The year of the fullback? It’s looking that way in the EPL
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — It has often been viewed as the least glamorous position in soccer, a role no kid wanted to have on the school field and one that was long overlooked even in the professional game.
The fullback, however, has had a makeover in recent years and nowhere is the position’s resurgence better demonstrated than in the English Premier League this season.
The chief supplier of goals at defending champion and current leader Manchester City? That would be left back Benjamin Mendy, with six assists in six games.
The creator of most goals at Arsenal? No, not the so-called “king of the assist” Mesut Ozil, but right back Hector Bellerin.
Left back Marcos Alonso has helped set up five goals for Chelsea this season, more than any other teammate, and also has scored one.
Then there’s Liverpool left back Andrew Robertson and Tottenham right back Kieran Trippier, wide defenders who virtually live in the opposition team’s half these days and constantly send in dangerous crosses.
On Wednesday, the rampaging Robertson got to the byline and delivered a cross for Roberto Firmino to score in Liverpool’s 4-0 win over Red Star in the Champions League. Trippier has set up three goals for Tottenham in the Premier League, more than any teammate.
Elsewhere, one weekend last month saw one wing back (Matt Doherty) set up another (Jonny Otto) for a goal for Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Premier League. Watford left back Jose Holebas has already set up four goals.
The proliferation of attacking fullbacks in England’s top division became increasingly pronounced in Chelsea’s 2016-17 title-winning campaign under Antonio Conte, whose switch of formation from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3 two months into the season gave Alonso and Victor Moses license to get up and down at wing back.
Other teams took note and mimicked Chelsea. Even Arsene Wenger, the then-Arsenal manager who hardly ever veered from a four-man defense, switched to playing with wing backs by the end of the season and to great effect — the team ended up winning the FA Cup final, beating Chelsea at Wembley Stadium.
This season is interesting in that the wide defenders are mostly getting very far forward from their role as fullbacks in a four-man defense rather than as wing backs, with teams often having one dedicated holding midfielder — sometimes two — ready to sit in and help out the defense.
That is the case at Arsenal under Unai Emery, with center midfielders Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka restrained enough to allow fullbacks Bellerin and Nacho Monreal to attack.
“Tactically, Unai Emery has always been a coach who wants his fullbacks to push forward,” said Bellerin, after setting up two goals in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Leicester on Monday, “and that gives a lot of confidence to them and makes sure we have cover.”
The big game in the upcoming round of the Premier League sees Man City travel to Tottenham on Monday, and the battle of the fullbacks — Trippier vs. Mendy — will be one of the features of the match at Wembley.
Trippier, a revelation for England at this year’s World Cup in Russia, has developed into one of the best crossers of the ball in the league, so much so that he has been handed Tottenham’s set-piece duties over playmaker Christian Eriksen.
Mendy, a member of France’s World Cup-winning squad, is rivalling Alonso as the most attacking fullback in English soccer, either by going wide and delivering dangerous crosses or cutting inside to create space and opportunities on the flank.
He assisted on two goals in each of his first two games this season, and set up another — for Leroy Sane — against Burnley last weekend.
Mendy was the most expensive of the three attacking fullbacks signed by Pep Guardiola in the 2017 offseason for a combined 120 million pounds ($155 million), the City manager realizing that he needed more dynamism in that position after inheriting four players over the age of 30 in Pablo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna, Aleksandar Kolarov and Gael Clichy.
Fullbacks, and their versatility, have always been key to Guardiola’s teams. At Barcelona, he had right back Dani Alves often operating as a virtual right winger. At Bayern Munich, he once lined up a team with four fullbacks and no center backs.
City won the Premier League by 19 points last season despite Mendy only featuring in seven games because he was sidelined for seven months with a serious knee injury.
Mendy is like a new signing this season, adding another dimension to City’s already-lethal attack.
He is maybe the poster boy for what, when we look back in a few years, might be regarded as the season of the fullback.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80