Wednesday night’s Champions League tie between Bayern Munich and Lyon was certainly less spectacular in terms of attacking football than Inter Milan’s 3-1 victory over current holders Barcelona. However, the fascinating common thread of both games was the role of each team’s full-backs. In this blog, I look at a position that has become increasingly prominent in the modern game, such that one could claim that Inter Milan and Bayern Munich won the first-leg ties because of two outstanding displays from their full-backs.
Looking closer to home before venturing abroad, England’s full-back philosophy has changed remarkably over the last decade or so. Previously, the emphasis was on full-backs to be solid, dependable and reliable – a defender first and foremost, characterised by the Neville brothers, though Gary does whip in a mean cross, Stuart Pearce and Kenny Sansom. Now, the first-choice full-backs for England, if fully fit, are Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole, two extremely capable attacking players, to the extent that the former is currently labelled with the same tag that the latter used to carry – his attacking is so good that his defensive naivety can be overlooked in most cases. Taking this idea further, the last three winners of the World Cup – France, Brazil and Italy – who were their full-backs? Lillian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu, Cafu and Roberto Carlos, Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso. Out of the six, Thuram’s the only one who I would argue was a superior defender than attacker and that is because he was a terrific stopper.
It should be blindingly obvious, however, that good full-backs do not win games alone. One of Inter’s star men this week was roaming Brazilian right-back Maicon. However, his side was eliminated by a tactically astute Manchester United side last year, with the Brazilian’s threat being nullified by diligence of Park Ji-Sung. This, coupled with Inter’s traditionally narrow midfield, permitted Patrice Evra, a left-back of fine attacking pedigree himself, to advance and influence the game. Only later with a change of personnel did Javier Zanetti manage to give Inter’s bare right-hand side any protection from the Frenchman, leading to a more even contest.
I should emphasise, however, that Inter is a completely different side tactically from last year, when it was over reliant on Maicon’s surges and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s ability to win matches alone. As shown by Tuesday’s performance, the side has more matchwinners – Diego Milito, Samuel Eto’o, Goran Pandev and Wesley Sneijder complement Maicon, giving opponents a multitude of threats to quell.
Tuesday night was a rare display of Pep Guardiola’s tactics failing him and his side. Ibrahimovic is an excellent striker who does have more critics than fans it seems and , with hindsight, his inclusion was not the right decision – Guardiola practically admitted this when he hauled the Swedish striker off for Eric Abidal just after Inter had scored its third goal. Why would he do this when changing the game? He was worried about the effect of the Maicon at right-back. With Ibrahimovic occupying the central position and Messi playing just off him to his right, along with Pedro playing as a right-sided winger, Maicon had no-one occupying him from the Barcelona front-three because Messi and Ibrahimovic were, effectively, playing in the same position. This imbalance meant that Seydou Keita would either have to leave Esteban Cambiasso unmarked, letting him distribute the ball to Sneijder with ease or allow Maicon to run free. Keita did his best to cope, but a momentary lapse of concentration by the midfielder led to Maicon notching Inter’s second goal. Would this have occurred had Barcelona started with its second-half tactics from the Real Madrid match at the weekend, where Maxwell was occupying the left-wing role? Probably not.
Looking at it from the other side, Inter’s equaliser earlier was a great demonstration of occupying the opposition’s attacking full-back. Dani Alves is a phenomenal player – I have had the pleasure of watching him live and the guy is relentless in his forays up and down the right-hand side. Mourinho picked the slightly out-of-form Goran Pandev on the left and the Macedonian found it tough to beat the Brazilian speed merchant. However, while Pandev barely kept up with the attacking movements of Alves, what he did do brilliantly was tuck inside when the ball was on Inter’s right-hand side. This left a massive gap out on Barcelona’s right because Alves needed to follow his man. This led to Sneijder’s goal. As I mentioned last week, Kurban Berdyev, the manager who led Rubin Kazan to victory at the Camp Nou, spoke frankly about the fact that Xavi and Andres Iniesta rarely drop back into their own penalty area when defending. Sneijder was probably the man that Xavi would naturally have been tracking. However, it would usually be down to Alves to tidy any mess down the right hand side up. But, because of Pandev’s movement and intelligent play, coupled with Milito’s awareness and Sneijder’s tactical acumen, Inter was able to capitalise.
Bayern Munich and Lyon might have a few things in common – I won’t talk about the alleged indiscretions of Franck Ribery and Sidney Govou – but the one that really stood out for me was an identical characteristic of the wide players: they were ‘wrong-footed’. Well, I might be stretching the truth there, as Ederson was playing on his natural side, but was hauled off with plenty of time remaining for Lyon’s usual starter Michel Bastos, who, like Arjen Robben, is a left-footed right-winger. While the home and away sides used different formations, 4-2-3-1 and an attempt at 4-3-3 that was actually 4-5-1, the result of having ‘wrong-footers’ out wide was evident – the game becomes narrow with these players cutting in, meaning that the full-backs have plenty of room to move forward and support the play. As we saw, only one team really had possession of the ball, thus it was little surprise to see Diego Contento and Phillip Lahm, in particular, storm forward at will. I felt a little sorry for Cesar Delgado, who was on a real hiding to nothing by trying to stop the extremely capable Lahm from wreaking havoc to his side’s defence. While Lahm did not impact the game in quite the same way as Maicon, Bayern in truth should have won the game by a larger margin given the quality and quantity of Lahm’s forays into the opposition half.
Attacking full-backs are crucial. Make no mistake about it. However, all it takes is for an individual mistake to occur when covering a full-back to allow the opposition to benefit. Maicon made a trademark surge forward, only for the attack to break down. As he was trotting back from the lung-bursting run, Inter fell asleep and almost guided Maxwell into the penalty area unchallenged, giving the Barcelona left-back full license to look up, spot Pedro charging into the box and pick him out. The prolific winger duly slotted home. What this underlines is that attacking full-backs are only as good as the tactical awareness and concentration of the defensive players covering their penchant to roam.
By the same token, let us not dismiss the importance of more conventional full-backs. Whilst certainly no slouch going forward, Javier Zanetti’s age dictates that his excursions up the field are rarer than in years gone by. However, his performance against Barcelona was just as good as Maicon’s for completely different reasons. I predicted that the wily old fox of Inter might not have the speed to cope with Pedro and Messi, but he proved me and many others wrong by defending with tenacity and great assuredness that one would expect from the Nerazzurri’s leader. Diego Maradona’s Argentina play with four centre-backs at the back, thus using two of at full-back – odd how quite possibly the best player in history, renowned for his attacking flair, deems it necessary to go defensive at full back. Anyway, the startling fact is that Maradona has been overlooking Zanetti, and his club-mate Cambiasso, for the national squad. No offence to Fabricio Coloccini or Gabriel Heinze, but I cannot understand why Zanetti is not in the Argentina line-up, let alone the squad!
The World Cup will showcase a plethora of football talent. We will all be guilty of basing predictions on how forward players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, Ribery, Robben, Kaka, Rooney, Villa etc. will perform. However, I suggest that you look a lot further back to where the battle can really be won and lost because the increasing trend at club level over the last decade has occurred simultaneously at international level. It takes a brave manager to commit the full-backs forward, but in a tournament that comes around every four years with knockout games in the final stages, risks ought to be taken to obtain success. The matches from midweek highlighted that such a bold more is a high-risk high-reward tactic that Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho utilised to such devastating effect that it could mean the two lead their teams to the final against each other.