Football Features

Styles and stipulations: who is the world’s best right-back?

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 12:22, 26 March 2022

We are living in the golden age of the right-back.

At least, this is true in the Premier League, where there are so many good right-backs that a couple have had to move over to left-back to find room in their teams! Who can say why exactly a whole host of great right-backs are coming through now (England alone could put out a right-back XI full of brilliance) but the fact is; they are.

But who’s the best? A straightforward question, but one that in this instance is problematic because, honestly, how does one define best here? Any position is hard to define but full-back, like a central midfielder, sits perfectly at the fulcrum of both attack and defence, and all the myriad ways a team can attack and defend, that it’s hard to know what to judge them on.

So, how about we don’t? How about we look at the three different styles of full-back and try and find the paradigm, or the poster boy, of that style? Cool? Cool.

The Playmaker

Almost 20 years ago in the heart of Andalusia, a miracle was born. Dani Alves joined Sevilla in 2002; by 2003 he was a regular and by 2006 he was the key playmaker for a side that won the UEFA Cup back-to-back and, in 2006/07, were the best team in Spain and really should have won La Liga.

He then went to Barcelona (one of the first signings of the Pep Guardiola era) and completely changed football as one of the most essential parts of that famous Barca side, as important as anyone besides Xavi or Lionel Messi, really.

Alves birthed the modern idea of the playmaker full-back, because his natural proclivity was to come infield and involve himself in the build-up, leaving Sevilla’s right-flank for Jesus Navas. At Barcelona this switched and as Messi darted infield, Alves owned the right-flank, but either way he was constantly involved in the build-up phase and wasn’t just an outlet for crosses.

Coming infield and involving themselves in the build-up play is exactly how someone could describe Joao Cancelo, a man who essentially functions as a midfielder for Manchester City, allowing their actual midfielders to drive forward into attack. Cancelo’s impact doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet, but just like Alves his influence is undeniable.

For a time Sergi Roberto looked like he might be a worthy successor to Alves, both because he literally inherited the role after the Brazilian left Barcelona and because he was a midfielder first who got converted. But the further the Blaugrana moved away from the Cruyffist system, the more Roberto looked out of place. Now in 2022 Alves is actually back at Barcelona and Roberto will probably be leaving in the summer.

That Alves is still playing two decades after first appearing in European football is a testament to his status as the greatest right-back of all-time, regardless of style. He’s won more trophies than any other man in football history and is a living legend.

However, the poster boy of the playmaking right-backs is not Alves anymore. It is, in fact, another converted midfielder. And unlike Sergi Roberto, this one is fully embedded in a system that supports him and, more than that, possesses a creative instinct not seen in England since David Beckham, and Beckham was a winger.

Trent Alexander-Arnold is a miracle of a footballer. Since the start of 2018/19 across Europe’s top five leagues no right-back has attempted more passes than his 8,258, nor his 2,984 passes ending in the final third, nor his 29 through- balls with 17 being complete (although Dani Alves, playing 8,935 fewer minutes, has attempted 26 and completed 11). Alexander-Arnold also ranks top for his 1,332 attempted long passes, his 272 crosses, his 289 chances created with 59 of them being big chances and his 43 assists.

The numbers are quite literally obscene. Liverpool, one of the three best teams in the world since the start of 2018/19, are almost half as good a team when he’s not playing. The only Englishman you’d argue is a better player than Alexander-Arnold is Harry Kane and even that’s close. The Liverpool right-back is simply phenomenal and the most fitting heir to Dani Alves’ crown.

The Shutdown Corner

As a complete contrast to the playmaker, let’s go strictly defensive. The old joke was that full-back was where you could hide your worst players, or at least your centre-backs too short to be a centre-back, but there is genuine value in having a full-back that is an elite defender.

The paradigm of this style of right-back is Gary Neville, of course. Not that Neville couldn’t attack, but he was mostly known for his defensive contributions. Sir Alex Ferguson once said: “if he was an inch taller he’d be the best centre-half in Britain,” which just tells you how impeccable Neville was defensively. Wingers rarely got the better of him.

