Inverted Full Backs | Football Tactics
“If you’re a full-back, you’re a failed winger or failed centre-back. No one grows up wanting to be a Gary Neville,” those were the famous words of ex-Liverpool defender turned pundit Jamie Carragher when speaking about the roles of full-backs in 2013.
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Oh well, there used to be a time when full-backs are viewed as the worst players on the pitch and are just placed there to do a job with minimal fuss. However, the evolution of the game in recent times have altered their job description radically and full-backs are now one of the most important components of the team.
Teams started to recognise the need of utilising attacking full-backs, with one of the earlier examples being Brazil’s 2002 World Cup winning team under Luiz Felipe Scolari which featured the duo of Roberto Carlos and Cafu.
The pair of Patrice Evra and Wes Brown then played prominent roles in Manchester United’s Premier League and UEFA Champions League triumph in 2008. Most recently, Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses shone as wing-backs in Chelsea’s Premier League success last season.
That brings us to the hottest topic in town now – the inverted full-backs. Some may confuse it with the idea of fielding a right-footed player at left-back or vice versa, but the idea is not that simplistic.
A tactical brainchild of current Manchester City’s manager Pep Guardiola, the inverted full-backs are supposed to carry the ball into the zones in front of the centre-backs, where the central midfielders are usually located at. This means they will be more dynamic and exert more influence on the team, instead of staying out wide for the majority of the game which traditional full-backs do.
It is a tactic which Guardiola used to good effect at Bayern Munich where he had David Alaba and Philippe Lahm, and has continued to deploy it at Man City where there is now Benjamin Mendy/Fabian Delph and Kyle Walker.
There are a number of good reasons for using this tactic and it is best used in a team which plays possession-based football.
With the inverted full-backs coming infield to support the midfielders, it creates more passing options in the central areas. With an extra man or two in the middle, the central midfielders have the liberty to move higher up the pitch and dictate the tempo in between the opponents defence and midfield lines. Should the team lose possession, they can also regain the ball in a shorter time as they are more compact as a group.
With that, it forces the opposition centre-backs into an extra dilemma. Should they decide to sit back and hold the line, the central midfielders are allowed the time and space to decide their next move. Should they press forward, it may leave a gap for the central midfielders to play the killer through ball.
There is also the possibility of the central midfielders making a late run into the box to join the attack as they are less susceptible to being hit on counter-attacks, as the inverted full-backs are already covering the space which they vacated. There are more numbers back there as compared to using traditional full-backs, who are tasked to press high up in attacking plays and may not get back in time in such situations.
Additionally, having more numbers in the middle also means there will be more space out wide. With the opposition wingers being forced to come infield to follow the inverted full-backs to cancel out their threat, their own full-backs could be left isolated and vulnerable to one-on-one situations against the wingers.
It works best when you have out-and-out wingers who possess both speed and trickery – something which Guardiola used to good effect at Bayern where he had Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, and currently at City where he has Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling.
Of course like any other tactic, using inverted full-backs also has its downsides. As they are instructed to play infield primarily, the possibility of them making overlapping runs to support the attack diminishes. That may potentially cause problems when opponents deploy double marking on the wingers which is supposed to play ahead of them.
It may also cause over-congestion in the central areas. In certain matches where the opposition packs the midfield in numbers, a team may just need the players to stay wide and stretch them to pose a threat in the attacking third.
All in all, there is no doubt that Guardiola’s introduction of inverted full-backs has revolutionised the game of football and has plenty of benefits, but it is definitely not a one-size-fits-all tactical plan and could well be exploited.
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