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Tactics Tuesday: On Fullbacks

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This Saturday’s game is all about the fullbacks.

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

If there is a position that has been ripe for innovation in modern football for some time, it is unquestionably that of the fullback. Traditionally, fullbacks were wide defenders who marked orthodox wingers who played with their stronger foot on the outside and who mostly looked to get up and down the wings and whip crosses into the box.

As those wingers have become less common, however, the role of the fullback has started to change. Many Premier League clubs now use fullbacks as de facto wingbacks—auxiliary wide attackers who still have some limited defensive responsibilities.

Veering in the opposite direction, someone like Tony Pulis has decided if you don’t need fast, shifty fullbacks to mark wingers, then you can simply play two more center backs in those roles, make your defensive line impregnable, and add some attacking threat on set pieces. But Pulis is (fortunately) the exception to the rule. Most managers today who are innovating with the fullbacks are doing so in ways that are more attack-minded rather than less.

Guardiola’s Transformation of the Fullback at Barcelona

Barcelona v Athletic Bilbao - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

This Saturday’s game features two managers who are at the vanguard of this move. Pep Guardiola is without doubt the key manager in the current evolution of the fullback. His Barcelona, which played a theoretical 4-3-3 was one of the first to evolve in this way as right back Dani Alves basically played as a right midfielder in an old-fashioned 4-4-2. Sure, the shape meant that there was space to attack in wide areas behind Alves, but teams seldom were able to exploit that due to Barcelona’s dominant possession and the remarkable abilities of Sergio Busquets to sweep up any messes that might develop at the base of their formation.

With Alves in that role, the 4-3-3 almost became more of a 3-1-3-3:

Valdes
Pique, Puyol, Abidal
Busquets
Alves, Xavi, Iniesta
Villa, Messi, Pedro

In his later years at Barcelona, the shape became even wonkier as Guardiola attempted to integrate Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez into the team. (Jonathan Wilson wrote about Guardiola’s tinkering back in 2011.)

Alves was key for two reasons:

  • First, he provided supplemental width and an extra attacker in the final third, which gave Barcelona far more passing options.
  • Second, by pushing an extra man into the attacking third (functionally Barça often had six men in the final third as Xavi and Iniesta crept up) it also aided the Barcelona press as they tried to win back the ball.

In some cases, Alves’s main contribution was simply providing the threat of a wide attack down the right flank. Simply making a run down the wing could freeze a defender or drag a defender (or two) away from the ball. This is one example:

In this case, Alves makes a run down the right flank that forces the defense to shift to their left. When that through ball to Alves isn’t available, Barcelona shifts the ball to the opposite flank in seconds and creates a goal via a cross from the left flank.

In other cases, Alves would move more central and play something very like the inverted fullback position that Guardiola used more regularly with David Alaba at Bayern Munich. If anything, however, Alves, was even better at it than Alaba though. Here he is drifting into the center of the pitch and then becoming Lionel Messi’s primary partner on a vintage Pep Barça attack:

As the clip begins, Alves is running toward the center off of a quick exchange with Messi. He then waits for the sequence to develop as Messi begins his run. Once he does, Alves is his primary passing partner, making three consecutive passes to Messi including the assist on the goal.

We could further develop the point by looking at Pep’s Bayern, but the basic idea is already established during his time at Barcelona: Fullbacks do not need to be used in primarily defensive ways in modern football. Therefore, we now have two auxiliary players that we can use to supplement the midfield, form back threes, or provide wide attacking support.

At Bayern, he pushed this further by playing three conventional central defenders (something he did very rarely at Barcelona) with Lahm and Alaba in midfield. He also used this approach in more ways than he did at Barcelona, as Alves mostly stuck to the flanks and only rarely did the inverted fullback thing that became so common at Bayern.

How is Pochettino using his fullbacks?

Tottenham Hotspur v Burnley - Premier League Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

We’ve already hinted at the answer to this question in earlier posts. Spurs play a very narrow attacking shape and so the fullbacks are necessary to provide wide support in the attack. Both the three man backline and the general attempt to split the center backs, either via a third defender or a deep midfielder, are in part about making it easier for the fullbacks to push forward.

