Stopping, thinking and seeing what has changed is always an interesting exercise. Modern soccer is made up of trends and you need to know them in order to understand the game in its essence. In recent years, a paradigmatic sign of how soccer has evolved is given to us by the profile of the “modern” full back.
For years, turning wingers into full backs was a recurring solution used by several coaches to overcome some lack of quality. This trend has been accentuated by the need of teams to have full backs that aren’t limited to the defensive process but also have the ability to integrate themselves offensively. There are several successful cases, such as Fábio Coentrão or Bernat, who receded on the ground to become good full backs.
Now, more and more coaches are seeking to convert midfielders into high-quality full backs. It may seem strange to many people who think attributes like speed and strength in duels are indispensable to respond to the specific requirements of the position, but it is a natural consequence of the constant challenges offered by the game.
There is a key word behind this new trend: intelligence. Intelligence is a distinctive factor in any player, in any position within the four lines. Football seems to be moving to a place where only the smart ones – those who interpret and adapt to the context of the game – will survive. The fact that, in theory, a midfielder has a superior understanding of the game than a typical full back can help to realize coaches’ decisions.
Germany: an example to follow
Germany is the cradle of these transformations and seems to be one step ahead of the rest, breaking stereotypes and serving as a model to others. In no other country we find such good examples of this new trend. Kimmich, preferably midfielder, didn’t need “school” to become the starting player on the right-back of the German national team during the Euro.
From another generation, Benjamin Henrichs is another name that promises to shine in the near future. On the right or left, he’s a first option to Roger Schmidt and has made quite satisfactory displays. He is not a supersonic player, nor is he particularly strong in the 1×1, but he gives criteria with the ball and he can defend himself without it. The debut for Mannschaft, against San Marino, wasn’t surprising. Sebastian Rudy, another element called by Joachim Löw, is also a versatile player with the ability to play on both defensive sides.
Outside Germany, Sergi Roberto is the most notable case of a successful adaptation. Despite being potentially one of the best Spanish midfielders, he is mostly used as a right back in Barcelona and always plays at a good level. He is the prototype of this “new” full back, which has in intelligence its biggest quality. The departure of Dani Alves didn’t cause as much damage as expected.
In the Netherlands, there is the example of Daley Sinkgraven. From an offensive midfielder he turned into a left back in the revolution carried out by Peter Bosz at Ajax. The first steps in that position haven’t gone wrong, despite the natural struggle. The ‘ajacieden’ have gained a full back more creative and capable of exploring inside spaces.
The idea that players are restrained by their physical characteristics is lagging behind. What is valued now and what is intended to be extracted from a player is becoming less and less dependent on the physical and more on the intellect. Football is putting aside the need for specialization as “full back” or “midfielder” and is taking advantage of the qualities of each one as footballers.