Football Features

What is a wide centre-back? Best players, roles and tactics explained using Football Manager

By Ben Green

Published: 10:37, 30 November 2021

Whether you’re an Atalanta enthusiast, Chris Wilder in disguise, or just love a tactical innovation or two, the chances are you’re pretty excited about the new wide centre-back role on Football Manager 2022.

But, like any new function, with it comes new dilemmas: how to use the role? What are the best formations, tactics and players? In this article (and by clicking on the video at the top of the screen) we provide a definitive guide to the wide centre-back role, using real-life data to paint a more transparent picture of its use in the modern game.

The origin of the wide centre-back is not entirely traceable to a moment in football’s long and storied timeline. Like many of the game’s innovations, changes occur gradually, even naturally, developing over time rather than radically over night.

For the Premier League, Chris Wilder arguably blazed a trail in 2019/20 when his Sheffield United side stunned the division and finished ninth while using wide centre-backs. But, it can be argued that managers before him were experimenting with variations of the function.

Antonio Conte’s Chelsea for example. Pep Guardiola even tried the system a few times during the early stages of his Man City tenure — a certain 5-0 win over Liverpool in September 2017 being a prime example.

With the role so influential in Italy during Conte’s Juventus reign, there are, of course, other advocates. Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta being the most prominent example. Julian Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig also used wide centre-backs before he ventured to Bayer Munich; Marseille have switched to a back-three under Jorge Sampaoli; and even Brentford have caught the eye this season.

Looking more closely at the key examples listed, we’ve tried to break down how each system is used and why the role is so effective.

Atalanta

There is arguably no greater proponent of a wide centre-back system at the minute than Atalanta, who have transformed from perennial mid-table finishers in Serie A to regulars on the Champions League circuit under Gasperini.

The Italian’s hyper-fluid, ultra-offensive 3-4-3 has taken the continent by storm, and it all starts at the back. If we take last season as an example, he largely set up in a 3-4-2-1, with a back three of Cristian Romero, Berat Djimsiti and Rafael Toloi forming the basis of his system.

Djimsiti and Toloi flanked the more robust, hard-hitting Romero, and were tasked with making vertical runs when in possession. From their average positions map last season (visual above), you can see the two centre-backs touching the halfway line, essentially functioning as central midfielders when Atalanta had the ball.

Toloi in particular resembled a full-back at times, underlapping and, often more prominently, overlapping right wing-back Hans Hateboer. His Serie A heat map from 2020/21 almost has the appearance of an attacking No.2, and certainly not that of a traditional centre-back.

If we compare that to Leonardo Bonucci of Juventus for example (visual below), sticking with the Italian theme, you can see how a traditional centre-back’s heat map should look. Toloi, by contrast, rarely spent any time centrally… or, by the looks of things, in defence for that matter.

If we want to compare to another right-sided centre-back in a three-man defence (and not a back four in Bonucci’s case), Patric of Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio showed a more static defender, tasked with holding his position in a fixed area of the pitch.

Toloi meanwhile was given free rein to abandon his defensive position and surge up the pitch. His most frequented area was in the opposition half (as highlighted by the prominent white marking in Toloi’s heat map above). Remember this is a central defender, not Dani Alves!

You can also see Lazio’s centre-backs playing much further back compared to Atalanta by their average positions map (visual below). This is a common theme with Inter Milan this season, of whom Inzaghi now takes charge after succeeding Antonio Conte. Right centre-back Milan Skriniar and left centre-back Alessandro Bastoni occupy similar positions to Patric and Stefan Radu from Inzaghi’s Lazio last season, and not the pseudo-midfield positions of Gasperini’s high-press No. 5s.

We can also compare this to versions of a three-man defence seen in the Premier League recently. Looking at Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea this season and Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves from 2019/20, you can see just how close to the goalkeeper their centre-backs are in contrast to Atalanta.

With the emphasis on Tuchel’s wing-backs pushing high up the pitch, shown by Reece James being almost in line with Romelu Lukaku, there isn’t as great an emphasis on Chelsea’s wide centre-backs marauding up the field in true Atalanta style. “I would not call them defenders. They have to defend in some moments like defenders, but they are more free to attack the opponents’ box than they are in the role as a full-back,” Tuchel recently said of his wing-backs.

Gasperini wants his players to express themselves with a full-throttle approach, overwhelming opponents with a high press, high intensity brand. Nuno and Tuchel often prefer a more pragmatic approach, never compromising defensive structure for the sake of an entertaining, attacking style. