Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Rampaging Fullbacks

While the fullback is dying in American football, Jonathan Wilson of the Guardian points out that attacking fullbacks have become critical in soccer. While I don't necessarily agree with all of Wilson's arguments (most notably the claim that France won the World Cup in 1998 because of their attacking fullbacks; that team was premised on an airtight defense and Zinedine Zidane. If France's fullbacks were so good, then their offense wouldn't have dried up when Zidane was suspended for the first two knock-out games.), the general thesis is excellent.

Wilson's thesis is certainly consistent with what I've seen from Barcelona this year, which has been a team that has improved dramatically because of the insertion of Dani Alves at right back. Barcelona's first-choice back four includes Alves, who gets forward at every possible opportunity, and Eric Abidal, who is more of a defensive left back and one who has experience playing center half (which is effectively what he plays when Alves bombs forward and Barcelona have a back three). According to Wilson, this is consistent with back lines dating back for decades:

In 1970, Brazil operated with just one attacking full-back, Carlos Alberto, with Everaldo tucking in on the left to provide balance. That was a function of the highly idiosyncratic development of that side, but it was symptomatic of a more general trend. Most European sides who used a libero tended to deploy one attacking full-back, balanced by a more defensive player on the other flank, who tucked in and operated as a marker: Giacinto Facchetti and Tarcisio Burgnich in Helenio Herrera's Inter, for instance; Paul Breitner and Berti Vogts in West Germany's World Cup-winning side of 1974; or Antonio Cabrini and Claudio Gentile in Italy's World Cup winners of 1982.

The major difference now is that no one plays a libero anymore, which is too bad because it's such an interesting position. Part of me wonders whether Barcelona could play Rafa Marquez in a sweeper-type role because, regardless of his other shortcomings, he is a bright player who can distribute the ball well.

After reading Wilson's piece, it occurred to me that soccer and football (at least college football) are seemingly headed in the same direction. In soccer, there is greater emphasis on getting full backs wide because that's the one place on the pitch where there's open space. Ditto for football teams, which are increasingly using wider formations to take advantage of space. In both sports, the use of wide attackers then generates more space in the middle.

Wilson describes how Spain dominated the center of the midfield (and therefore the match) against Russia in the Euro '08 semifinals after an injury forced Luis Aragones to deploy Andres Iniesta and David Silva in wide position. The use of wide players nullified Russia's full backs, destroyed their offensive outlets, and then allowed Senna, Xavi, and Fabregas to run wild in the middle. Isn't this essentially the same description as to how the spread running game works? A soccer offense deploys wide men to stretch an opponent and create more room in the center for direct attacks; a football offense deploys four wide receivers to stretch the defense horizontally, so there are more lanes in the middle to attack with running plays.

This makes me feel much better about 3-9.

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