Evra and the fullback: the last hurrah of the complete footballer

Author: Doron

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One of the most fascinating changes in football lately has been the shifting requirements of players in specific roles. There’s been a focus on increasing specialisation within the game leading to fewer all-rounded players. It begs the question – which position requires the most all-rounded, complete footballers today?

Once upon a time, this would have been quite a straight forward question to answer. I grew up on a central pairing of Paul Ince and Roy Keane – to me, they could do everything. They’d tackle and opponents wouldn’t get past them because they were hard and intimidating. They’d score because they were good at getting into dangerous positions and running beyond their strikers. They’d also set goals up as they were good passers and calm under pressure.

It made sense that these players were the most complete. To use several clichés in one go, they were the heartbeat and engines of football sides. Everything would go through them and the 4-4-2 system required them to be the key men on the pitch – the pace-setting leaders of all around them.

Formation changes, particularly amongst the clubs in the Premier League, have been well documented recently. Teams have moved towards a system that employs three central players, accommodating the influx and increased production of technically astute footballers. It would be fair to suggest that most central midfielders today are to some extent, limited. That’s not a criticism because in the areas they are capable in, they tend to excel.

The decline of the box-to-box midfielder has meant that the few who do exist are somewhat elusive – Yaya Toure and Bastian Schweinsteiger probably being the best two examples currently in the game. Football clubs can get by without a player of that kind but there’s no doubt that they offer something that others can’t. It did make me wonder though, if the central midfielder is generally no longer all-rounded, which players are and where do they play?

For me, it’s one of two areas – either the fullbacks or in some instances, the wingers.

Fullbacks today probably cover more of the length of the pitch than any other players. Most teams play a system that requires them to both defend and attack. The expectation is that they’ll save goals, set up goals, and occasionally score goals. Take Evra – after the wingers at United, he was the club’s next highest assister of goals last season.

In defence, a fullback has to take clever positions and continue to hold the back line and shape of the team. Often, a fullback won’t necessarily get help in defending – centre backs are preoccupied with central attackers whilst there are wingers who don’t get back as much as they could. Dealing with overlaps and some of the best and most creative attacking players in the world is far from easy.

When attacking, they need to be able to provide an overlap and essentially play as a second winger. Half-arsed crossing is no longer enough – crosses have to be as good as those provided by a natural wide player. Sometimes, they have to carry the ball into the box too – weaving past defenders to try and get shots on goal. They truly are the all-rounders of today’s game.

One could I guess make a case for some wingers – Jonas Gutierrez for example is possibly as effective as a defensive winger as he is as an attacker. Certainly something that United have tried to bring into the natural game of Nani and Ashley Young is the requirement to help defend. Someone like Antonio Valencia has even played games as a right back and done relatively well.

With so much focus on specialisation, there’s little surprise that there seems to be a lack of quality young fullbacks around today. Even at Academy and Reserve level, the players playing as fullbacks are often playing out of position rather than natural right and left backs.

United potentially, depending on how you feel about Rafael and Evra, could do with looking for additional fullbacks – even if only to challenge those who start. The dearth of quality alternatives in world football make it tricky. Suggesting Evra for example needs to be replaced is fine but when the viable alternatives are either non-existent or unobtainable, there’s a problem.

One wonders if before long, there’ll be no all-rounders left in the game. A lot of fullbacks today are starting to follow the Cafu, South American mould whereby they’re often more effective going forward than they are defending. Rafael has certainly admitted that he’s had to learn how to defend – something that should sound odd coming from a defender.

There’s definitely something talented about players that can do everything – we naturally tend to laud the specialists, those who aren’t just good at one particularly facet, but excel at it. However, maybe we should be enjoying and recognising the talents of the last complete footballers in today’s game – the fullbacks. Even they may have a short shelf-life.

7 Comments on Evra and the fullback: the last hurrah of the complete footballer

  1. top article, i’m still a big fan of rafael. I think he will be top drawer and seems to be getting better and better albeit being a little injury prone. I think rotating him woith phil jones will be fine for another season. We need another left back to do the same with evra until fabio gains experience at benfica. Would love jordi alba especially as I think he would add more goals. Nonetheless I hope Sir Alex addresses this for the coming season.

  2. I think you can have a solely defensive fullback if your winger is very fit, ie Tony V. That’s why Wes Brown was so good in 2007/08 – he played behind Ronaldo, Ronaldo was so good offensively that Wes could play further back while Wes’ defensive ability, as a natural centre half, allowed Ronaldo to be so destructive. It’ll be interesting to see if we DO get any full backs this window, especially at left back.

  3. There is no doubt that evra is the most complete fulback in our present generation but sir Alex has to look to the direction of Beniot Assouokoto to help ease evra’s job.

