Once an unfashionable position, the full-back is now one of the most important roles on the pitch.
It’s a tactical shift that has seen the game move from full-backs seen purely as defenders, to celebrating No. 2s and No. 3s as playmakers, goalscorers and, in the case of the inverted full-back, midfield ball-players.
Pep Guardiola is of course the man credited with emergence of the inverted full-back at Bayern Munich, popularising the innovation through his use of Philipp Lahm and David Alaba.
They were mainly tasked with tucking in-field and taking on a more active role in build-up and transitional play, almost functioning as rotational central defensive midfielders. As such, it’s a role that requires a full-back to be a bit of an all-rounder, capable of defending, passing, attacking and pressing.
Read on below for our player analysis, which uses real-life data to explore some prominent examples of inverted full-backs in the game today, or click on the video at the top of this article for a more in-depth look into the role, using Football Manager tactics.
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Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker
Guardiola, as we know, is a tactical trailblazer, a man in constant pursuit of perfection. So, it’s no wonder he has largely been credited with the emergence of inverted full-backs.
Used at Bayern as a way of compressing opposition space and allowing his side to create short-passing combinations — his famous triangles — Guardiola’s style was as relentless as it was rhythmic.
When in possession, the use of inverted full-backs can see a side shape up in an old-school 2-3-5, with the full-backs pushing up alongside a central defensive midfielder, creating a line of three.
There are certainly parallels with Guardiola’s Bayern to his City side today. Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker are often tasked with playing as inverted full-backs, and you can see from City’s average positions visual in the Premier League this season that their shape resembles a 2-3-5, with Cancelo and Walker moving up alongside the lone central defensive midfielder, Ilkay Gundogan in this case.
To better understand their role in Guardiola’s system we can look at Cancelo and Walker’s heat maps alongside Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson for Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp wants his full-backs to stay as high and wide as possible, overlapping and bombing down the wings in a more traditional sense, looking to overwhelm teams with his famous Gegenpress.
Pep, though, wants a more controlled chaos, allowing his full-backs to move in-field and slightly deeper to dictate the tempo and slow the game down in a very Barca-esque fashion.
Another example that some may find interesting is Arsenal’s summer pursuit and their eventual capture of Takehiro Tomiyasu.
At 6ft 2in, the Japanese defender is certainly not built like a conventional full-back, which may explain his very unconventional full-back role at Arsenal.
Perhaps taking a page out of Pep’s playbook, Mikel Arteta has often used Tomiyasu as an inverted full-back this season, as highlighted from Arsenal’s average positions visual in the Premier League.
Kieran Tierney is the more attacking full-back in Arteta’s system, staying wide and high up the pitch, while Tomiyasu often moves in-field and camps further back as a cautionary measure.
There is certainly a reason why Tomiyasu was identified by Arteta. During the 2019/20 season, his first at Bologna, and at a time when Arteta was still working under Guardiola at City, Tomiyasu’s numbers were certainly eye-catching.
Although deployed as a No.2 on paper, Tomiyasu was often tasked with moving in-field and creating a midfield three alongside Gary Medel and Ladislav Krejci.
As a result 12.4% of Tomiyasu’s passes were made to the right-hand side of the field. Now, to put that into some context, Alexander-Arnold, a more traditional attacking full-back, played just 5% of his passes to the right that season — as you would of course expect from a right-back. Daniel Carvajal made only 7.7% to the right, Juan Cuadrado 5.2%, Aaron Wan-Bissaka 6.4% and so on.
The trend would suggest Tomiyasu was drifting in-field more as an inverted full-back so had plenty of scope to pass into the wide areas. Alexander-Arnold by contrast almost hugs the touchline in Klopp’s set-up, so his only option most of the time is to spread the play or move the ball vertically, often to Mohamed Salah.
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