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What Does a Full-Back Do in Football (Soccer)?

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A fan of Football/soccer since childhood, the writer plays the game as well until today, as a left full-back.

One of the best full-backs in the world now, Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool Fc.

One of the best full-backs in the world now, Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool Fc.

Traditional Full-Backs

Traditionally, full-backs are divided into two distinctive positions in the field which are, Left-back and Right-back. These players play on the wing side in the defensive line, defending on the wings against the opponent's wingers. However, this only applies if there are 4 or 5 defensive players in the defense line.

In the old days, a traditional full-back stay at the defense line at all times even when the rest of the team are attacking. Back then, these full-backs are sort of like your center-halves today, there were only two of them in a 2-3-5 formation. They used to cover the whole defensive line back in the days.

The 2-3-5 formation in the 1920s

1920s era football (soccer) formation showing only 2 defenders.

1920s era football (soccer) formation showing only 2 defenders.

As the years go by, a 3-2-5 formation was developed where there will be 3 defenders, thus, giving the full-backs a wider space to play as compared to their previous formation.

The 4-2-4 formation was later developed and it can be said as the last formation in the traditional full-back era to have full-backs stay in defense. This 4-2-4 formation has created two sides for the full-backs which are, left back and right back. These left and right backs are allowed to move up and down the wing and to support the wingers up-front in an attack.

The term, full-back was literal where the players playing in that position were actually fully back. These days, full-backs are considered the defensive wingers, playing the ball from the back in a build-up rather than running up-front to support the attack.

Bayern Munich's Right-back Alphonso Davies in action.

Bayern Munich's Right-back Alphonso Davies in action.

Modern full-backs

In the modern days for a full-back, they have been taking an attacking role in the build-up of a team's attack. Full-backs make overlapping runs through the wing, supporting their team's wingers thus clearing off the opponent's wingers and possibly the opponent's full-back.

Players like Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson constantly make runs to the opponent half, these are overlapping runs where they support the attack, creating gaps for the attackers to pass to.

The 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations are two of the best examples on how full-backs were effective in a match. These two formations allows full-backs to make overlapping runs. It is slightly compact in the 4-4-2 formation but a little more comfy in the 4-3-3 formation.

An example of a 4-3-3 formation

An example of the 4-3-3 formation, there is more room for the full-backs to move up for an attack.

An example of the 4-3-3 formation, there is more room for the full-backs to move up for an attack.

As you can see from the image above, players number 2 and 3 are full-backs and the arrows show that these full-backs can make runs up to the attack to support the attacking players with the support of the midfielders if there's a case where one of the full-backs need to switch where the attack comes from.

For instance, player number 2 i attacking but comes under pressure from the opponent's player, player number 2 can either pass it to player number 10 to play it down the center or pass it to the midfield before moving it to player number 3 or with confidence and might, get a cross into player number 3 directly.

Brazil's right-back in action for the country.

Brazil's right-back in action for the country.

Roles of a modern full-back

Firstly, a full-back as the name states, are defenders and they are to provide physical obstruction to the opponent's attacker by influencing them to move to an area where the opponent provides less influence. This usually makes the opponent attacker run into another player where they will likely lose the ball.

Secondly, a modern full-back makes runs into open areas of the wing area to provide, receive or to support passes. Some full-backs tend to stay in the midfield area before making an overlapping run into the opponent's penalty box but full-backs these days, they pass and move until the opportunity to make runs into the penalty box.

Thirdly, full-backs are tasked to take throw-ins, this is because, throw-ins are an opportunity to go forward, at the same time, these throw-ins allow the full-back to receive the ball and create a crossing chance into the opponent's penalty box or move in faster into the opponent's penalty box.

An example of a Right-back taking a throw-in

Liverpool Fc's Trent Alexander-Arnold taking a throw-in.

Liverpool Fc's Trent Alexander-Arnold taking a throw-in.

Inverted full-backs

This tactic is the brain-child of the great manager, Pep Guardiola during his spell at Bayern Munich in 2013-2016, where the full-backs are heavily involved in the attacking build-up of the team. Today, Jurgen Klopp of Liverpool Fc improvised this tactic with the addition of his signature, gergenpressing, which is also known as, heavy pressing. Inverted full-backs are used when the wingers play a "cut inside" role where they move the ball in a central position and create a third midfielder when in possession of the ball.

The role of an inverted full back in Bayern Munich's left-back.

The role of an inverted full back in Bayern Munich's left-back.

For more info on inverted full-backs, check out this video from Tifo Football!

The build up phase, attacking phase and the defensive phase of an inverted full-back

Build-up Phase

Using the 4-3-3 formation as benchmark for this analysis and a goal-kick scenario, the goalkeeper usually passes to a center-back and triggering a winger to move into the position while the full-back moves out to the wide areas to get ready for a pass. At this point, the full-back must get ready to make a move up to the attacking line and the wingers have to be ready for a pass to them.

Attacking Phase

At this point, the full-back needs to find the players to pass in an attack, usually a midfielder, winger and full-back are in the mix, this is to create a triangle between them to play short passes to each other. If there is an open space, the full-back must make the overlapping run forward and find a pass or a cross to an open attacker to score.

Defensive Phase

During a defensive phase, full-backs are positioned centrally closer to the center-backs to create a tighter defensive line. This is to prevent counter attacks and to allow the center-back to switch into a full-back in case of a quick run through the wings by the opponent wingers. A compact defensive line is harder to penetrate compared to a wide line.

An example of an attacking phase tactic

An example of where the inverted full-backs can pass to during an attacking phase.

An example of where the inverted full-backs can pass to during an attacking phase.

The physical demands of this position

Playing as a full-back is a pretty physical job to do, a physically demanding position with the need to be a sort of utility player. Full-backs like Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid have a huge stamina and strength for this position. Here's what you need if you play as a full-back.

- Great pace and stamina to cover the running distance you'll be making up and down the wings.

- A great work rate and knowing the importance of team responsibility.

- Marking and tracking abilities with good sense of anticipation.

- A good off-the-ball ability to create spaces and options to pass to.

- Good dribbling skills as you may be head-to-head with opponent defenders.

- Player intelligence, this is important to create passing opportunities and knowing who to pass to during the build-up.

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© 2020 Nigel Koay