Football Features

The Premier League’s elite full-backs, and their different roles explained

By Muhammad Butt

Premier League best full backs

Published: 18:00, 26 November 2021 | Updated: 14:57, 28 November 2021

The full-back is fast becoming one of the most important positions in England’s top division.

The Premier League is currently living in the shadow of Dani Alves, Philipp Lahm and Marcelo as world-class full-back play has finally come to the United Kingdom. Three of the best players this season, in any position, have been full-backs.

Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, Chelsea’s Reece James and Manchester City’s Joao Cancelo are operating on a truly remarkable plane of existence right now, influencing and guiding their respective teams forward. So of course the question has become: who is the best?

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But that’s a silly debate, because they’re all different and play different roles on the pitch. Yes, they’re all dominant full-backs, but their dominance comes in different ways and so comparisons over sheer quality are, for the most part, unhelpful.

How about comparing their roles, however? That’s a far more worthwhile exercise, and so Squawka had a look at these three studs, the Premier League’s elite full-backs this season, and compared how their roles differ.

The stats

These guys are all ridiculously productive, and when looking at their numbers across the Premier League and Champions League this season, we see that Reece James has a pretty wild five goals and four assists. The wing-back is even Chelsea’s top scorer and has helped carry the load during Romelu Lukaku’s absence through injury. He’s also created 23 chances (three of which are big chances) and has completed 10/16 take-ons. James has made 13 tackles, five interceptions and five clearances.

Meanwhile Joao Cancelo has a more creative two goals and six assists, playing a surprisingly key role in Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City as he links the play and helps make up for Kevin De Bruyne’s struggling form. He has created 22 chances, six of them are big chances, moreover he’s completed an impressive 20/42 dribbles. A much more impactful defensive force than James, Cancelo has 33 tackles, 40 interceptions and 13 clearances to his name.

Trent Alexander-Arnold remains the gold standard, however. The Liverpool man has scored just one goal, but has a ridiculous eight assists. Of course he’s not much of a defender, but he’s completed 5/13 take-ons and created a massive 41 chances, 10 of which are big chances. Coming off a season where many people questioned his quality, Trent is really strutting his stuff in 2021/22.

The roles

All three are, ostensibly, right-backs. However one regularly plays there and none play their role in the same way; as you can see from their heatmaps (taken from Premier League and Champions League action this season).

Reece James is a touchline-hugging freight train. He charges up and down the right-flank and thanks to playing at wing-back has the highest concentration of activity inside the opposing half. His passes received map shows how he receives the most passes from the Chelsea midfielders who use him to link the midfield and attack.

Alexander-Arnold meanwhile has a more rounded role and in fact he and Joao Cancelo’s heat maps are remarkably similar except for the fact that they are on opposite flanks, this is because both men slide into midfield when their teams are in possession. Their passes received map is almost identical save for the different flank bears this out as well.

Given the team he plays for, Cancelo understandably has a more rounded action area just inside the opponents half as he slots into that underlapping pseudo-midfielder role, with faint action on the right side as he can of course play right-back too. Meanwhile Trent’s role as Liverpool’s primary playmaker, as well as his love of crosses (and corners) stretches his heatmap up to the corner flag, and means that he will even receive the ball in slightly more advanced areas than Cancelo who is almost strictly a midfielder for Pep Guardiola.


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The distribution

So we know their raw numbers and where they fit into the team’s passing attack, but what are their responsibilities when they get the ball? Not every touch can be a cross or a shot, so how do that handle possession?

Looking at their passing flow, we can see that Cancelo has a very even and balanced distribution of the ball with no one direction receiving a lot of focus and, of course, minimal incomplete passes.

Meanwhile, Trent Alexander-Arnold drives the ball further forward more often. He is always trying to push the tempo, which results in more vertical passes and many more incomplete passes. That is, of course, the price you accept when dealing with such a high volume creator.

Not for the first time Reece James is totally different. Playing in a much more defensive Chelsea side that is comfortable to sit on leads and ride games out without taking too many risks, the vast majority of James’ passes are sideways or backwards. When James does try and drive it down the lead it leads to a lot of incompletions, whereas the pass back to the right-sided centre-back is much safer.

The summation

While Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joao Cancelo share similarities in their positional profile, owing to their sides playing ball-dominant style of play, Alexander-Arnold’s role as Liverpool’s chief playmaker sees him provide so much thrust and vertical action from the position where Joao Cancelo plays a more facilitative role, keeping possession recycling in Man City’s passing carousel.

Reece James, meanwhile, is just a pure wing-back. Chelsea use him as an attacking outlet as much for his shooting as crossing, and he just as often turns the ball back to his defenders in order to retain possession when the Blues are keeping things tight and defensive. He doesn’t have the same amount of defensive numbers as Cancelo, but this can be put down to playing as a wing-back.

Basically, they’re all excellent. And if you were to really stretch things tactically you could probably play them together. We are blessed to be living in such a fantastic age of full-backs, where Alexander-Arnold, Cancelo and James are the paragons that inspire the countless others in the league (and if Aaron Wan-Bissaka ever gets a decent coach, he might join these three in dominance with yet another entirely different player profile) to raise their games and stretch the limits of what is possible from one of football’s formerly forgotten roles.

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