Alexander-Arnold, James, Walker – How the right-back became football’s most complex position
Putting aside his goal and an assist in Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Arsenal, Reece James drew attention for hitting 11 touches in the opposing penalty area, breaking his previous record of four.
His tactical role was relatively simple and traditional: an overlapping winger, using Chelsea’s extra man for perfect effect.
A day earlier, another right-back had made headlines, but Trent Alexander-Arnold’s portrayal of the role could hardly have been more different from James’.
Liverpool 2-0 win over Burnley was defined by Alexander-Arnold’s crosses in depth (12), but more importantly, his assists (seven) from the inside channel. He was almost constantly in the last third and hardly ever on the wing.
On the 3pm kickoff at the Etihad, Kyle Walker performed a familiar function as a wide center-back in a three despite playing nominally in the same position as James and Alexander-Arnold.
He was narrow like the Liverpool man but considerably deeper, playing sharp ground passes through the lines while using his pace to cover behind Manchester City’s high defensive line.
Three right-backs, three totally different roles.
Just 10 years ago, the right-back was an unsexy position and a largely functional role; Defensive strength, smart positioning and decent crossing ability on the straddle were all that was needed.
Historically, this was the position given to the least talented player on the pitch, the person not good enough defensively or offensively to be moved to the center-back or the right-winger. This is probably still the case with your Sunday League team.
There’s still a bit of that floating around the top of the game. Italy’s success at Euro 2020 was built on one full-back position while the other pushed forward, with Leonardo Spinazzola an important creative actor and Giovanni Di Lorenzo clearly the least gifted man of Roberto Mancini’s first 11.
In the Premier League, an equally lopsided approach is taken at Manchester United with Luke Shaw counterbalanced by Aaron Wan-Bissaka – a very good player, although he looks a bit stuck between being a center-back and an attacking right-hander – back.
But, overall, and particularly in the Premier League, right-backs have taken on a new importance which makes them arguably the most important attacking position on the pitch.
The reasons are varied, and in some cases specific to the tactical preferences of the managers who currently chair the English clubs.
However, it is also the natural endpoint of a move towards straight-line and pressing possession football over the past decade.
A desire to play center stage, necessitated by the growing financial divide between elite clubs and others, has led most teams to now adopt – in broad terms – a 3-2-5 or 2 -3-5 during the match. ball, regardless of the formation on the pre-match team sheet.
Invariably, this means a three-pronged attack (wingers / inside attackers and striker) supported either by a forward central midfielder and full-back, or by two full-backs – with those 3-2 or 2-3 forms fulfilled by a spare full-back (think Walker) or a failing midfielder (think Granit Xhaka or Fabinho).
Inevitably, this territorial dominance forced the right-backs to take on more offensive responsibilities – although the changes are much deeper than that and can be attributed to the rise of the reverse winger.
Although present in the game for decades, reverse wingers have become the norm over the past 20 years and during this time their precise position on the pitch has shrunk more and more (hence the reason why these players are now often referred to as “attackers”, being so close to the central attacker).
This process coincides with a growing understanding of demi-spaces – the columns of the pitch that stretch between the rear and the central rear – as the most important creative zone.
Pep Guardiola has the merit of popularizing this idea and his followers, direct or indirect, now litter the Premier League.
Liverpool and Chelsea are the perfect modern examples.
Thomas Tuchel’s use of inside forwards sucks play on the pitch, creating space for wingers like James to provide full width, while Jurgen Klopp’s 4-3-3 narrowness is designed to draw full backs. opposition full-backs towards Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane – again, to make room for Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson to create.
The twist, in the case of Liverpool, is how Alexander-Arnold has also started to come inside in recent times.
As Premier League football becomes hyper-tactical, as teams are increasingly squeezed and compact across the lines, more work is needed outside an opposing midfielder – but not too much on the outside. outside to be in harmless sideline positions.
To explain this phenomenon, consider how remarkably similar Kevin De Bruyne and Alexander-Arnold’s touch maps have become.
Or how Joao Cancelo tends to dance in center-left space, becoming (yet another) midfield playmaker for Guardiola. Increasingly, only clubs using winged full backs maintain an overlap width.
This weekend, James and Alexander-Arnold face off for supremacy on the opposing flanks, and yet, despite their obvious importance, their roles cannot be directly compared.
Not so long ago, the right-back was the least thoughtful position on the pitch. Now it is arguably the most complex and the most demanding.