“A fullback is either a failed centre-back or a failed winger“, said Jamie Carragher on a strange Monday Night Football episode in a bid to get one over his arch nemesis and fellow pundit Gary Neville. Though Gary Neville laughed it off in a very dismissive way only he can do, what Carragher said that day could actually be true in the sense that very few players actually want to grow into a full-back and nail down a regular place there. ‘Full-back‘ or the more modernized ‘wing back‘ has always been viewed/ is still viewed by some as a specialist position – arguably the hardest for a player to cope physically, as a full back is expected to deliver the goods at both ends of the pitch and the one that is afforded very little room for error.
Full-backs today in English football do really epitomize what the Premier League is all about, certainly more than anybody else – with frequent displays of pace, aggression, relentlessness and drive. According to the rule of thumb, a full-back can’t be good whilst going forward alone or is only comfortable when defending one on one scenarios. He has to strike the right balance between attack and defence – as the very best in this position have managed to do – to be recognized as a quality player in that position. In this piece, I have managed to compare these three full-backs – three of the best this season so far – and try to find who has got the right balance and who would go into any side in the Premier League and improve it.
In modern football where full-backs overlap way too much or sometimes take on three four five players in his stride to slot the ball into the net – it seems the game is definitely moving in the right direction. But then, a full-back will always be a defender first and his primary duty is to defend the situation and close down the gaps by maintaining the shape. There is no worse sight in football than having to watch a full-back get caught out of position or let the striker have a free run at goal by accidentally playing him onside, is there?
As far as defending is concerned, talking about putting in a tackle, Southampton’s Clyne has put in some tasty ones so far, with just over 3 successful tackles per game; he is at least half a successful tackle ahead of Chelsea’s Azpilicueta, while Leighton Baines has managed to put in 1.64 per game. But the Everton left-back boasts a better percentage of successful take-ons with 52%, shading Southampton’s Clyne who’s managed a 50% success rate and quite comfortably ahead of Azpilicueta. In the air, it is Azpilicueta who comes out on top winning more than half of his aerial duels – proving to be an integral part of Chelsea’s rock-solid back four. Interceptions, again, a vital aspect from a defensive point of view, is again dominated by Azpilicueta, followed by Clyne and Baines respectively. The last two numbers very much tell us about the presence of the Chelsea defender and his athleticism that comes in handy coupled with an excellent positional discipline.
Verdict – 1. Azpilicueta 2. Nathaniel Clyne 3. Leighton Baines
Full-backs these days are quite simply expected to do more than what I’ve touched on above. Some full-backs even take set pieces and spot kicks for the team – something that goes to show the technical abilities on the ball a defender should possess at this moment in time to sustain at the top level. From the days when a goal was considered a collector’s prize for a defender, football has come to the point when everyone is expected to contribute to the numbers except of course the one between the sticks.
It is rather easy to come to a judgement looking at the comparison matrix as there is only one winner when it comes to delivering at the more glamorous end of the pitch. Baines leads the way in the number of goals scored per game and the number of key passes made per game columns by quite a winsome margin. When it comes to finding a teammate, Baines again has had more success than the other two in comparison, slightly ahead of Azpilicueta (85%) followed by Nathaniel Clyne who’s managed to complete 80% of his passes. Add to this the experience and skill that Baines brings to dead ball situations and his near perfect record in converting spot kicks, Leighton Baines is head and shoulders above his counterparts, it has to be said.
Stats Courtesy – Squawka.com
Verdict – 1. Baines 2. Clyne and Azpilicueta
From what we’ve seen above in terms of numbers, it is easy to conclude that Azpilicueta has been the best full-back in the league – defensively, while Leighton, as has always been, is the best full-back going forward. Nathaniel Clyne has had a very good season so far, part of a back 4 that’s got one of the best defensive records in all of Europe’s top leagues, at this point in time. While the youngster still has some way to go before being mentioned among the best full-backs in Europe, he has certainly got a very bright future with regard to his England ambitions. As things stand, I’d have to agree with Neville and Carragher though as to who the best defender in the league at the moment is, let alone full-back.