The notion of football as a game of chess on grass long ago
entered the realm of cliché, but the intricate tactical battles
that characterise the modern game have given the concept new
meaning. Nevertheless, the analogy has its limits: the rook or
castle is condemned to move in horizontal or vertical lines and the
bishop to running the diagonals, whereas total mobility, limited
only by the confines of the playing area, is an increasingly prized
attribute for footballers today.
Nowhere is this development of the modern game more marked than in the ever-evolving position of full-back. Where once a workmanlike defensive display, a turn of pace and a few decent crosses was all that was required even at the highest level, today's right and left-backs have become pivotal figures in their sides' attacking efforts, complementing their defensive skills with abilities normally reserved for creative midfielders. Unsurprisingly, full-backs often top the match stats for number of touches of the ball.
Now that the players traditionally wearing the numbers two and three have evolved into all-round utility performers, it is by no means too far-fetched to describe them as the clandestine playmakers of the latest footballing generation. The full-backs are in a position to call the offensive plays, as American sports terminology puts it, as they usually initiate their teams' attacking moves. They are also responsible for supplying the passing midfielders with possession - or how else should the man in the holding role or operating behind the striker receive the ball in the first place? The currently most popular formations, 4-4-2, 4-5-1 and 4-3-3, live or die by the quality of the initial ball out of defence.
Brazlians follow Facchetti's lead
No less a player than Italy's Giacinto Facchetti may well have been the first conventional full-back to grasp the attacking possibilities of the role. Later to become Internazionale President before his untimely death at the age of 64 in September 2006, Facchetti's pace, dribbling ability and slide-rule crosses were the stuff of nightmares for defences in the 60s and 70s. Decades later, the Italian legend's successors have come to embody the blend of physique, pace and technical excellence demanded by the modern game.
Brazilians were pioneers when it came to developing the attacking range of the full-back position. Many rate the five-times FIFA World Cup winners as the ultimate practitioners of wing-based attacking play, with the wide men cast not merely as participants but also instigators and finishers of offensive moves down the flanks. 1980s stars Jorginho and Branco and their successors Roberto Carlos and Cafu provided the Brazilians with a vast range of options and alternatives, often initiating the match-winning move in tight situations. The likes of Cicinho and Maicon hold out the potential of plenty more to come in the next few years.
Europe long ago woke up to the critical influence exerted by the full-backs, and it is notable that many of the leading nations favour converted midfielders in the position. Willy Sagnol of France, by common consent one of the best full-backs in world football, worked his way through the national youth ranks as a midfielder. His Bayern Munich team-mate Philipp Lahm was similarly a holding midfielder at U-17 and U-19 levels. When injury robbed Germany boss Joachim Low of his usual midfield enforcers for a recent friendly, it was the diminutive but mobile Lahm who stepped in as a not-so-makeshift alternative.
No-one would deny that modern full-backs are considerably more skillful than their counterparts of yore, and are thus perfectly capable of operating in midfield when the occasion demands, and vice-versa, as the examples of Germany aces Torsten Frings and Bernd Schneider show. Recognised as midfield players, the pair frequently help out at full-back should the need arise.
Looking more closely at modern tactics, it is clear that the range of wing-based options allowing today's defenders to open up the play means the full-backs have become an integral part of the midfield, providing the extra man or offering another passing option. The full-back commands a range of alternatives including a diagonal pass, a short ball into the hole, or tracking his own forward to provide an overlap. Full-backs are required to take split-second decisions, usually under pressure from the opposing defence, but they are often central to the to the direction and nature of the next attacking move.
"Full-backs are becoming more and more important in modern football," Germany coach Low has frequently said. To underline his case, Italy superstar Fabio Grosso provided the decisive edge for the Azzurri in both the semi-final and Final of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ as his team advanced to claim the trophy, while Lahm was hailed as the embodiment of the hosts' new commitment to flowing offensive football.
Modern football is grounded in wing play then, where the new covert playmakers ply their trade. It is an area of the field where matches are increasingly won and lost.