Thursday, 18 August 2011
If you happen to be one of the many thousands who regularly listen to BBC 5 Live's 'World Football Phone-in' you may be familiar with the fact that Brazilian football expert, Tim Vickery, frequently discusses the role of "the Brazilian full-back" and how, for all intents and purposes, "they're really not a full-back at all". In essence, the traditional Brazilian full-back is an attacking player, shirking his defensive responsibilities to bomb up the wing into the opposition's half and provide support for his side's frontmen. In reality, the closest these types of players really come to playing the classic full-back role, which we'd commonly associate with the European game, is their postion on the teamsheet prior to kickoff. Past examples of these specimen in action are endless; Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Jorginho, Leandro, Junior, Carlos Alberto, Nilton Santos, Djalma Santos - and the list does not end their. However, as with every sport, teams and their tactics adapt and change over time. With the way the global game has evolved over the years, is the Brazilian full-back not now the ideal model which most every team looks to employ? As has been discussed at length recently, the past decade in particular has seen the remergence of 'four-band-formations', such as 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-2-3, those which are centred around a largely narrow midfield layout, with one or more midfielders assigned primarily defensive responsibilites. As such, these teams look for their full-backs to push forward into the space left out on the wings, linking up with the wide players upfront, while those more defensive midfielders sit back and protect the backline. With more and more teams utilising inside forward-type players, who cut inside from the flanks, today's full-backs have to be able to overlap and provide the crossing threat from out wide, essentially taking up the role that we would expect to see a standard winger in a 4-4-2 formation play. The primary example of this would arguably be the 2009/10 Barcelona side, just before the departure of Ibrahimovic and Messi taking up a more central role. In this formation, Daniel Alves was essentially tasked with manning the entire right flank himself, frequently overlapping with Messi, who would thus cut inside on his left foot while the Brazilian remained out wide on the wing.
It seems that we have reached a point where such emphasis has been placed on the full-back's attacking capabilites that their ability to defend is really of secondary importance. The likes of Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos and Marcelo, players who'd often be viewed as a defensive liabilities when deployed at the position in a traditional 4-4-2 formation, are both highly vital pieces in the club's starting XI, primarily down to their ability to man their respective flanks and support the attack, while even Gabriel Heinze, formally regarded as one the best truly defensive full-backs in football, has seen his offensive game grow over the past few seasons to the point where fans of Marseille have lauded his contributions to the attack, yet criticized his leaky defensive displays.
In fact, it almost seems inappropriate now to brand full-backs, for all intents and purposes, as traditional defenders alongside centrebacks, such is their involvement in the attacking side of the game. However, one should stress that this is not to say the model of the Brazilian full-back should completely ignore its defensive responsibilites. At a time when the world of football values an all-round game and versatility more than ever, a player who can perform as solid in attack as in defence is a highly valuable commodity and a primary reason why someone such as Maicon is so highly lauded by his peers, such are his strengths in both areas.
Now we can see before our eyes how the full-back, taking on an increasingly attacking role and evolving into the most phyiscally demanding position on the pitch, with the need to cover the most ground of any player during the 90 minutes, has evolved from a position, often considered the least signigicant, into one of primary importance. While previously they were the forgotten men of the side (for example; the least celebrated members of the England 66 side are arguably George Cohen and Ray Wilson, while the list of all-time greats at the position is noticeably shorter than at any other ), the likes of Daniel Alves, Ashley Cole, Maicon and Patrice Evra have distinguished themselves as stars in their own right. Today's version of full-back is no longer viewed as a primarily defensive position and it is becoming more and more rare to see players emerge in the mould of a Lilian Thuram or Mauro Tasotti, those noted as defensive stalwarts first and foremost. Certainly, there is a noticeable tactical shift in the game, one which has seen the archetypal full-back become almost obsolete and the "Brazilian full-back" emerge as the norm at the top tier of football. It's surely of no coincidence that the most established clubs of Europe have increasingly looked to South America to scout for recruits to fill the position and this is a trend which does not look like it is set to slow down any time soon.