The rise in popularity of the inverted full-back in England has grown to such a point where almost half of the clubs in the Premier League use them.
Remember in 2015 when Jamie Carragher gleefully told us on Monday Night Football that "no-one wants to be a full-back as a kid, no-one wants to grow-up and be a Gary Neville."
Well that was back when full-backs weren't cool. But these days, mainly down to the rise of the inverted full-back, it is very cool to be a Gary Neville or err... (maybe more accurately) a Trent Alexander-Arnold.
What is an inverted full-back?
To debunk a common myth, inverted full-backs aren’t simply full-backs playing on their unnatural side, e.g a left-footed defender deployed at right-back, or vice-versa.
Instead an inverted full-back is a full-back who moves inside into central spaces when their team has possession, well advanced of the centre-backs. In most modern systems they will flank a defensive midfielder, pushing forward towards, or even beyond, the halfway line to receive the ball and play forward.
Once possession is lost, usually the inverted full-back will look to recover to a more traditional wide defensive area as quickly as possible. The basic aim is to help offer teams a greater presence in the middle of the pitch, particularly when having the majority of possession against teams sitting in a deeper low-block, with a more defensive mindset. In turn, this allows the team's midfielders to push higher and receive the ball in dangerous areas.
On a simple level, inverted full-backs are useful to teams looking to control the centre of the pitch. For managers keen to establish superiority in this area, like Pep Guardiola, they provide those crucial extra numbers in the middle of the park, while still offering a defensive buffer.
Who uses inverted full-backs?
The short answer is that quite a lot of managers have at least used a variation of the system.
Guardiola is widely credited with bringing inverted full-backs back into modern-day tactics, in his Bayern Munich that won three straight Bundesliga titles. However, like with most tactical innovations, Johan Cruyff had already used them years before at Barcelona. At times, Pep has inverted both of his full-backs, but occasionally during his Manchester City tenure, the Catalan has deployed just one rather than two, with the other full-back sitting in a more traditional spot alongside the centre-halves.
It is also worth noting that although City adopted the system in Guardiola’s very first Premier League fixture, a narrow 2-1 win against Sunderland, they struggled to create chances. Possibly because the two full-backs in question, Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna, were not at the peak of their powers and struggled to cope with the role’s challenging physical demands.
Former Athletic and Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa also utilised a version of the system, when taking Chile to the last 16 of the 2010 World Cup, while Roberto De Zerbi and Ange Postecoglou were already fans of the tactic before leaving a mark on the Premier League. Meanwhile, Mikel Arteta’s adoption of the system at Arsenal, is interesting in that it is perhaps more of a defensive ploy than an attacking one.
The Spainard has placed a real emphasis on Ben White and Oleksandr Zinchenko sitting narrowly inside, to create a more structured shape when his team have the ball. Even when Arsenal lose the ball one of the pair tends to stay narrow, to ensure the opposition doesn’t have an easy counter-attacking opportunity, with no one protecting the last line of defence.
Trent Alexander-Arnold's gradual move infield is also as a result of Jurgen Klopp utilising the tactic at Liverpool. When the academy graduate first broke into the team he would normally stay wide, in an attempt to try and overlap the inside forwards. Nowadays, he usually picks up possession close to the centre circle, only slightly higher than the Reds’ defensive midfielder.
What are pros and cons of using inverted full-backs?
Before your Sunday League team attempts to tactically embed a revolutionary 2-3-5 in-possession system, complete with inverted full-backs, you may want to stop and think. Are those selected in the roles truly excellent footballers? It’s fine to play this way when you have players like David Alaba or Trent, gifted with the ball at their feet, playing on pristine pitches.
But at a lower standard of football, there aren’t many pros to employing this tactic. If your full-back is a no-nonsense defender whose primary concern is stopping the opposition wingers, having him or her on the halfway line trying to link play probably isn’t the way to go.
Inverted full-backs also have to be agile enough to quickly return to their wide defensive position when the opposing team attacks. This is actually an incredibly underrated skill. After all, not many of us have Kyle Walker’s recovery speed and without that level of athleticism, it isn’t easy to stay defensively solid. If either full-back is unable to still effectively defend their flank, a team employing this tactic could quickly become overrun down the channels.
But for the top sides there are plenty of pros. Not only does it free up space for more technically gifted creative midfielders, it can still offer defensive protection. When defending against quick transitions, inverted full-backs can help protect and block the middle third of the pitch, helping force the play away from goal and into the channels.
Also with so many teams now expert at pressing from the front, it is becoming harder to play through the middle. Utilising inverted full-backs allows for a shorter passing range to still prove efficient when playing through an aggressive press.
Deployed smartly and this tactic can be used to devastating effect. Manchester City only went and won the treble last year.
It also shows that defenders can be composed and technically excellent on the ball. Maybe the next generation will want to be Gary Nevilles after all?
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