of defending still should be adhered to and that can be looked at. Much like goalkeeping, you then have to compare it with the way the manager is setting up the team to see which bits are them and which bits are instructions.
A good example of what I mean is Aaron Wan-Bissaka, you can see in the way he defends and his positioning that he is not receiving tactical instructions at Manchester United and is still operating as he was taught under Roy Hodgson at Crystal Palace. He plays the position like an old-fashioned right-back whose job is to be on the cover for the centre-backs, expecting a wide player in front of him to come back and provide protection in wide areas. That is why he can often be caught out by being too narrow in the system he is playing in, as the wide players at United are not expected to track back with the same diligence as they are at Palace.
Is that his fault that he has not learnt to adapt his positioning, or is that down to a lack of coaching since joining Man Utd? Or is it simply just how he plays and the team should be set up with that in mind when he plays? These are the kind of things you have to think about when you are looking at a full-back. Added to that you also have to, particularly with a modern day full-back, consider their input in their team’s attack.
The main areas to judge on:
1. Defensive positioning
2. Stopping crosses from coming in
3. Tackling/closing down and heading
6. Link up play
7. Timing of forward runs
8. Delivery from wide areas
1. This is an area that has become much more difficult to judge in recent years, due to the changes in the way full-backs are utilised. It used to be that one would stay and the other would go, leaving three players back all the time (with the centre-backs) to cover the two forwards teams used to use and give a spare man to cover. These days teams usually only play one up top, meaning that extra defender is no longer required and both full-backs can get forward. Added to that, most teams will play with a midfielder tasked to drop back when an extra man is needed defensively.
That means that they are rarely in position to defend immediately, often caught up field by counter attacks, and fans will often criticise them for that. Personally I think you just have to accept that it is a part of the modern game, they will get caught and you can only really judge their positioning when they have had time to get back into place. Though you can judge them on how much effort they actually put into getting back when they are caught upfield.
As is the case with almost every player on the pitch, you have to look at their defensive positioning, when they have had time to get back into place, in terms of the team set-up, rather than on its own. Even then, you may have to take into account whether the issue is the player or the manager/coaching staff. As in the case of Man Utd’s Wan-Bissaka that I mentioned earlier, is their positioning wrong simply in relation to the way the team has set up? Or is it simply that the player is out of position?
It does provide difficulties in judging them, as you will have to consider these factors in your own assessment and there is really no right or wrong answer. One thing that you do have to bear in mind, with the modern wing-back style of player, is that they will very rarely be in place to cover in behind the centre-back, the way full-backs used to.
Now you are looking to see what style of defence the team uses, is it a narrow defence purely focused on defending the width of the penalty box or are they looking to defend right across the pitch? That completely changes the positioning of the full-backs. In a narrow defence, they are relying on the wide player ahead of them or midfield to deal with the wide areas, while they look to help deal with balls played in. Occasionally they may get drawn out, but their positioning is based on staying tight to the centre-backs and looking to cover in behind them when needed.
When playing a wider defensive line, their job is to engage the opposing wide players, rather than staying tight to the centre-backs. The full-back’s role then is to stop crosses and runs into the box from wide. That can be difficult if they are outnumbered in wide areas, meaning they cannot take up a position right on their man, but have to position themselves to cover instead. Usually though, when the team is settled into position, they would be near enough to their man to stop being able to get a free run into the box, rather than waiting inside the penalty area as they do in a narrow system.
2. This has become my pet peeve in recent years, the way full-backs allow crosses to come in to the box from all angles with little real effort to stop them. I know crossing the ball has become perceived as no longer as dangerous as it was due to the death of the target man forward but in the 2019/20 season Liverpool consistently crossed more balls than their opponent as they won the Premier League. So the cross does have a place still in the Premier League, even more so in the team that won it at a stroll.
It is very difficult to completely stop a cross coming in, but the full-back should be getting in tight to make it as difficult as possible, forcing the ball to go around them. That increases the likelihood of it going out for a goal kick or dropping into the keeper’s hands. If a full-back stands off the man with the ball, he has space to angle the ball into more dangerous areas. The further they are away, the easier it is for the man on the ball to deliver quality.
