Full-Backs Become The Premier League’s Voguing Trend
Jamie Carragher is an anachronism. He is only 39, retired as recently as 2013 and still had enough speed to outpace Wayne Rooney in Michael Carrick’s June testimonial, but he can seem a relic. His exploits evoke another era, and not just because they included winning the Champions League with Liverpool.
Because, four years before the miracle of Istanbul, the Liverpudlian accomplished something that may sound miraculous to today’s full-backs: he played 58 club games in a season. It amounted to 58 out of 63 in Gerard Houllier’s Treble-winning campaign, all the greater a feat as he began the first, a 1-0 win over Bradford, on the bench. And despite his huge workload, Carragher was only the second busiest full-back at Anfield in 2000-01. Markus Babbel did not merely play 60 games; he started all 60.
It is ever unlikelier his modern-day counterparts will emulate the German. It is a sign of the full-backs’ changing roles and the greater emphasis placed upon them that now they are afforded the sort of luxury that was previously only reserved for the match-winners: a rest.
Houllier was a pioneer of squad rotation. Yet, as Carragher and Babbel can testify, the Frenchman maintained continuity in his overworked back four (“the last ten games stretched my stamina to its absolute limit,” Carragher recalled in his autobiography) and alternated further forward.
More modern managers, and particularly those with European commitments, have taken a different approach. Mauricio Pochettino may have courted controversy and alienated his first-choice right-back by omitting Kyle Walker for three Champions League games last season, but the Argentinian is starting to look a trailblazer. The signing of Serge Aurier was an indication that, while the personnel have changed, he intends to rotate right-backs again this year. When Danny Rose is fit again, he and Ben Davies can compete on the left.
If Walker is spared similar treatment at Manchester City, it may be because Dani Alves’ U-turn and decision to join Paris Saint-Germain scuppered Pep Guardiola’s plan to sign four full-backs. Benjamin Mendy, the only specialist on the left, may benefit or suffer, according to interpretation.
So, too, Marcos Alonso, the only genuine left wing-back in the Chelsea squad. But Davide Zappacosta’s scoring debut against Qarabag was instructive: he and Victor Moses should have a very modern job-share on the right. Antonio Conte’s interest in Alex Sandro and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain showed he saw the importance of having two options on either flank.
Even the traditionalist Jose Mourinho has shown signs of adapting to the times. The Portuguese has tended to operate with comparatively small squads. A manager who has prioritised defensive solidity has liked to keep a unit intact. Yet he changed both full-backs for the 3-0 win over Basel and while that can be explained in part by enduring uncertainty about who represents his best choice on the left, Antonio Valencia may seem the Babbel of today, the automatic choice in a Europa League-winning side. Yet the Ecuadorian only actually started 41 of Manchester United’s 64 games last season.
Tactically, Mourinho is more orthodox than Jurgen Klopp. The Liverpool manager did not need to rotate last season. He has shown signs he will do this, even in the extended absence of Nathaniel Clyne, perming between Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez on the right of his back four and between Alberto Moreno and Andy Robertson on the left.
Klopp’s full-backs have responsibilities that Carragher and Babbel may scarcely recognise. They are one-men left and right flanks and perennial outlets. James Milner figured first in the Premier League for touches, third for crosses, fifth for passes last season. No other notional full-back was anything like as involved as Liverpool’s willing workhorse.
And while the experiment of using Milner in the back four has been abandoned, he nonetheless highlights how full-backs now tend to be former wingers or aspirant midfielders. Many have a sprinter’s speed and a distance runner’s duties. Some, without a winger in front of them, have to run from goal-line to goal-line, a sphere of influence that stretches 100 yards. Depending on formations, some are officially wing-backs. Others, unofficially, certainly are.
Rather fewer are converted centre-backs in the mould of Carragher who soon knocked a more progressive rival and a more natural wing-back out of that Liverpool team because “to be blunt, [Christian] Ziege could not defend.” With grim determination, Carragher could defend for 58 games. As managers are recognising, it is unfair for them to expect them to attack for 58 as well.