One of the major tactical developments of the past twenty years has been the rise of attacking full-backs.
Even in Australia, if you think back over past Premiership and Championship winning A-League sides, this role has been dominated by positive, forward thinking players. Brisbane Roar had Ivan Franjic and Shane Stefanutto for all three of their titles, the Wanderers had Jereme Polenz and Adam D’Apuzzo (with Polenz rumoured this week to be heading to Brisbane to replace Franjic), while the Mariners boasted Pedj Bojic and Josh Rose in their Championship winning campaign.
Obviously, the full-backs weren’t the only reason those sides were successful, but it’s indicative of a wider trend, where the full-back has increasingly become predominantly an attack-minded role rather than a defensive role. That seems rather opposite to the fact that they are, by definition, defenders. It’s part of a global shift towards universality, where strikers must be able to defend, and centre-backs must attack. Clear divisions between positions and roles have diminished, with all players expected contribute in all phases of the game.
Specifically, the rise of the attacking full-back has been discussed at length by esteemed tactics writer Jonathon Wilson. “The full-back, in the modern sense, developed in Brazil in the fifties,” he wrote for The Guardian. “The 4-2-4 [the predominant formation of that era] gave just enough structure for those attacking tendencies to flourish. Given the space in front of them, the full-backs were encouraged to advance, while at the same time providing immediate cover.”
Wilson goes on to explain that a gradual shift towards wingers who cut inside (as opposed to staying out wide) exaggerated the freedom of the full-back going forward. “If there are no wingers to defend against, the full-back can be more adventurous; and at the same time, if there is no winger, there is a need for the full-backs to advance to provide width,” he writes. “Few sides today play with wingers who stay wide. Even in a 4-4-2, the wide midfielders rarely play high up the field, which means that the full-backs are the only players on the field who regularly have space in front of them, and where there is space there is opportunity.”
That’s the historical account, but to put it in simpler tactical terms, the full-back has become more attacking because of the increasing popularity of 4-4-2, where wide midfielders cancelled each other out and thus the full-back had the most space to move into of any player. Even with the shift towards 4-2-3-1, with the wide midfielders sitting higher up as wingers, the full-back is still integral because of the tendency of attackers to drift inside. Full-backs have essentially become wingers in attacking moves.
As a result, games at both the highest level and in the A-League have become increasingly about a full-back v a winger – where a full-back’s attacking intent can pin back a dangerous winger, or vice a versa. At Euro 2012 for example, France had two right-backs in tandem to try and defend against Spain’s Jordi Alba, one of the world’s best attacking full-backs – yet Alba still got forward to provide the assist for Xabi Alonso’s opening goal. Alex Ferguson often did similar, using the hard-working Park Ji-Sung in a wide position up against a dangerous opposition full-back – such as Ashley Cole, with Park often limiting the influence of the left-back in Chelsea v Manchester United matches.
Sometimes, too, wingers don’t bother with marking a full-back that gets forward. A brilliant example of this was also at Euro 2012, between Portugal and Denmark – Cristiano Ronaldo stayed high up to focus on attacking, and Lars Jacobsen scampered past him in attack and provided two assists. Ronaldo’s lack of tracking also caused problems when his club side Real Madrid played Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, with Polish right-back Lukas Piszczek unafraid of leaving Ronaldo free high up the pitch and instead focusing on getting forward wherever possible.
Closer to home, Sebastian Ryall v Archie Thompson in the preliminary final between Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory was a fantastic example of a cat v mouse battle between a full-back and wide attacker. Ryall wanted to get forward wherever possible and scored Sydney’s lone goal, but his attacking ambition allowed Thompson to break directly into the space vacated and score for the Victory.
Melbourne City, meanwhile, repeatedly ran into trouble against opposition full-backs when David Villa played on the left-wing during his short stint in Australia. Villa showed no interest in defending, and Tarek Elrich in particular simply blazed past him when Adelaide beat City 2-1, with Elrich providing an assist.
There are caveats to these examples, of course, but it demonstrates how mainstream the concept of an attacking full-back has become. It’s now highly unusual if a full-back doesn’t get forward, and in the A-League this season, we’ve seen the top four sides have their full-backs play pivotal roles in attacking moves.
Sydney had Ryall/Bojic and Alex Gersbach; Adelaide have Elrich and Craig Goodwin; Victory have Daniel Georgievski and Jason Geria, and league leaders Perth have the pairing of Scott Jamieson and Josh Risdon, perhaps the most impressive pairing of the lot.
