Wrong footed full-backs have always existed of course – Phil Neville, Dennis Irwin and John O’Shea – right-footed players, have often been deployed on the left. It didn’t matter all that much. Defenders did very little but defend, especially in the Premier League where the classical, rigid 4-4-2 has been the formation du jour. But football evolves.
Consider two teams playing plain old 4-4-2. Each player, apart from the full-backs, has a corresponding opposition player directly marking him – strikers on central defenders, defensive midfielders on on attacking, for example. Full-backs therefore are often the only players with additional time and space.
Indeed, the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson considers the full-back “the most important position in football.” As ludicrous as the statement might sound, full-backs do enough damage to warrant a new breed of players such as Park Ji-Sung and Dirk Kuyt whose raison d’etre is ostensibly to mark full-backs.
Tactics have progressed though and even in the Premier League, teams rarely plays the old fashioned 4-4-2 these days. Those teams that play 4-4-2 do, often do so with a modern twist.
Indeed, a myriad of factors including the increasing athleticism and the liberalisation of offside laws have stretched the field of play. Teams rarely play midfielders in a straight line; they are staggered across defensive, central and attacking stratums. 4-4-2 uses three bands of players; modern formations such as 4-2-3-1 use four.
Wide midfielders in the classical 4-4-2 become wingers who are deployed higher up on the pitch in four-band systems. This is because wide midfielders, even the fittest of them, can’t “bomb up and down that bloody wing” all day, as Sir Alex Ferguson might put it.
Midfielders in four-band systems are also forced to become much more functional and less box-to-box. Darren Fletcher, for example, might regularly step up from the defensive midfield stratum to the central midfield stratum but even a player as fit as the Scot can’t be expected to do this ad infinitum without rendering himself useless by the sixtieth minute.
So, with direct opposition, do fullbacks become less potent? Yes and no. Defensive wingers, amazingly speedy players like Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon and modern wingers such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and Lionel Messi limit full-backs’ forward forages.
Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva, who are more often found in the opposition half against Premier League minnows, limit forward runs against players like Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben to deny the opposition space behind.
Today, wingers are more prone to drift in field than ever. These out-to-in movements can be extremely dangerous but they do narrow the field of play. To make sure that the field of play doesn’t become overly narrow, which of course makes the opposition’s defensive job easier, full-backs now provide the once traditional width that wingers provided.
Arguably, the most important job of wide men is crossing, which is why wingers have traditionally been “correct-footed”. Fabio da Silva, whose opportunities have been limited because of injuries and Evra’s lack of them, is interesting in that he plays as a left full-back despite being clearly right footed.
Fabio is capable with his left foot although he seems to use it only as a last resort. The uneasiness remains a worry.
But the apprehension is more than offset by the intriguing prospect brought up by his wrong-footedness. With an abundance of modern wingers, most of them wrong-footed also, Fabio might very well have an advantage over left footed full-backs such as Evra. When facing a player like Messi, Fabio can tackle with his dominant foot. Crucially the angle of tackle in such situations will be natural to Fabio and the tackles will be more clean than those made by left footed players.
The tendency towards the right also brings up interesting possibilities vis-a-vis team movements. Fabio attacks the box almost as regularly as he goes for the byline. When attacking the box, his right-footedness becomes an asset. After all, despite nominally being a defender, Fabio was the top scorer in the U-17 World Cup in 2007.
To indulge this movement, United’s left winger can move laterally towards the middle. This particular set of movements comes easily to both Park and Wayne Rooney. And one of the central or defensive midfielders behind will move to the left flank providing the width from deep.
This, of course, requires a left-footed and athletically gifted central midfielder who can do a job on the flank.
One wonders if United has someone like that on the book?