The Full Back position is one that has evolved rapidly since the inception of the EPL, and so has the importance that this role plays in a team. It is no longer about being a solid defender with the ability to “stick it in the mixer”, but a position that can involve being a key attacking wide player who’s team relies on them to provide the width for an otherwise narrow attacking threat. It says it all that Leighton Baines provided more chances for his teammates than any other player last season, or that relegated Maynor Figeuroa made a pass in the final third of the pitch more than every 7 minutes.
It is therefore clear that the full back now has an important and diverse role to play within each team, but does the type of role vary from the top half of the premiership, to the bottom? Does the assumption that a lower half player concentrates more on the classic traits of a defender, like preventing chances and clearing the ball, ring true? Do the Glen Johnsons, Kyle Walkers and Patrice Evras have a free reign to bomb forward, safe in the knowledge that their fellow defenders or a covering midfielder will simply cover for them? This article is intended to find out just that.
With all of this in mind, I have analysed 3 full backs from both halves of the table –
Top Half (TH):
Glen Johnson (Liverpool – 7th)
Kyle Walker (Spurs – 5th)
Patrice Evra (Man Utd – 1st)
Bottom Half (BH):
Chris Gunter (Reading – 19th)
Mathieu Debuchy (Newcastle – 16th)
Geoff Cameron (Stoke – 13th)
If one group was to be more attacking than the other, the assumption would surely be that this group would be more positive in their passing. However, the actual facts surprisingly negated my suspicions, which is obviously a great start! The TH group only made an average of 33% of their passes in a positive direction, whilst the BH group averaged 53%; maybe the BH defenders are getting a bad press? Still convinced by my initial assumption, the next step was to see what actually happened with these passes.
The reason for this trend seems to be in the good old long ball statistics. The BH players made a long ball pass every 19 minutes on average, compared to over 25 minutes for the TH group. This isn’t really a key statistic unless it is clear that these passes were most likely stray balls pumped up field. The disparity becomes clear when we review the accuracy, with the TH players boasting just below 63% accuracy with long balls, compared to less than 42% for the BH. The initial surprise around the positivity of passing from the BH teams has quickly evaporated.
Back at square one then, the next stop was chances created and shots taken (some might say that’s obvious!). Although obvious, it still leads to some stark findings. You would probably expect all full backs to create chances in a season, but I wasn’t sure about how the BH teams would fair in this respect. The response to this is not particularly well, as my subjects created a chance every 158 minutes, so a single chance every full match and another full hour. This isn’t even closely comparable to our TH stars, who created a chance every 68 minutes on average. This is further by the dribbling attempts from the players, with the BH averaging an attempted foray every 83 minutes, but once again crushed by the TH player’s average of every 50 minutes.
As chances created and dribbling seem a little too clear cut, it seemed that shots at goal would be a greater indicator of differentiating factors between the ways that the groups play. Being a primarily defensive position, you don’t really expect a shot every 5 minutes, but my three BH players struggled in with an average of one shot every 329 minutes. Although not every 5 minutes, their TH compatriots managed greater than three times the shots per minutes played, at one every 101 minutes. My conclusion of this, including the findings on dribble attempts, is that the TH players are happy to trust their teammates to fill in for them when they fancy a punt at goal, as well risking losing position.
Further to this, and finally, it is clear that teams competing for European places will have more possession of the ball on the whole, therefore do more attacking. When considering this, it would seem that the logical conclusion would therefore be that, as the BH teams do more defending, the full backs would at least have more touches of the ball than their TH equal. It is surprising to see that this isn’t the case, the TH stars having a touch of the ball every 1.18 minutes, which is contrasted by every 1.55 minutes for the BH. This would lead me to conclude that the use of the full back for the more successful teams involves their involvement in the building of possession and inclusion in attacking phases of games.
To conclude completely, and using this evidence, it appears apparent that full backs in more successful (term used loosely) teams are required as much for attacking adventures as they are for defensive action. The teams threatened with relegation throughout the season use them in the way that their name implies, at the back!