The role of the full-back has evolved substantially in recent years, going way and beyond its traditional emphasis on defending. Adaptability and good technical ability are now essential requirements for the modern full-back, along with the key defensive attributes.
On top of this, a full-back who is used to operating in a back four now needs to be able to perform as a wing-back in a 3-5-2 formation given that many coaches, notably Antonio Conte, champion this system.
The role assigned to each full-back or wing-back provides a great insight into a team’s overall style of play, irrespective of their own personal attacking and defensive strengths. Using the Opta sequence framework, we analyse how Serie A full backs last season were involved when their teams were in possession.
Involvement in passing chains
The table below lists the top 20 players across all positions who were involved in the most passing sequences per 90 minutes. These include open play and set play situations, as well as from goal kicks and recoveries in the opposition half.
The highlighted rows show that six of the top 20 players were ‘wide defenders’. Roma’s left back Aleksandar Kolarov was involved in 64.9 sequences, ranking him second to Jorginho across the entire league. Behind him in fourth place overall is Mario Rui of Napoli, a team renowned for their strong left-hand side and build-up play.
After breaking into Inter’s first team in December, right back João Cancel developed into a key player for Luciano Spalletti’s side, making it three full backs in the league’s top five for passing sequence involvement.
It is also important to mention Juventus’ Alex Sandro, the fourth most involved wide defender, as Juve adopt a different style to Roma, Inter and Napoli.
Does a team prefer to cross or retain possession in the final third?
There is little doubt that player output is influenced by the overall team strategy. How a team attacks will almost certainly impact a full back’s level of involvement.
In Serie A, Inter and Roma attempted more crosses than any other team last season and as we can see by the player involvement of sequences which ended in a cross, Cancelo, Kolarov and Florenzi appear in the league’s top three.
Total sequences ending with a cross per 90 minutes
Similarly, both Chievo and AC Milan also see their full-backs from both sides being heavily involved in cross ending sequences.
On the other hand, Napoli and Juventus have a much lower crossing ratio, which is why Alex Sandro and Mario Rui are involved in far fewer cross-ending sequences.
By exploring the ratio between passes made and crosses delivered in the final third, we can highlight how these defenders are involved in attacking play.
As we can see from the tables below, Napoli are completing on average 12.8 passes in the final third before delivering a cross and their right back, Elseid Hysaj, has the highest ratio of any wide defender. Mario Rui and Juventus’ various full backs also have higher ratios compared to the players we highlighted as being involved in crossing sequences, which further highlights the contrast in the different style of play adopted by their respective clubs.
Total passes completed in the final third before a cross per 90 minutes
A full-back’s actions in attacking situations can also help us establish how they fit into their team’s overall strategy. As well has highlighting their role, it can also help a club categorise full-backs in a scouting context.
We know from our findings that Cancelo focuses on delivering crosses into the box in attacking situations, but from looking at the number of shots attempted by full-backs per 90 minutes, we can see that as well as delivering balls from wide positions, both Roma full-backs also have the license to shoot.
In contrast, Napoli’s full-backs are more involved in build-up play but are less inclined to cross or shoot.
Serie A full-backs: shots per 90 minutes
To emphasise this point, here are the shot maps from last season for four of the full-backs we have discussed in this blog. Each shot map only shows unassisted shots, which means that the player had the choice to pass or cross at that point in a possession phase, but elected to shoot instead.
Of course, what we have discussed in this piece doesn’t take into account the tactics adopted by the opposition or the specific context of each game, however it should provide a small insight into key differences in how different teams have utilised their full-backs in attacking phases over an extended period of time.