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Are full-backs under-appreciated?

Arsenal’s 1-1 with Manchester United on Sunday was a tale of two fullbacks, in essence.

Theo Walcott’s opening goal should have been ruled offside. However, despite the linesman’s misjudgment, United left-back Patrice Evra was completely blind to the danger of Walcott behind him and allowed the winger to cut inside him off the right flank to devastating effect.

The other end of the pitch, Arsenal right-back Bacary Sagna was completely at fault for the concession of a penalty that resulted in Robin van Persie claiming United’s equalizer on the stroke of half-time.

Sagna made an individual error initially, his back-pass was intercepted by the former Arsenal striker who was cynically brought down by Sagna in the box as the French fullback panicked to tackle after his initial mistake.

Sunday night’s Match of the Day saw Michael Owen and Les Ferdinand open a discussion on the role of the full-back in the modern game.

Where fullbacks like Arsenal’s Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn were bestowed with purely defensive responsibilities in a traditional back-four, the likes of Sagna, Kieran Gibbs, and United’s Rafael are expected to present an attacking threat as much as a defensive shield.

Whilst the two goals in Sunday’s game were (apart from the linesman’s mistake) the result of two individual errors from fullbacks who, in their team’s systems, are better described as wing-backs.

The emergence of the defensive midfielder in the mold of Claude Makelele formerly of Chelsea, full-backs tend to have more freedom to roam forward and collaborate with the wingers on the flanks, contributing to attacking phases of play.

However, despite the added protection offered by a holding midfielder, full-backs are faced with a defensive dilemma when the attacking team concedes possession and is under threat from a counter-attack.

Rafael and Gibbs especially can often be found in the opposition’s penalty area more often than their own – they often come right to the byline to make crosses and even get shots away in the box.

However, when possession is lost at one end, the opposition pounce and the abundance of space left in behind the fullback is usually where the attack comes to fruition.

The full-back is expected to chase back post haste and find some way of deterring the attacking winger by getting in his way, making a challenge or covering a defensive gap left by a centre-back taking the initiative.

It’s a tight-rope and can be very easy to slip off – concentration levels must remain throughout 90 minutes and fullbacks rarely receive the plaudits for a job well done. When it goes wrong, however, blame is attributed with ease as finding himself out of position, or making a mis-timed last-ditch challenge to redeem himself is often the fullback’s only option.

The corresponding fixture at Old Trafford last term which United won 8-2 saw young Carl Jenkinson endure what can only be described as a trial by fire. He was completely inexperienced at the time and ended up having an on-field spat with Walcott who was ardently trying to remind the youngster of his responsibilities.

Jenkinson was less than amused with Walcott’s pedantry and, under the circumstances, was right to feel aggrieved – where wingers can get forward without even a second thought of what’s behind them, wingbacks enjoy no such luxury. They are expected to be protecting from as well as creating attacks.

This term’s best example of how to achieve this is Everton’s Leighton Baines – his ability to read the game is exceptional and his engine never tires. When Everton are in possession, he strides forward, operating as a second winger and even drifting inside to target a shot on goal.

But the second Everton lose possession, he’s alert to the danger – he gets chases back and hurries and harasses the opposition – he’s decisive and diffuses the danger by re-positioning or by challenging and he is rarely caught out.

As such, Baines is as important going forward for Everton as he is in defence, and although he receives praise often; he is probably their most important player, which, unfortunately, often goes unnoticed.

When Sagna and Evra made mistakes on Sunday, everyone noticed but seldom do they take the credit they deserve so often.

image: © Ronnie Macdonald

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