Have attacking full-backs become the recipe for success in the Premier League?
Background image: Ruaraidh Gillies, CC BY-SA 2.0
Football, like humanity, has evolved. The beautiful game is now mingled with technological advances, resulting in unique tactics, giving it a competitive edge like never before.
Similarly, the Premier League has also seen a surge in its competitiveness. Last season’s race saw Manchester City and Liverpool take each other to the absolute limit. The top-four challenge was equally close, with each contender handing the other ample opportunities, only to constantly fail.
While similar competitiveness is in the air this time, there’s a different pattern to success being outlined. Gone are the days when wide-midfielders or wingers would hug the touchline, lodge in crosses and create chances for centre-forwards.
That responsibility has been shifted to the full-backs, often acting as auxiliary wingers. Staying in line with football's evolution, this is the latest trend granting big-time success for those perfecting the style.
Liverpool’s uprise is the perfect showcase of the influence wingbacks can truly have. Trent Alexander-Arnold is creating more chances than many playmakers around Europe. He had 12 league assists last season, averages a mammoth 3.6 key passes per game and his pin-point accurate crosses rarely fail to hit the mark.
His partner-in-crime, Andy Robertson, is more of a driving figure, using determination as a factor to ride into promising positions before finding cutting-edge passes. Klopp’s tendency to allow his wing-backs to express their attacking potential has brought great rewards, also inspiring others.
Former manager, Brendan Rodgers, followed the same routine with high-flying Leicester City. The Foxes have compactness many traditional Premier League giants don’t, but Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell’s contributions must not be undermined.
They’ve contributed to six Leicester league goals this season (Chilwell 4, Pereira 2), but their indirect contribution to countless others makes Leicester such an unpredictable unit. Both have enough pace to romp forward, get in behind defenders and create chances with their commendable final delivery.
While these four combine to create the league’s dangerous full-back combinations, some others help their side lead the charge. Kyle Walker has retained his place ahead of Joao Cancelo, largely thanks to his speedy forward runs and accurate delivery.
Marcos Alonso, despite his defensive frailties, loves acting as a makeshift striker whenever necessary. While Sheffield United’s Enda Stevens is a breakthrough star for the surprise packages, tricking his way past defenders with ease. He's also orchestrating moves with his creative edge.
Lucas Digne’s a persistent terror for Everton with his crossing accuracy as well as set-piece prowess, providing some joy in a dim campaign. While not accurate in Everton’s case, but the reason marauding defenders have enjoyed success is due to the domino effect in tactical changes.
Nowadays, traditional wingers rarely enjoy hugging the touchline or remaining static. Left-sided ones love cutting inside to either make a deft through-ball or take a swipe at goal. The right-sided ones prefer zooming in the box and aiding their striker’s by adding an extra body.
Due to the wingers moving more centrally, this gives full-backs enough incentive to fill the empty space out wide. With defences forced towards being more compact, there’s room to threaten in the wide areas.
This allows the full-backs to become makeshift wingers, with some preferring to put in crosses, while others dribbling inside the area to cause panic. In the Premier League particularly, this style’s been encouraged to open up rigid defences. So to grind out chances, attacking wing-backs are necessary.
Perhaps the lack of top-quality attacking full-backs is holding back Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur or even Arsenal from competing for top-four spots. It’s not like they don’t encourage their wide players to march forward or create chances. They’re just not capable enough.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka is a mammoth defensively but cowers down with his lacking final delivery. Spurs haven’t been able to replace Kieran Trippier’s looping crosses. The Gunners’ tinkering isn’t helping. Whether these sides must train their current batch in putting in a better effort in the final third or invest elsewhere, they must improve their wing-backs’ effectiveness.
Otherwise, they find themselves falling further back to the starting line. Full-backs were once appointed a rather static role of maintaining their positions. These days, the Premier League’s encouraging them to try out new things. This trend isn’t ending anytime soon. With the wing-backs often delivering better than the attacking players themselves, why should this successful pattern end?