There was one position more valuable than the rest in the transfer market this summer. Sure, the usual millions were splurged on forwards, most notably on Neymar, but an arm’s race for a very specific kind of player was contested. Manchester City were adjudged to have won that arm’s race, spending £140 million on three full-backs.
Indeed, Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo all pitched up at the Etihad Stadium over the summer as Pep Guardiola cleared his City squad of every full back. At Chelsea, it was a similar story as Antonio Conte looked to replenish his Premier League champions of players in the full back positions, with Davide Zappacosta arriving from Torino.
At Spurs, Serge Aurier was signed on deadline day, with Liverpool spending £10 million to sign Andy Robertson from Hull City. It was reflective of how the role of the full back has become one of the most important on the pitch in recent years, with managers placing more and more emphasis on getting the right players to fill those positions.
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At Manchester United, however, Jose Mourinho stuck with what he had. The Old Trafford spent big money on Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Victor Lindelof, but in the full back positions there were no new additions. Some raised an eyebrow at that, but Sunday’s performance showed why Mourinho was content with his current options.
Against Everton, United started with Antonio Valencia on the right side of the defence and Ashley Young on the left, with both excelling as Mourinho’s side put down another marker with an emphatic 4-0 win. Of course, neither of those two players started their careers as full backs. They were wingers, brought to Old Trafford as such when they were signed. Now, however, they are seen as defensive players.
Well, kind of. The instance of Valencia and Young can be taken as a case study in how the duties and responsibilities of the full back have changed in the modern game. It’s not that Valencia and Young have become inherently defensive, it’s that full backs are now expected to be inherently attacking. That’s why they have been able to slip into the position with relative ease.
There’s now an understanding of the full back’s importance. It has grown over time, with Guardiola recognising it during his time as Barcelona manager, but this summer signified a watershed in the appreciation of the position. It was once an unfashionable position, a backwater of the sport. Its tactical intricacies were papered over, but now clubs are spending upwards of £50 million to find the right players for the position.
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This development could be framed as football finally cottoning on to the true worth of defensive players, but more accurate would be to claim that full backs have simply become auxiliary attackers, explaining why such big fees are being commanded for their services.
Two weeks ago, for instance, Zinedine Zidane picked Theo Hernandez and Marcelo in the same team, with one playing slightly further forward than the other. It wasn’t that one sat back while the other attack, as would be the case in a traditional winger-full back scenario. They both linked up as overlapping, interchangeable wing backs.
Guardiola could try this with Danilo and Walker. That would be the ultimate demonstration of how the role of the Premier League full back has changed over time, but until then the use of Valencia and Young at Man Utd serves as an illustration. They might not be the perfect full backs, but the definition of that position has changed beyond all recognition. By the role’s new definition, they are actually setting the precedent, as unlikely as that would have seemed not so long ago.