  4. I find it amusing – in a bemused way – that there is so much emphasis on slotting players into the mould of a 4-4-2. Here we have an example where NinjaEvra, who is a very attacking player and not a particularly good defender, is described as a full-back but when you watch how he actually plays the game it’s much more like being a “wing-back” on the left side. Much the same argument can be made for Rafael.

    To digress: the most interesting aspect of the EuroFootie has been Italy’s experimental 3-5-2 which worked to great effect in their first match against Spain. Then, Prandelli got cold feet and went back to a four-man back-line. This “experiment” was interesting to me more because it suggests a way forward for UTD than because I care much – one way or the other – about Italy.

    For UTD, the 3-5-2 is perhaps a better description of how the matches are played when Evra/Rafael are considered to be part of the back line. Similarly, it seems that Michael Carrick’s best position is “forward sweeper”. That means that UTD frequently play with three central defenders and two guys who are so far up-field that they are only nominally described as “full-backs”.

    With the signing of KagawaBunga, it would seem that SAF is going to re-think the team’s formation – or else keep two or three of Antonio Valencia, Chicharito, DannyTheLad, Nani, and/or Ashley Young on the bench. THAT would make no sense whatsoever. Since the new signing definitely isn’t going to be a direct “replacement” for the latter-day Paul Scholes – KagawaBunga plays a role like the Ginger Ninja of the early 2000s – it would seem that their would be a surplus of talent in any 4-4-2 system.

    BUT change the formation – using NinjaEvra and Antonio Valencia as “wing backs” and Nani/Young as “inside forwards surrounding KagawaBunga – and there’s an extra man in midfield, fronted by two strikers and three “central defenders”. The thing about such a change is that it really doesn’t require much more in the way of new signings – just a re-jigging of the current personnel.

    Watching the Italian 3-5-2, it was instructive to see how fluidly it could shift to a 5-3-2 when the opposition had the ball in their half of the pitch. The key to the way Prandelli had them playing was that Maggio and the other “wing-back” could run the flanks AND defend against crosses from wide – of course, playing against Spain made their job easier since the tikka-takka boys rarely cross from wide but, really, how many teams nowadays set themselves up with two out-and-out wingers ? Other than SAF’s UTD ?

  5. I still see Evra very much as an attacking full-back rather than as a wing-back. Sir Alex did switch to a back three on a number of occasions last year for brief spells within games and on each occasion to devastating effect. Evra however usually stayed deep when this happened, and it was Valencia who’s role more closely resembled that of a wing back, or a very deep winger. From this position he had great impact, in fact more impact than when he played high. I think this is because this tactics resulted in Valencia receiving the ball when he was already on the move and travelling at pace.

    One thing that we can all agree on about Sir Alex is that he loves his flexibility, changing the teams shape regularly within games, and often three or four times in a game. A flexible 3-5-2 which can become 5-3-2 may then be an option, but I think the signing of Kagawa suggests that he may be looking at a more fluid formation at the front rather than at the back.

    3-5-2 was very popular in the late eighties culminating in a dull World Cup in 1990. The problem then was that when one team gains the initiative in a game the opposition default to 5-3-2. On the face of it it seems as if this approach is an attacking formation with only three at the back, but it often doesn’t seem to work out that way for most teams. For it to really work the wing backs need to be more naturally attacking rather than naturally defensive. The three backs then have to be really really good, with a strong defensive midfielder in front of them.

    That is one reason why I can’t see United going that way. That is currently, with Fletcher unavailable, the type of player we don’t have.

    Another reason is that I can’t see United ever playing without wingers. The real question which Sir Alex has been wrestling with at United for the last twenty years is how do you have enough bodies in the centre of the pitch to control the game in midfield, (especially against the better sides), and still manage to play two wide players.

  6. I agree with your article a whole lot…i dont understand why most english teams enjoy using a 4-4-2 formation seeing how much it fails 6 out of 10 times. My biggest depression last season was how SAF made Valencia so predictable. I believe an astute player possess the ability to be unpredictable like CR7, or MessiNoMercy. Theses lads would hold d ball and come up with something magical and we all would sit in awe at their ability. But with valencia and the 4-4-2 formation, once he has the ball, in a lot of scenarios, i saw defenders focusing on their box because you just know he is gonna launch a cross to either WazaRoon or Danny….hence the reason he only scored a few number of goals when he drove into the box.
    But i don’t think a 3-5-2 formation would benefit UTD….rather a 4-2-3-1 seems to work for me…#InMyHumbleOpinion. Keep the back four as it is…..Evra and Rafael are 2 great fullbacks!!! Carrick and Fletch and a good box-to-box midfielder (Maybe Moutinho) would sit at the midfield, my attacking midfielders would be Youngin (play as an inside forward) Kagawa (play behind the striker), and Nani (another inside forward) or Valencia. The strikers should be one of either Hernandez, Danny, or WazaRoon. I also believe WazaRoon can play behind the striker.

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