It is getting harder and harder to find good full-backs in modern football
In his prime, Dani Alves was considered as the best right-back in the world, well accompanied by world-class players such as Eric Abidal or Jordi Alba. Nonetheless, Barça appear as a privileged club in modern football, as the full-back position becomes increasingly difficult to fill in efficiently. Many players have proven to be good, average or they tend to prefer either the offensive or the defensive side of the task. On the football market right now, there are very few brillant full-backs and Barça had to re-think their management of the Aleix Vidal case. At first, it seemed like they wanted to replace Dani Alves with another great right-back, but the lack of choice at that position and the high price of the potential recruits made the Board change their mind, sticking with Aleix Vidal and the very versatile Sergi Roberto as a back-up. But why is it so difficult to find a good full-back? Is Lucas Digne, the latest Blaugrana signing, a good one? Who are the best players at that position at the moment?
So many questions come to mind when thinking about one of the most difficult positions on the pitch in modern football. We asked our editors and football experts what was their view on the question. Here is their attempt at answering it.
A need more than a vocation
Generally, when trying to understand the reasons and causes for a problem, we go back in time. And for footballing careers, going back is looking at the first years of football, when players are only children having fun on the pitch. And there is one word which is not synonym of fun, it is full-back. There are very rare players - if any - that started their football career as full-backs. Therefore, they get to that position mostly because they didn't have what it take to be higher on the pitch, or in "funnier" positions. Pol Gustems confirms:
"The ones that are playing as full-backs at a high level, at the beginning of their careers, didn't start as full-backs. Take Jordi Alba's case, who was a winger. Or Héctor Bellerín, Aleix Vidal, Sergi Roberto, Antonio Valencia, Dani Alves... Most of them were wingers that and at some point were told they weren't good enough to attack and were better suited in the defensive line." To make sure you get good full-backs out of them, there is one simple solution: "It's a matter of when you relocate a centre-back or a winger in the full-back position. The earlier the better", adds Gustems.
Just like in any other subject or area, to educate as soon as possible is key in order to get the best results. And that is something some football academies have a hard time fighting for when raising future football aces. Taking into account the very small proportion of youngsters in pro clubs' academies that make it to the professional level, it is even rarer to find full-backs among them, since it is not necessarily a position that they chose, but one they were given.
Full-back is an ever-changing position
The full-back position hasn't existed for as long as football. Wings haven't always been key in the offensive system of a team, and it took time and several tactical revolutions to associate the wings with high danger, therefore making of the full-back position an equally demanding one in defence as well as in attack, if not more in the latter, as Pol Ballús explains:
"From my point of view, the more offensive vocation of full-backs is one of the main caracteristics of modern football. In Barça Johan Cruyff was a pioneer in establishing this profile of players, very resistant, running all the time and who give depth on the side. In a context of offensive football, it is essential for a team that want to hurt its opponent to have incisive and open players on the sides. This is the function many defenders have acquired, that is being more and more required from them."
It is true that the other positions have changed as well. Pure strikers are rarer and rarer, wingers are now more than just fast players that can cross, midfielders are often versatile and asked to bring a physical touch to their technically demanding job, and even goalkeepers are now asked to be good with their feet in order to keep the ball as much as possible and start from behind - like Pep Guardiola loves doing with his teams. But the full-back position is probably the one that evolved the most, and with the largest ground covered. Modern full-backs have to defend well, be good technically to combine with their midfielders and wingers, and to deliver good crosses, they have to be quick and very resistent, as they rarely have convincing back-ups to give them some rest.
The change takes time
The figureheads of Dani Alves, Lilian Thuram, Eric Abidal, Gianluca Zambrotta or more recently Jordi Alba, David Alaba and Philip Lahm are helping setting targets and role models for the younger generations. To many coaches, the full-back is as important as the striker and the goalkeeper. They're the wings that enable the team to fly and avoid crashing. The awareness is being raised in football school, also versatility is becoming a serious trend. In Barça, players like Sergi Samper or Sergi Roberto are good examples. But some will say that it is better to have specialists at every position than very good versatile players adapting every time. Modern full-backs take time to be built properly and the coming generation we've seen in the Euros might be the result of this maturation.
Indeed, players like Raphaël Guerreiro, Cédric Soares, Hector Bellerín or Joshua Kimmich seem to be the future of this position, and a very promising one. Versatile players, yes, but still dedicated to that very specific position of full-back. They might have finally sloughed and become the new examples to follow.