That said, Pochettino’s fullbacks generally are not used in the way that, for example, Harry Redknapp’s fullbacks were. Redknapp would use his fullbacks to overlap the wingers and create overload situations on the flanks. Because Pochettino doesn’t really use wingers, however, that is not how his fullbacks support the attack.

Rather than being secondary wide attackers, Pochettino fullbacks are primary wide attackers. This is why the Spurs attack stagnates when the fullbacks cannot get forward: There is no outlet on the wings and so we are left with only four (maybe five, if Mousa Dembele gets forward) working in a very small area. That’s a pretty easy thing to mark, especially when you factor in that Christian Eriksen is the only player in our front four who is consistently good at unlocking packed-in defenses.

However, when the fullbacks do get forward, you get things like this setup that led to Dele Alli’s opener against Burnley which was assisted by Kyle Walker:

In the sequence, all four of Spurs attacking players are in the advanced central area of the pitch and Walker is all alone on the flank. This is the typical way Pochettino uses his fullbacks.

This also, incidentally, is why the fullbacks are in many ways the sin qua non of his system. If the fullbacks cannot provide attacking width, then the attack stagnates. And if you move other attackers into wide areas consistently to fix that problem, then the high press doesn’t work as well. Pochettino’s system rises and falls with its fullbacks.

Pep’s Fullback Trouble at City

Everton v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The funny thing is it is looking more and more like Pep Guardiola also relies on his fullbacks. If you recall, early in the season Guardiola’s City overwhelmed opponents with a 4-1-4-1 system with a defensive philosophy that was basically “we defend by playing in such a way that we almost never have to defend.”

In practice, the system often amounted to more of a 2-3-5:

Bravo
Stones, Kolarov
Sagna, Fernandinho, Clichy
Sterling, Silva, Aguero, De Bruyne, Nolito

Unfortunately, though the system mostly worked, it had two basic problems. The first concerns Manchester City’s squad make-up. Due to several very bad transfer windows between 2011 and 2014, City’s squad is full of aging players who are past their prime and difficult to move due to their inflated wages. The squad Guardiola inherited has no elite fullbacks and no traditional defensive midfielders. Put another way, while Guardiola had Busquets and Alves at Barcelona and Alaba and Lahm at Bayern, he doesn’t have anyone even approaching their level at City.

Sagna and Clichy (and the same goes for Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta) are not nearly as adept at fitting into midfield to provide support in the center of the park as the other players Guardiola has managed.

Additionally, City’s center backs have been comically inept this season and the team does not have a true defensive midfielder, although Fernandinho did the job capably early in the season before he started collecting red cards as a hobby.

The result is that a style that worked very well at Barcelona and Bayern is by definition much riskier at City simply due to the significantly lower quality of the players in those key roles.

City’s Strange Tactical Shift

Leicester City v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

The second problem for City is a classic Guardiola problem: Against a savvy manager who knows how to set his team up to play on the counter, Guardiola teams can be shredded. That, of course, is how Jose Mourinho’s Inter beat Guardiola’s Barcelona. It also quite famously happened to Guardiola’s Bayern against Real Madrid in the Champions League. More recently (and far more prosaically) it happened to them against Spurs and Leicester City in this year’s Premier League.

For all these reasons, City is Guardiola’s weakest club team by some distance. That said, relative to the rest of the Premier League City looks weaker than it actually is. Sure, Spurs and Leicester solved them, but there is a difference between knowing how to beat a team and being capable of doing the thing that will beat a team. If a team can attack fast and direct as well as Spurs and Leicester do, they were capable of throttling early-season Man City.

Well, who else in England besides Spurs and Leicester can do that? At most, the list is “United and Liverpool.” So that’s four teams out of 19 that could consistently exploit the biggest weakness in the City system. That’s eight games out of 38 where you probably should expect City to struggle. That leaves 30 games—90 points—where City can reasonably hope for a draw at least. And in a good many of those games they should probably expect to win.