Aside from the 2-0 win over Newcastle at the start of November, Jamieson and Risdon have started every match this season at left and right back respectively, with great licence to get forward.
The fact Jamieson and Risdon have been so adventurous is hardly surprising in itself, discussed even before the start of the season in the Perth Glory season preview, but they’ve been particularly prominent because of the narrowness of Lowe’s attacking players. Having settled on a 4-1-4-1 formation, Lowe gives a surprising amount of freedom to the five attackers in front of Rostyn Griffiths, with wide players Daniel De Silva and Richard Garcia allowed to drift inside as they please (very obvious in the birds eye view shot above), and Nebojsa Marinkovic and Mitch Nichols in midfield adding to the fluidity by wandering as they please.
To complement this narrowness, however, Perth need width from elsewhere to stretch opponents. As Jamieson himself explains to Australia Scout,
“Myself and Josh Risdon do have that freedom from the staff to get forward and support as much as we can. “With a right footer playing left wing they generally do tend to drift inside so that space to get round the back is there for me. It’s also all about picking the right times to go.”
Last Thursday’s match against Sydney FC was an excellent demonstration of this. In what was a slow-burning game where Perth had a fair amount of possession, especially in the first half, they were able to comfortably play out from the back and get their full-backs engaged in attacking moves high up the pitch.
In the ‘first phase’ of possession; that is, when Perth’s centre-backs or goalkeeper Danny Vukovic have the ball, the full-backs position themselves in line with the opposition’s first line of defence: a position where they can receive a pass from the centre-back, but also progress the move forward by taking their first touch beyond the line of defence.
The image below shows a good example of Risdon positioning himself in order to both receive a pass from his teammate (Djulbic), but also in a position to take a first touch forward and progress the ball higher up the pitch.
If Griffiths drops in between the two centre-backs, that is a cue for the two full-backs to get even higher up the pitch. This is because Griffiths becomes a third man at the back, allowing the centre-backs to move wider, which in turn means the full-backs have more cover for their advanced positioning.
An example of this can be seen in the Perth v Wanderers match…
Griffiths plays an important role in allowing Risdon and Jamieson to get forward, because even when possession moves into the opposition final third he sits directly in front of the two centre-back and helps protect them. He’s been ever-present, and excellent, in that role. He ranks second in the league for tackles, with 3.8 per game, and ninth for total passes – 432 for the season, meaning an average of 42 per game. This distribution is generally very solid, as he looks to knock sideways balls to the flanks as well as the occasional switch of play.
Importantly, the two full-backs don’t get high up the pitch at the same time. Instead, Perth will often overload one side, with a wide midfielder drifting inside, a #10 moving across to the flank and the full-back bombing forward. In that situation, the full-back on the opposite flank will tuck in, as Jamieson explained. “If ‘Rizzo’ is getting forward then yes I do tuck in and stay close to Thwaite and Dino and vice a versa,” he says. Having the full-back tuck in on the far side ensures Perth are not open if the centre-backs or Griffiths turn the ball over.
The reverse of this is obvious in other games this season, like when Brisbane played Melbourne City – both Stefanutto and Hingert pushed high up, Brisbane gave the ball away in midfield, and City countered quickly down the flanks. Likewise when Sydney played City – Iain Ramsay and Jason Hoffman got forward at the same time, Sydney won the ball in midfield, then countered through Bernie Ibini in behind Ramsay. By contrast, Perth have rarely been caught out by that problem this season, because of the sharing of duties by Jamieson and Risdon.
Additionally, what both full-backs do well is recognise the cue for a switch of play. If Nichols, Marinkovic or Griffiths are on the ball and open up their body to face the other side of the pitch, the full-back on that flank begins their forward run in the knowledge that that specific body shape is indicative of a forthcoming switch of play.
Against Sydney FC, Jamieson and Risdon turned in excellent attacking performances – constantly getting forward to provide width, but also not leaving the defence exposed to counters (which was a big risk against a Sydney side that are dangerous on the break). Fittingly, Jamieson won the penalty that lead to the winning goal.
The video below is a compilation of highlights of Risdon and Jamieson from that match.
Having also proved crucial at other points already this season – like when Risdon constantly got forward against the Wanderers, or when Risdon combined with Hersi to overload Tom Doyle against the Wellington Phoenix – Perth’s full-backs could, judging by the team’s fine form (they sit top after a third of the season) continue the tradition of attacking full-backs at successful A-League sides. At the very least, they represent the evolution of the full-back, from ostensibly a defensive position to increasingly, outright attackers.