For far too long, the position of full-back felt like something of an afterthought in English football. There were few specialists, few game-changers in the positions on either side of the central defenders.
As Jamie Carragher famously quipped on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football in 2013: “Full-backs are either failed centre-backs or failed wingers. Nobody grows up wanting to be a Gary Neville.”
That last sentence is undoubtedly true. However, you can guarantee there are budding young footballers intent on emulating Chelsea duo Reece James and Ben Chilwell, as well as Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson.
In recent years, the role of full-back has become all-encompassing and those used in the positions at top European clubs have to be equal parts defender and attacker, a goal threat and creator in the final third, yet a secure presence in their own backline.
“Modern football is like this, you have to be really strong on the wings,” Liverpool head coach Jurgen Klopp explained in 2019.
“The area around the goal is the most crowded area, so you have to find a way to go through – that’s maybe in behind, or you pass it on the wings, or you try to find little spaces between their lines. That’s how football is.
“The wider you make the pitch, the bigger the spaces in the centre. That’s why we try, you have to be a force from pretty much everywhere.”
There are few better full-back tandems in the European game than Alexander-Arnold and Robertson. They are elite chance creators and during the 2019/20 campaign, both reached double figures for assists in the Premier League to help Liverpool win the title.
This term, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson have created nine goals between them in all competitions. Their impact in the final third shows no sign of diminishing. If anything, Alexander-Arnold’s is only growing year on year.
Chelsea, of course, do not operate with full-backs. Not under Thomas Tuchel at least. Since the German coach’s appointment in January, a wing-back system has been utilised and after a period of adaptation, the talents of James and Chilwell have come to the fore.
Both starred in the Champions League final against Man City in May; James at right wing-back and Chilwell on the left. This season, they’ve elevated their respective games even further.
James has four goals and four assists to his name in 12 appearances in all competitions. More impressively, however, is that only Liverpool star Mohamed Salah is involving himself in a goal more frequently than the 21-year-old in the Premier League this season (on a per 90 basis).
Meanwhile, after a difficult start to the campaign, Chilwell has found form. He has struck three times in just seven starts and has become a far bigger presence in the centre of the pitch under instruction from Tuchel.
“If you play with a back three, these are not really a full-back position, [they are] more of a midfield position,” Tuchel explained last month.
“I would not call them defenders but they have to defend in some moments like defenders, but they are freer to attack the opponents’ box than they are in the role as a full-back.
“So it is necessary that they are included and we bring them to the box at the end of our attacks and increase the goal threat.
“I am happy when we create chances, and I’m happy when we have five or six players in the box to be dangerous. In this system we play, it’s true that the wing-backs are there and have the freedom to be dangerous.”
The challenge that faces James and Chilwell in the weeks ahead is to maintain their level of influence, to continue to affect the game in the final third on a consistent basis.
That will not be easy, especially as their attacking responsibility may be slightly diminished by the returns of Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner from injury.
However, Tuchel knows the importance of the duo to his side. Much in the same way Klopp does with Alexander-Arnold and Robertson.
And after years in the shadows, those deployed down the flanks are finally taking centre stage.