Player roles keep changing as football evolves, with the most notable changes coming to defensive roles. Goalkeepers who can play out from the back are in higher demand, centre-backs are now expected to be able to bring the ball out from the back and start attacks, and in some coaches’ cases, to step into midfield and be comfortable in possession. However, the most significant changes look to have happened to the fullback role, as in the modern game, players in this position can be considered auxiliary wingers.
It is also not a far reach to say that the evolution of the full back role started in La Liga.
From a role that required them to only go forward on fast breaks, modern fullbacks are now playmakers who happen to play in defence for their teams, a change that began over the last decade as championed by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona who required his wide players to drift in more, and the fullbacks to cover the wings when they do, giving opposition defenders a lot more to do.
Here are some of the fullbacks from the La Liga clubs who have really adapted to and personified this change.
Jesus Navas started his career as a winger, much like Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia of Manchester United, but transitioned into a proper fullback last season and judging from his performances in the role, has finally found what suits him best. The 33-year old had an exceptional season playing right-back for his boyhood club, breaking the club record for most appearances (400+ appearances for Sevilla) and almost helping Sevilla qualify to the Champions League after a brilliant first half of the season.
Jesus Navas made 32 appearances (31 starts) in the league, averaging 0.9 tackles, 0.9 interceptions 1.6 clearances and 0.3 dribbles per match, 1.3 crosses and 44.3 average passes per match, with a pass success rate of 77%.
His experience as a winger comes in very handy in his forward runs, as he is the player who is most likely to take a shot on goal in the Sevilla team when he drives in through the right flank and cuts inside. His stamina is also impressive and this is what has helped his transition into a fullback with more defensive duties.
26-year old Cristiano Piccini had an impressive debut last season for Valencia after joining from Sporting CP in Portugal, making 23 appearances (21 starts) in the league. He averaged 1.4 tackles, 1.2 interceptions, 2.5 clearances defensively, and 0.5 crosses, 33.5 passes per match at a pass success rate of 78.5% and 0.6 dribbles per match in attack.
The former Betis man is an excellent squad player who adds a lot of bite to Valencia’s style of play, which had much to do with their performance in the league and run up to the Copa del Rey title triumph over Barcelona. He is especially brilliant in finding open spaces down the right, as well as covering for every other right-sided player on the team.
JOSE LUIS GAYA
The 24-year old Jose Luis Gaya played a key role in the Valencia defensive lineup last season, and was influential in getting Valencia back to a Champions League position after a poor start. Averaging 2.1 long balls, 0.6 crosses and 41.5 passes per match at a success rate of 41.5 and scoring one and creating another in his 35 appearances in the league (35 starts), the Valencia Academy product was a big part of many of the attacking moves of the team last season. The left-back’s defensive stats though made him stand above the rest having averaged 2.4 tackles, 1.2 interceptions 2.7 clearances and 0.2 blocks per match.
His surging runs forward coupled with a positional discipline not too common in modern wingbacks are a good quality to have in any team, and if Valencia can continue to stave off suitors who have come and are still coming for Gaya, the 24-year old can become one of the best in the league and will help Valencia a lot.
The best attacking fullback in the league and arguably one of the best in his position in the world, Jordi Alba continues to churn out great performance after great performance consistently every season. Since joining the Blaugrana from Valencia in 2012, the 30-year old has been an ever-present figure in the club’s starting XI. Averaging 1.2 tackles, 1.7 interceptions, 1.6 clearances defensively last season, and 0.8 dribbles, 0.4 shots and 1.3 key passes offensively in 36 appearances, Jordi Alba is one of Barcelona’s biggest threats going forward.
His link-up play is also one of the best in the world as he is always in the right positions to receive the ball from his team mates and return it to them when they get into favourable scoring positions. He is also a player who can comfortably start and fit in beautifully on the wings for his club.
With the start he has made this season despite Barcelona having their slowest start to a campaign in years, he is poised to beat his two goals and eight assists from last season and will prove very useful to all of Barcelona’s title challenges this season as well as their title defence of the La Liga trophy.
This list would be incomplete if Marcelo Vieira is not mentioned, as he is arguably the biggest name in the world in the left-back position, not just in La Liga.
Joining Real Madrid from his hometown club, Fluminense, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2007 as one of the world’s top-rated youngsters, Marcelo brought a side of play that the fullback role in Europe hadn’t experienced before. He quickly endeared himself to the world with his tricks, his speed and his bravado joining the attack before marauding fullbacks became a thing, earning praise from some of the world’s legendary fullbacks including Paolo Maldini and Roberto Carlos.
In this era of modern fullbacks, he has further cemented his place and has been an integral part of the last five years of Madrid’s dominance on the European stage. In the 2009/10 season, he was deployed mainly as a left-winger and even reached the top of the assist charts that season. His defensive contributions were so immense though, that he had to be reverted to his left-back role so as to be able to support the attack and defence together.
This is a young left-back just coming into his stride in the world of modern fullbacks. Last season, he toppled Marcelo from his starting spot at Real Madrid after a string of poor performances from the Brazilian and was very impressive in the role.
This season, he is on loan at Sevilla and has been immense in the position in the first three match weeks. He is a very pacey fullback whose runs are unpredictable, making it difficult for opposition players to predict. His style of play involves tough tackling and fast breaks – he attempts a lot of tackles, and when he wins them, drives up the wings not giving the opposition time to recover.
With Sevilla affording him more playing time this season, he is set to break into the top tier of fullbacks in the world and probably earn his first national cap for Spain in a major tournament. He is already a prime candidate to replace Jordi Alba in the role when the 30-year old hangs up his international boots.
IMPACT OF THE MODERN FULLBACK ON TODAY’S GAME
Jamie Carragher has been quoted as saying that nowadays fullbacks are judged on the number of assists they get in a season, not on how many crosses they stopped getting into their team’s penalty area thereby stopping at the source, the danger of conceding a goal.
This is where the problem lies because many modern fullbacks are not known for their defensive qualities, and purist fans still really appreciate the need for a fullback who can actually defend.
Jordi Alba, though amazing going forward, is a fullback whose defensive contributions have been called into question a lot of times. They are not to be taken lightly though, but the number of times he is caught napping defensively somewhat overshadows the number of times he performs amazingly in defence.
Modern fullbacks put pressure on their team’s defenders and midfielders as they have to play across the defence when their fullbacks are helping with the attack, while also playing the ball out from the back to start the attack. The playmaking quality of the modern fullback is a joy to watch however, and they have become the most entertaining role in football as well as being the role in highest demand in the football market.
The aim of a football match is to win, and while defence helps a lot, the only chance a team stands is when it attacks and with the versatility that modern fullbacks offer, the evolution to the game in general will be interesting to follow.