Perhaps Pep Guardiola is to blame. In which case, Johan Cruyff is. The importance of left-footed centre-backs rarely featured in football discourse until relatively recently. The Manchester City manager’s emphasis on possession means he has an inherent preference for a left-footer in the heart of his defence, to open up the pitch and facilitate quicker passing to the left flank, rather than having a right-footer turning back inside. Others are adopting the same policy.
The paradox of Guardiola, the manager who has spent the best part of £100 million on two left-footed centre-backs at City, is that they reached the Champions League final with a right-footed axis of John Stones and Ruben Dias. Aymeric Laporte, who Guardiola had described as the world’s best left-sided centre-back – which in itself may have been poorly phrased, as the right-footed Virgil van Dijk was the outstanding candidate for that title – joined Nathan Ake among the back-ups.
But the rise of the leftie could be completed this week. Spain seem likely to field two left-footers together at the back against Italy: Laporte and Pau Torres. That partnership may be a consequence of heads more than feet: the shorter, and right-footed, Eric Garcia may be deemed to be lacking the aerial ability to combat the taller Ciro Immobile, and even with Laporte next to Torres, Spain struggled to deal with Croatia’s crosses.
But it creates an unusual situation. Right-footed left-sided centre-backs are nothing new. Because right-footers are very much in the majority, some specialise there, like Van Dijk and John Terry; others have plenty of experience going to the left in a duo of right-footers. But the scarcity of left footers means they are rarely seen on the right.
Thus far, Laporte has drawn the short straw when he and Torres have been united and has been the man played out of position. It is no wonder he has looked a little uncertain: even on a rare occasion when he was paired with Ake in City’s win at Crystal Palace, the Dutchman was on the right of the duo.
It is a situation forged in part by Sergio Ramos’ injury and Luis Enrique’s still controversial decision not to pick the man who had been a fixture as the right-sided centre-back for many of his 180 caps. It raises the possibility of a scenario that mirrors Guardiola’s concerns about a right-footer on the left: that half the pitch is closed off, that body shape dictates passing angles which slows down the build-up.
It comes when Torres’ status as one of the most coveted defenders around owes something to his left-footedness. Laporte and Lucas Hernandez are two of the most expensive defenders ever in part because of it, and Torres may join them. The rarity value can up the price when demand exceeds supply. Mikel Arteta has signed two left-footers, Pablo Mari and Gabriel Magalhaes, in his relatively brief reign, and used a left-back, Kieran Tierney, as a third. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appeared to tell Ake, then of Bournemouth, that Manchester United needed a left-footed centre-back, though the Dutchman went to their rivals instead. David Alaba’s conversion from full-back felt a Guardiola-esque move, even though it came after the Catalan left Bayern Munich, but may have increased his appeal to Real Madrid. Giorgio Chiellini may be the old warhorse who was ahead of his time, a left-footer before they became fashionable outside the Ajax-Barcelona-Cruyff school of thought, though he was always a defender first and foremost.
Now Spain may be turning to Laporte and Torres for the most traditional of centre-back tasks: to head away crosses. Being left-footed may help Laporte when Lorenzo Insigne cuts inside to shoot on his right but it could be a hindrance in the rest of his duties. Normally Laporte is so valued in part because he is left-footed. Now he may be chosen in spite of it, charged with taking his adopted country to glory as a defender more than a passer.
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