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Football Tactics basics: The full-back

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The tactical column returns with a look at the subject of the position of full-back, the wide defenders in a back four.

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Full-back is the single most demanding position in the modern game, requiring the most extreme mixture of attacking and defensive attributes.

In the modern game full-backs who can both attack and defend are absolutely crucial at the highest levels, as they often provide to key to overloading the opposition defence but are also an obvious point of vulnerability if they are slow to resume their defensive duties.

The full-back in different formations

The full-back features in any variation of the back-four – a 4-4-2, a 4-3-3, etc. Their defensive role remains largely the same, to cover the wide spaces and stop opposing wide players from either making dangerous runs into the box or getting a cross in, often advancing high up the pitch to snuff out an attack.

However their attacking role is dependent on the players in front of them. In a traditional 4-4-2 they support the wingers, often overlapping them to get dangerous balls into the box. However with the increasing popularity of narrow midfields – either three men or a diamond – sometimes they are the primary providers of width for a team, outlets on the wing with responsibility for launching attacks, via dribbling with the ball or crosses.

All credit for this video goes to user Angelo DiBenedetto on YouTube.

When the full-backs do go up the pitch, either a winger or a defensive midfielder should be temporarily ready to cover their side but a full-back always has responsibility to get back into position quickly.

The perfect full-back

Defensively, the perfect full-back is intelligent in his positioning, strong in the air, tackles well and has great stamina. On the attack he is fast, a good dribbler, can cross well and can score. That’s obviously true of all footballers but no other position sees players so routinely tested in all those areas.

It would nice if your defensive central midfielder can cross the ball well but he’s unlikely to be in a position to do so often while it’s a key part of a full-back’s job. It would be lovely if the striker was a great tackler but he’d be very unlucky to be called upon to make a last-ditch tackle which full-backs do all the time. Centre-backs might dream of overlapping the front line and getting a goal but full-backs have to actually do it and then get back into position if it doesn’t work out.

Philipp Lahm, the Germany and Bayern Munich right-back is a great example, one of the finest all-round players in the world who captained his country to their 2014 World Cup. Here´s a nice video of him against Barcelona in a Champions League semi-final, an all-action display.

All credit for this video goes to user 2Y21 on YouTube.

Why the name "full-back"?

Full-back at first glance seems an odd name for the players who are often very attacking. It’s a leftover from one of the very first football formations, the 2-3-5 or "Pyramid", the standard from the 1880s through to the 1930s.

"2-3-5 (pyramid)" by Fallschirmjäger, based on work from Mario Ortegon - Self-made, original file from Mario Ortegon. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -

In the "Pyramid" there were only two players fully left back in defence – therefore "full-backs", as opposed to the "half-backs" of midfield and the "forwards". Over the years, a more relaxed offside law and a more positive attitude towards defending led to dropping first one, and then two players back into central defensive positions, thus pushing the original "full-backs" out wide.

Eventually the changing shape of midfields, especially the decline of dedicated wingers, led to those full-backs taking up attacking responsibilities, and thus the modern full-back was left somewhat misnamed.

The full-back and Villa right now

Aston Villa have been cursed with a lack of top quality full-backs for years, a reflection of the difficulty of the position. Even Martin O’Neill´s successful sides generally only saw full-backs of middling quality compared to their centre-backs, dimly remembered names such as Jlloyd Samuel or Luke Young.

Tim Sherwood has suffered with a series of injuries to his full-backs – leading to the horrifying event of Charles N’Zogbia, a right winger, filling in at left-back – but even then the general quality is not great. Leandro Bacuna is fast and a great crosser but has little defensive awareness while Aly Cissokho is the reverse, defensively solid but with no attacking threat at all. Alan Hutton occasionally appears to have the complete skillset but also has far too many days where he’s all-round rubbish.

As such Villa fans will be crossing their fingers that a good left-back will be bought this summer and that the recently purchased Micah Richards still has what it takes – here’s a video of what he was like two years ago.

All credit for this video goes to YouTube user Rayted Are

More articles in the 7500toHolte Football Tactics Basics series can be found here:

The 4-4-2  formation explained

The 4-3-3 formation explained

The 3-5-2 formation explained

The 4-2-3-1 formation explained