All things considered, it was fitting that the goal of the 2018 World Cup was scored by France’s Benjamin Pavard. The Stuttgart defender, with his country two goals to one down against a resurgent Argentina, surged down the right flank and clattered a rising, swerving drive beyond the reach of Franco Armani; this strike was the catalyst for a 4-3 win in perhaps the match of the tournament. Pavard’s dramatic intervention could be seen as the crowning moment in what we might call “The Age of the Full-Back”.
Now, this is not necessarily unprecedented: as Nas told us on The Lost Tapes, “No idea's original, there's nothin new under the sun/It's never what you do, but how it's done”. Spanish football, for example, had long been comfortable with the idea of the full-back as the team’s primary or secondary playmaker, with Sevilla developing not one but two of the greatest proponents of this art form in a single generation. Dani Alves and Sergio Ramos, following in the tradition of Real Madrid’s Roberto Carlos, quickly became indispensable parts of their club sides and national teams.
Yet the Premier League, despite its unparalleled riches, has seemed to be slightly slower to the punch. Perhaps that’s partly why so many were incredulous when Pep Guardiola, nursing a few metaphorical bruises from his sobering first season at Manchester City, went out and spent €100 million on Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker. Surely, thought several observers, that’s what you shoule spend on strikers? That same summer, after all, Alexandre Lacazette joined Arsenal from Lyon for almost exactly the same sum that saw Walker leave Tottenham Hotspur for the Etihad Stadium. But just a year later, no-one would dispute that Walker had been far more effective, never mind spectacular, in attack.
What has happened here? Well, simply this: that the modern full-back is the beneficiary of the elite tactician’s continual search for space wherever they can find it. Teams such as Guardiola’s City, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham are accustomed to facing opponents who defend deep against them for long periods; these sides, fearful of opening themselves up to devastating attacks, typically concede the flanks, retreating to a narrow formation. This means that the new centre of playmaking gravity, if you will, is no longer just behind the strikers but on the wings.
As a related trend, we can note the relative demise of both the traditional winger and the traditional number ten, both of whom seem to have made way for the hard-working wide forward. Now, most of the world’s elite attackers - say, Neymar or Kylian Mbappe - appear to do most of their damage from the inside-right or inside-left positions, supported by full-backs who overlap with astonishing levels of stamina. Now, the overlap is nothing new, but the guile arguably is. Witness Mendy’s superb outing against Huddersfield, where he claimed three assists in Manchester City’s 6-1 win, or the fact (supplied by the statistics website WhoScored) that Andrew Robertson has created more chances for Liverpool this season than anyone except Mohamed Salah.
In this context it is interesting to think how much Real Madrid’s Marcelo, who has only just turned 30, would attract on the open market. The Brazil international has claimed the UEFA Champions League four times, and has frequently been decisive in its late stages, scoring in the final of the 2014 tournament against Atlético Madrid and tearing through the heart of Bayern Munich in the 2017 semi-final. The accusation is often made that players like Marcelo lack defensive nous - which is unfair if we consider the first 20 minutes of the 2018 final, when he appeared to be the only player tasked to bring the ball out from the back against Liverpool’s ferocious press. Yet his greatest value lies in his ability to be a devastating attacker from deep, a skill for which he and his peers are being belatedly recognised. Many people would once have laughed at the thought of the world’s leading full-back commanding similar sums to the world’s leading attackers and midfielders; it is doubtful that so many of them are laughing now. The day of the €100 million full-back may not be as far away as we think.
Musa Okwonga is a poet, author, journalist, broadcaster, musician, social commentator, football writer and consultant in the fields of creativity and communications. Musa also co-presents the Rabona podcast.