Manchester is actually where we find two of the best proponents of this style of full-back today, too. Kyle Walker and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are two of the most solid full-backs around.

Walker has the rocket pace to be an orthodox style of full-back, for sure, but just like Joao Cancelo, Pep Guardiola has converted the Englishman to suit his team’s needs. Meaning while almost everyone else drives forward to attack, Walker hangs back in the half-space, ready to help City defend transitions with his searing pace. He’s so important to City that Guardiola has moved Joao Cancelo to left-back.

And while Wan-Bissaka has fallen on hard times this season, we can’t forget what a dominant force he was for years. Since the start of 2018/19 across Europe’s top five leagues, no full-back has made more tackles than his 384 nor interceptions than his 241. And his 278 clearances is a total bettered by just three other right-backs.

One of those right-backs is Benjamin Pavard, who is a centre-back by trade but has developed into a strong defensive right-back for both club and country; his 304 clearances tops all other right-backs.

Back to England, the capital has seen two defensive right-backs. Takehiro Tomiyasu has emerged this season as a huge part of Arsenal’s resurgence as a team, meanwhile Chelsea have had César Azpilicueta patrolling their right-flank for a decade of dominance. Initially he broke through as a left-back, but has since played right-back, right wing-back and right centre-back for Chelsea and has an impressive stat line of 285 tackles, 152 interceptions, 261 clearances and a massive 253 aerial duels won (only two right-backs have won more!) since the start of 2018/19.

The Freight Train

As much as the right-backs of football are now inundated with playmakers and lightly scattered with shutdown corners, the most common right-back type is, of course, the freight train. You know the type, the one that runs up and down the touchline all day long. Offering width, energy and crosses. They aren’t necessarily a part of build-up, they just show up at the sharp end of attacking or defending phases.

The paradigms here are, of course, Cafu and Javier Zanetti. Straddling either side of the Derby della Madonnina, Cafu and Zanetti were miracles of physical fitness, defensive toughness and creative impact. They are legends of the game, to the extent that Maicon was considered greater than Dani Alves simply because he followed their archetype more closely.

That’s how powerful the freight train paradigm is, it causes others to be neglected and looked down on. For example, Wan-Bissaka isn’t the best in attack so is dismissed as a player despite his obvious brilliance, or no matter how many times Alexander-Arnold spanks teams, their fans will never stop bleating that he can’t defend – though they may have to fight Jurgen Klopp, who said recently: “If anybody tells me Trent can’t defend, I’ll knock them down. I don’t know what the boy has to do anymore.”

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There are many great “freight trains” out there now, but two stand out among the rest. One is Reece James, the man who seems destined to rival Alexander-Arnold for years over a single spot in the England team. James is a really special and intelligent player who is capable of playing multiple positions well, but he truly excels when played as a wing-back and that’s when he goes full freight train.

Despite suffering with injuries, this season James has five goals from right-back and no one across Europe’s top five leagues has more. He’s also taken 46 touches in opponent’s boxes, which is a ways below Matty Cash’s 75 but when you look at it per 90 minutes, James stands above everyone in the Premier League with 3.49 touches per 90 (minimum 500 minutes played).

Over in Ligue 1 is the premier freight train right-back, however. Achraf Hakimi has 69 touches in the opposition box this season. In fact, since the start of 2018/19 across Europe’s top five leagues, Hakimi has had a massive 363 touches in the opponent’s box. That’s more than any other right-back. He’s also attempted a rather ridiculous 288 take-ons in that time and scored 17 goals from 112 shots and notched 26 assists from 107 chances created.

Hakimi is a truly imposing character, and if he joined someone besides the nadir of joy and beauty that is PSG, he’d be getting lauded and praised the world over. He is absolutely the poster boy of the freight trains, although watch out if Reece James can stay fit for a whole season!

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