The Modern Fullback – Attack or Defend

What’s your defence?

The debate over Gareth Southgate’s decision to omit Liverpool’s fullback Trent Alexander Arnold from the national squad has been one of divide. The modern full back has seen his role changed in recent years. No longer are fullbacks seen as solely part of a defencive unit. When deployed correctly some managers increase the chances of scoring by allowing the fullbacks an attacking license like never before. As a result these defenders are becoming more integral in the team structure.

Since taking over at Manchester City, Pep Guardiola has spent £421 on defenders. Joao Cancelo (60), Kyle Walker (47) and Benjamin Mendy (52) make up the bulk of the nearly £200 that was on fullbacks alone! When money is no obstacle this is almost normal. In the real world most clubs spend the bulk of their cash on attackers with the striker usually being 2/3 times the amount you would spend on any other player. But Pep has a way of playing and this revolves around his fullbacks.

So with that in mind lets take a look at the apparent in-form and out of sorts fullbacks and delve into the stats that they have. I’ve chosen two sets of stats that look at the defending attributes as well as the attacking. First up lets take a look at the defencive side with most players now having passed 23 games so far.

Defend first, attack later.

Straight out the gates and it is no surprise that Aaron Wan Bissaka would be named as the most reliable tackler in the game. Renowned for his 1v1 reputation he leads the way on tackles made by a distance. His success rate is matched by 6/7 of his peers though which might surprise many. The leagues most expensive fullback Cancelo, seems to love a duel, but has lost as many as he has won.

Trent Alexander Arnold might surprise a few here as his tackle success rate is one of the highest as are his interceptions. He does lose some ground however as his duels won/lost ratio is negative. An attribute the he shares with Arsenals Kieran Tierney. Having watched alot of his impressive games for Arsenal this season you would not have thought he would end up on the lower form for many of these attributes.

Aaron Cresswell is having a decent season so far with West Ham. Obviously the spotlight is less when you are not playing for a Top4 club so his stats make an interesting read. He must be on the front foot for the Hammers as he simply doesn’t seem to be involved much with the defencive side of the game. This shows how much room for improvement he has to become a recognised quality fullback.

Attack is the best form of defence

This table really shows how much involved your defenders are in the average game. Trent has an impressive 1900 passes to his name which shows how often he is in possession. But possession can be misleading. It is how you use the ball that counts. This seasons Premier League shows that teams with 35-40% possession are coming away with 3 points more often.

With a combination of Big Chances Created and Accurate Long Balls we can see the impact in the final third of the pitch. This is where the attacking prowess shows. As mentioned with Cresswell above he finally delivers for his team in spades only matched again by Trent. Manchester city’s Cancelo comes alive here again as he also contributes heavily to his teams posession based game. Then chips in going forward with chances created.

Cresswell surprises in this table as he stands out with am impressive 7 assists and 170 odd crosses to his tally. His crossing accuracy is impressive also as he finds a man from a cross once every three times. This stat also shows up James Justin as he is only finding his strikers less than anyone else. Reece James also shows an accurate right foot with a good return on his final ball.

Aaron Wan Bisaka is a huge disappointment here. For a guy that receives the ball alot during the game, returns an awful distribution of stats on the front foot. He rates the lowest of all his peers in relation to chances created and accurate long balls. Manchester United have been blistering at times with there counter attacking style and it must be the left flank that provides the assists.

Balance is the Key

So from the looks of it we can see clearly that while Aaron Wan Bisaka is the king of tackling and individual marking he suffers terribly going forward. Trent Alexander Arnold, touted as having a bad season, is streets ahead on the front foot and is as creative as any winger. His negative % of duels won shows that he needs to tighten up on the basics of football.

Reece James has shown to be a good in-between type fullback with a more than average stat for nearly everything. With a few years experience behind him he could become a very solid player for Chelsea. Cresswell is in the same vein as Trent, having superb attributes going forward. He is the reason why West Ham are having such a good season this year. Cancelo shows that you do not get the complete package these days, not even for 60million!

This has really highlighted Kieran Tierney for me. I’ve watched quite alot of Arsenal this season and he was in my opinion one of their most important players. I expected him to be high on the attacking list and stable in defence. It turns out he is somewhere between the two. James Justin is relatively new to the league and he will progress with appearances.

Which do you choose?

So with all the statistical evidence that we need in our possession. Who is your ideal fullback? Obviously that depends on your philosophy as a manager. As mentioned above Pep clearly values a defender that is as good on the ball as his midfielders. Chances created and forward thinking ability is key as many teams sit off them. Cancelo, Trent and Cresswell are the easy options for him in this scenario.

If however, you are usually on the back foot or with an equal share of possession. This means you are defending as much as you are attacking. Aaron Wan Bisaka and James Justin would be an automatic starter in a Jose Mourinho team. bullish in defence and more reliable to sit with their backs against the wall. Creativity is an option not a necessity.

There is a place for every type of defender in the Premier League. There is also an argument to be made championing each type for different reasons. Regardless of hype you still need to be able to do both disciplines. The key is to be well rounded.

If we look back at the best fullbacks of the modern premier league era. Not all of them had both the ability to attack and defend as well as eachother. Cesar Azpilicueta is probably the best fullback of the last 10 years and he probably never passed the halfway line for most of his games. Whereas Ashley Cole was always on the front foot. Two completely contrasting players with different attributes.

So who do you think is the best modern fullback? Who was your favourite over the years? Will any of these guys be as highly regarded as some of the legends of the past? Drop us a line below to comment.

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