The Evolution of the Right Back Role

Dani Alves
Dani Alves helped redefine the right back role | David Ramos/Getty Images

Full-backs are some of the most infamously underappreciated players in the world.

There’s a perception of full-backs that they are often not good enough to be a centre-back and not good enough going forward to be a winger, so they get shunted out wide to put in 7/10 performances at both ends of the field.

It’s an opinion which was summed up perfectly by Jamie Carragher in 2013, when he told pundit partner Gary Neville that “no one wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville”.

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The message was clear: Every young player wants to replicate Neville’s success, but does anyone really grow up wanting to drift between defence and attack without ever really perfecting either?

Wherever you look, you’ll still find people who share that scepticism, but as modern football has evolved, the art of being a right-back has been perfected to a sublime standard. They are no longer football’s rejects, but rather some of the most physically and technically gifted players on the pitch.

Looking back at the roots of the right-back position, it’s clear that it used to be a very ambiguous term in football’s early years. The first ‘full-backs’ were more like centre-backs, who sat back in a 2-3-5 formation and let the creative players do their thing in attack. There was a clear divide between the two halves of the pitch.

However, it soon became clear that these central full-backs couldn’t get the job done against tricky wingers. There was so much attacking flair and agility that having two or three hulking mountains at the back actually left you at a disadvantage. A 3-2-5 formation pushed defenders further wide to counter the threat, and a 4-2-4 completed the transition to what we see today.

Philipp LahmPhilipp Lahm
Philipp Lahm spent years on top of the right-back throne | TF-Images/Getty Images

Managers began to look for players who could defend, but still had the physical characteristics to go toe-to-toe with a speedy forward. Typically, these players needed to be smaller and more agile, but still with some imposing strength.

That’s the perception of a full-back which remained for some time and helped produce the likes of Neville and Philipp Lahm. Both were elite defenders who perhaps didn’t have the size to make it centrally, so they headed out wide to perfect their craft.

They brought something no other defender could. If you stood 6’4, you typically couldn’t cope with a smaller, faster forward. If you were too focused on attack, you wouldn’t be any help at the back. It was clear that every elite team needed a right-back.

The focus of the position was largely just to defend, but emergence of left-backs like Roberto Carlos shook things up for full-backs.

Roberto CarlosRoberto Carlos
Carlos is one of the most important players in full-back history | Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

When the Brazilian joined Inter in 1995, manager Roy Hodgson wanted him to be a winger. He was small and all about attacking, but Carlos refused and was adamant he was a left-back, and the difference of opinion saw him sold to Real Madrid just one year later. How could Carlos go against the grain like that?

“At Madrid, we managed to change the way full-backs played,” Carlos told Sky Sports. “Christian Panucci was more defensive on the right, but [Fabio] Capello wanted me to attack.

“It was about movement. When one went up, the other stayed back to provide cover. It was the same with me and Cafu in the national team. It was easier for us – and it worked.”

Carlos’ brand of entertaining, yet efficient work as a left-back changed the game for right-backs as well. You didn’t need to be an attacker or a defender, you could now be both.

A new generation of full-backs came through watching Carlos star for both Brazil and Real. Dani Alves and Maicon both continued the Brazilian’s legacy, and it’s no coincidence that they are seen as two of the best right-backs of all time. Their art of shuttling down the right side of the pitch all game was absurd.

They brought an ungodly stamina which allowed them to sprint up and down all game, combined with the ability to cross, score goals and tackle, and that’s the archetype of the modern right-back. In fact, the willingness to see right-backs attack has birthed the role of a wing-back, who plays even further up the field to join in with more attacks but is still required to sprint back.

In 2020, right-backs are some of the most athletic and technically gifted players on the pitch. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joshua Kimmich and Achraf Hakimi are flying the flag for the position, and they are finally getting the credit they deserve.

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