City’s Curious 4-2-3-1

Everton v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The curious thing, however, is what happened next. Given the issues with City’s fullbacks and midfield, Guardiola’s early season strategy of “attack like hell and hope we never have to defend” is probably the best they could do.

However, rather than stick to a strategy that was mostly working and certainly would keep City in the top four, Guardiola has embraced a fairly staid, predictable 4-2-3-1 in which previously banished midfielder Yaya Toure partners either the sub-par Fernando or Zabaleta in a midfield two behind a front three typically consisting of David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, and Raheem Sterling playing behind Sergio Aguero. The results have been... bad.

This isn’t a surprise. The 4-2-3-1 does not solve the fullback problem because the fullbacks are simply bad. Nor does it solve the midfield problem—Yaya and Fernando or Zabaleta is not a working midfield. Moreover, their central defense is still extremely derpy, whether they are playing a lunatic kinda-sorta 4-1-4-1 or a safe, predictable 4-2-3-1. Simply put, the defensive issues stay basically the same regardless of formation. Finally, shifting from the highly fluid 4-1-4-1 that allowed for a fifth attacker to a predictable 4-2-3-1 makes the attack much worse.

In 18 games playing the weird, highly fluid system Guardiola used to begin the year, City averaged 16.95 shots per match and the xG value per shot was .111—joint best in the league with Arsenal. However, the Gunners are averaging 15.14 shots per game—almost two fewer shots.

In the last four games, however, which include games against Hull and Burnley as well as the Merseyside clubs, City’s attack is averaging 12.75 shots per match and their average xG/shot is .075. In other words, Boring City takes four fewer shots per game and the shots they do take are ~33% worse in quality.

What about Tottenham’s 3-4-3?

Tottenham Hotspur v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Let’s say one last thing about the fullbacks. If City’s shift to 4-2-3-1 is largely about a desperate attempt to correct for the team’s dire fullback play, Tottenham’s shift to 3-4-3 is largely about amplifying the best-in-England fullback play from Danny Rose and Kyle Walker.

After the Manchester United defeat and a very frustrating home win against Burnley, I wrote about how Tottenham’s attack was struggling because the direct attacking of last season had largely disappeared and this left us taking a high volume of shots but never really getting any penetration into the opposition box. The result was high shot volume, low shot quantity. Though our xG numbers still put us well ahead of everyone outside the big six, our shot quality was well off the pace of our five rivals for the Champions League.

Since the Burnley win, we have had three league games and three league wins—all using the 3-4-3 formation that Pochettino debuted in the 3-0 win against Hull that was sandwiched between the United defeat and Burnley win.

Here’s the difference it has made for Tottenham’s attack: For the season, Spurs are averaging 18.286 shots per game with an xG/shot of .087. In the four games using the 3-4-3, we are averaging 19 shots per match, but our xG/shot has gone up to .137. That number is .027 ahead of Arsenal and City, who are the best for the season.

Part of this is driven by a small sample size, of course. Our opponents in those four games include two relegation contenders and West Bromwich Albion. We’re also in exceptionally hot form right now. So we will not sustain these numbers long-term.

That said, by switching to a back three Pochettino has made it easier for our center backs to be involved in the attack and has allowed Rose and Walker to play a more prominent role in the attack. The results have been astounding.

Conclusion

As recently as a month ago, City looked a virtual lock to finish in the top four with a puncher’s chance at the title. Spurs, meanwhile, looked fifth best (at best) with the very real threat of a surging Man United coming up behind them.

But since the Leicester loss and the media swirling around Guardiola (and seemingly rooting for him to fail), City has been struggling. Spurs, meanwhile, have gone from top four outsiders to looking every bit the equal of their top six peers. It’s only a month worth of results so we shouldn’t over-react about either team. City’s attacking riches are unparalleled in England. Tottenham’s squad is probably fourth or fifth best in England depending on how you rate the Manchester teams and Liverpool.

It is entirely possible that the results from August through November are the mean and both teams are going to move back toward it. That said, the changes in the past month, both of which are driven by the fullbacks at Guardiola and Pochettino’s disposal, could have a dramatic effect on both teams through the remainder of the season.