What Is a Fullback In Soccer? 

Once upon a time, the role of fullback was the least desirable position on the soccer field, often allocated to the least gifted players on a team.

In fact, there’s even a joke about being a left-back, with the punchline of being left-back (in the locker room). It’s a poor pun at best, but it does underline the perceived role that a fullback fulfilled. 

A Fullback In Soccer

Firstly, a fullback is a player who plays on either the far left side of the defense, or the far right side, usually as part of a four-person back line. In its earliest incarnation, a player would be expected to hold their position on the left or right of the defense and wait for an opponent to attack that area. 

Twiddling their thumbs until an attacker tried to enter their zone, the left-back, or right-back, would then try to dispossess the attacker or stop them from getting a cross into the penalty area. Due to the periods of inactivity, the positions were often given to the less gifted players on a team. 

Too short to be a center-back? You’ll get pushed out onto fullback duties. Can’t run with the ball or cross it? You guessed it, fullback. It was the graveyard shift for soccer players for some time, but a gradual change in tactics has turned the fullback role into arguably the most critical position on the soccer field. 

What Tactic Best Suits Fullbacks? 

What really changed things around for the fullback position was the resurgence in teams playing a 4-3-3 formation, with teams having three central midfielders and two attacking wingers on either side of the striker. 

A perfect example of a modern team using this tactic is Liverpool; with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane as the attacking wingers, the striker, Roberto Firmino, drops back into attacking midfield to allow the wingers to cut inside. In this scenario, the flanks are suddenly freed up, but with Firmino in the center and the midfielders covering against a counter-attack, the fullbacks step in. 

The fullbacks in the team, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Andrew Robertson, both move up the flanks into crossing positions. The result of this is twofold; both players are excellent crossers of the ball, so the chance of a cross or through ball to Mane or Salah is massively increased.

Secondly, defenders now have to close down the fullbacks or risk being overrun, which in turn further frees up the attackers.

Liverpool has used this tactic to devastating effect over recent years, and it’s one thing for a team to know what Liverpool is going to do, but it’s quite another to actually stop them from doing it.

Both Mane and Salah are always in the top bracket of goalscorers in the Premier League, and Robertson and Alexander-Arnold often supply more assists than any other players in the league. 

Why Has The Fullback Position Become So Important? 

Their importance has never been greater, with tactics now suiting the fullback role. Manchester City, for example, has spent several hundred million on fullbacks alone in recent years, as their tactics rely on this position to overload the midfield.

As teams look for goals, defenders are becoming more accomplished at stopping attacking players. 

A team blessed with excellent fullbacks can negate the defense by pushing forward to outnumber the defenders or move up into midfield to overcrowd the center of the pitch.

From a possessional dominance point of view, fullbacks create options, dragging players out of position whether they want to go or not. Used correctly, a fullback causes absolute havoc. 

A world-class fullback can be priceless, with Andrew Robertson being valued by Liverpool at £94.2m and Trent Alexander-Arnold at an eye-watering £171.1m.

The excellent Alphonso Davies of Bayern Munich is valued at £133.5m, such is the importance of his role and abilities within the team. Only a striker with a top-class reputation, scoring 30 goals per season, comes close in value. 

What Are Inverted Fullbacks? 

Using a system that involves inverted fullbacks is a tricky maneuver to pull off, but when done correctly, it can be crippling to the opposition. If a standard attacking fullback is expected to create width by making runs up each wing, an inverted fullback does the opposite. 

Rather than stretch the play down the wings when their team has possession, they move inside to offer added options to the midfield. With both fullbacks moving simultaneously inside, passing options increase exponentially as lines-of-sight diamonds are created.

The midfielders can pass with greater safety to players around them, dragging players out of position as they chase the ball. 

The added bonus of inverted fullbacks is that should possession be lost, they can recover their positions quickly. And while in possession, they can float around creating passing options, which allows a quality attacking team to find spaces for the forward players to exploit. It’s a great tactic but a difficult one to accommodate easily.

Manchester City is a team that has turned the role of inverted fullback into an art form, as they dominate the Premier League and, to a lesser extent, European soccer using this approach.

Having said that, It’s come at a cost: City has spent many millions of dollars seeking the perfect fullbacks, with players like Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy, and Joao Cancelo used, to name but a few. 

Which Teams Use Fullbacks Effectively? 

Any team coached by Pep Guardiola sums it up pretty well, as the wily Spaniard has turned quality players and teams into absolute world-beaters.

First, at Barcelona, Guardiola used players like Dani Alves, arguably the best fullback of all time, to devastating effect. At Bayern Munich, Guardiola again used this system, dominating the Bundesliga even more than Bayern usually does. 

At Manchester City, Pep Guardiola has taken what was a team of expensive yet unpredictable players and turned them into an unstoppable force. Beating Liverpool to the title consistently is no easy feat, but using inverted fullbacks has allowed Guardiola’s team to dominate possession, strangling teams into submission season after season. 

Another team whose fullbacks stand out as vital cogs in the machine is Liverpool, with Jurgen Klopp finally bringing success back to the Anfield giants. After so many years of being also-rans, a recent Premier League success has cemented Klopp into Liverpool folklore. 

And it’s thanks to his use of attacking fullbacks, that the team has been so successful. It’s noticeable that even with star players like Mohamed Salah on the team, the fullbacks’ work rate, passing, and crossing take many of the plaudits.

With assists and crosses raining down on opponents’ penalty boxes week after week, Liverpool look like they mean business again. 

The battle between the two Premier League giants shows no sign of slowing down. It is a fascinating battle that showcases two contrasting yet incredibly effective ways of using fullbacks in the modern game.

With Liverpool’s cavalier and exciting wing play and Manchester City regularly taking teams apart by passing the opponents to death, the fullbacks could decide the next Premier League title. 

Conclusion 

The days of young players dreaming of being the next Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, or Sergio Aguero may not be gone, but now there’s a new dream for kids to aim for. You’re as likely to see a soccer shirt with Alphonso Davies or Trent Alexander-Arnold on it as you are Ronaldo or Haaland. 

Twenty years ago, no child dreamed of growing up to be Gary Neville, but the importance of fullbacks to the modern game has meant a massive increase in players of incredible skills making the position their own.

Able to pass, run, shoot, cross, and tackle, the complete fullback is one of the most valuable players on the team and often one of the most expensive. 

The future of the fullback role looks secure, although inevitably, certain tactics are cyclical, so it’s never a guarantee. What suggests that fullbacks will play a continued dominant role in soccer is that fullbacks create many chances. And chances created lead to goals scored, which means more wins. 

Of course, only a finite percentage of chances are converted, but having two fullbacks in your team that are exceptional at their role, such as the Robertson – Alexander-Arnold combination at Liverpool, can create several hundred chances over a 38-game season.

Plus, who doesn’t love to see a fullback bombing down the wing before crossing in for a great goal?

Connor Smith

I'm Connor, the guy behind SoccerPrime. I'm a former NCAA Div 1 college player that retired at the age of 21 due to injuries - which led me into a new career as a soccer coach.

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