So let’s get this bit out of the way before anyone gets mad: The point of this article is not to trash on Kieran Trippier. He’s a fine right back. In the annals of Tottenham Hotspur Right Backs, he’s solidly middle of the road. (Of course, being at the bottom of that list requires one to be worse than Alan Hutton so....)
But he’s not even on the same planet as Kyle Walker.
What makes a good right back?
Fullback is one of the hardest positions to play in the modern game for a few basic reasons.
First, the style of play that led to the rise of the modern fullback is basically extinct. Back fours with fullbacks on either flank came to prominence as a way to deal with the ascendant 4-4-2. You had fullbacks to man mark the opposite wide midfielders as well as to provide overlapping support runs to your own wide attackers. This means that modern fullbacks often do not have an obvious default role in a tactical system because the role they were developed to defend no longer exists in top-level club soccer. (Even teams that do play 4-4-2 usually play something more like a 4-2-2-2 where the wide midfielders tuck inside to support the central midfielders.)
Second, due to the changes in tactics, fullbacks these days often are the primary wide attacking outlet. This requires that they be capable of getting forward to support the attack and that they have enough speed to track back and chase down aggressive counterattacks, an increasingly common feature in the modern game thanks particularly to the influence of managers like Jurgen Klopp.
Third, fullbacks need to be reasonably comfortable making shorter passes and retaining possession. The game’s most progressive managers increasingly see the fullbacks as a valuable auxiliary midfielder.
Moreover, fullbacks are often asked to be a kind of outlet ball on the wings when teams want to recycle possession in the attacking third without playing the ball all the way back into defense. This requires the fullback to be capable of maintaining possession in more congested parts of the field and to distribute the ball accurately.
Finally, given that many aggressive pressing systems press most frequently on the wings when the sideline can be used as an extra defender, fullbacks who turn the ball over easily are an enormous liability defensively.
What do Pochettino right backs need to do?
To excel at right back under Mauricio Pochettino you need to be intelligent enough to understand his pressing system, you need to be fast enough to get up and down the wing to support the attack and to defend, and you need to be capable of playing with the ball at your feet.
It is telling that, in his first season with the club when Kyle Walker was frequently injured, Pochettino preferred Eric Dier at right back to Kyle Naughton. Naughton looks like a more traditional English right back, but he is not nearly as intelligent or reliable in possession as Dier. Though Dier’s pace is limited, which is why we haven’t seen him consistently at right back in two seasons, he was the closest thing the team had to a Pochettino right back in year one.
Is Trippier Better than Walker?
Hopefully by now the answer to that question is self-evident. Trippier is slower than Walker. This means he cannot get forward as well as Walker and that he has a harder time chasing down the ball when it is played over his head to launch a counter. This lack of pace also makes it harder for Trippier to be involved in the attack as much because he struggles to keep up with the pace Spurs play at. Finding the right stats to measure such things is difficult, but it is likely telling that Walker averaged nearly 50% more passes played per game than Trippier—44 passes per match to 28. He also was slightly more accurate than Tripper, completing 80% of his passes to Trippier’s 76%.
That last stat also suggests another important point about Walker: For all the talk about his mental issues and knack for defensive miscues that cost Tottenham goals, he actually has become much better in that area under Pochettino’s tutelage. Though he still has the occasional brainfart when defending, he’s turned into a disciplined, intelligent defender who has mostly held his own when going up against players like Eden Hazard and Raheem Sterling.
Where does Walker stand relative to other top right backs?
To be sure, Walker is not a perfect right back. There are areas of his game where he could improve. But here is what you have with Kyle Walker: You have a veteran right back with great pace, better-than-average physical strength, great ability to recover when he has overrun play, and who is comfortable playing with the ball at his feet.
Obviously he’s not on the level of truly world-class right backs like Dani Alves or Philipp Lahm. But who is? The better question is how Walker compares to other elite right backs at Champions League squads. And when you look at it that way, he stacks up well. Certainly, he compares favorably with Victor Moses, Fernandinho, Nathan Clyne, Hector Bellerin, and Antonio Valencia, the regulars at right back for our top six rivals at season’s end. He also holds up pretty well next to Rafinha at Bayern Munich, Lukasz Piszczek at Dortmund, Sergi Roberto at Barcelona, and Serge Aurier at PSG. He’s not on the level of the aforementioned Lahm or Alves and is also a step below players like Dani Carvajal of Real Madrid but, again, that’s not a realistic standard for Spurs anyway.
If you are a club like Tottenham and you employ arguably the best right back in England, you should be happy. You should want to continue to employ this right back. And if you are a fan of Tottenham, a team with limited financial means and a notoriously inconsistent scouting team fresh off spending £50m on Moussa Sissoko and Vincent Jansen, you should not be talking yourself into selling that right back.
Kieran Trippier is a fine right back. He would absolutely start for most mid-table Premier League sides. But that doesn’t mean he is better than a veteran with the physical gifts of a player like Kyle Walker.