3. That then brings me to what they do when they do get close to their man. Do they rashly race in and allow their opponent to easily get away from them? Perhaps they are quite the opposite and make a token effort to stop them and allow them past easily because they are not being forceful enough. The full-back needs to be aggressive enough to make opposing players think twice before trying to beat them, but not so aggressive they give away multiple needless free-kicks. They need to try and stay on their feet as much as possible, selling themselves by going to ground should be a last resort in the modern game. Much as I personally love to see a good tackle, the laws of the game now make them a very dangerous proposition, so a full-back has to ensure that they are only made when absolutely necessary.
Most of the time they will need to just put a foot in, but with meaning. Not just dangling a leg towards the ball, which is also dangerous as a forward will look to use it to go over, especially if they are anywhere near the penalty box. If possible, rather than needing to make a challenge a full-back in the modern era is probably best to just stand up the opponent, to stop them being able to run by them at pace, and then force them to pass the ball on. The key is not to give the opposition player enough to space to squeeze the cross round them.
Heading is not just about their strength in the air, as there will be times that a bigger player will deliberately pull onto them, they must also know how to make a header difficult for a bigger opponent. Most of it is down to their timing, not just of the leap to make sure the ball reaches them when they are at the right point of their jump, but also on when to lean on their man to stop him being able to get himself off the ground properly. Putting their weight on him at the correct time can be as effective as a shirt pull or push in the back.
4. In this era of wing-backs, rather than full-backs, having the stamina to get up and down the wing for 90 minutes, week in, week out, is becoming amongst the most important aspects of a full-back’s game. Far too many are willing to sprint forward and then saunter back while an attack builds up down their side of the pitch. Teams that win titles have players that will sprint to stop a goal, just as much as they will to score a goal.
5. It is not good enough to just get up and down the wing all game, the modern full-back needs to do it quickly. They need to be able to keep up with the lightning fast forwards that regularly face them and yet be quick enough to burst forward and catch a defence cold.
6. The modern full-back is such an integral part of a team’s attacking play that they have to be able to link-up play going forward. They need to be able to play quick one-twos or to lay the ball off inside while they make a run forward. Sometimes they might just need to be there to support a wide forward and provide him an option. What is important is that they have the understanding with teammates to work with them and the ability to pass the ball accurately.
7. Knowing when to get forward is extremely important. One of the biggest problems with wing-backs is their desire to get forward too early. Under Brendan Rodgers it was a regular problem that the full-backs would just charge forward immediately Liverpool got the ball and then would just spend the rest of the play stood right up high on the defensive line. They were then having little effect on the game at all and any ball played to them required them to drop off to receive them. What they needed to do is to learn to delay their run for the right moment, so that they received the ball while running forward, as you see so often with Liverpool’s present full-back pairing of Robertson and Alexander-Arnold. It is their intelligent timing of runs that makes them so much more of a threat than most other full-backs in the game.
8. Once the full-back does get the ball, their ability to deliver the right ball becomes key. It is not just about playing good crosses into dangerous areas, it is also about knowing when the ball should go front post, back post or be pulled back to the edge of the box. While it is enough for most full-backs just to put the ball into a dangerous area and hope the attackers will get to it, the very best full-backs will instead pick out a player, their crosses becoming more like passes, to ensure the forward has the best chance of getting on the end of it. When running at pace, that is beyond most full-backs and it is just about whether they have the technique, and the intelligence to slow their pace at the vital moment to ensure they get a good connection, to deliver into dangerous areas.
9. While its importance has faded a tiny bit in recent years with the micro-management of every possible situation from the sidelines, it is still important that the full-back communicates with those around him. When the attack is coming down the opposite side it is particularly vital that the full-back keeps the centre-backs informed of what is happening around them. It is impossible for anyone to have eyes in the back of their heads, so his input on players running off the back of the centre-back can be the difference between a goal being scored or not. They have the clearest view of what is happening across the pitch as the attack is building and they need to be aware of that and ensure it does not go to waste.
To read Part 1 in this series, Watching Goalkeepers click here.
Written by Tris Burke May 31 2021 08:16:14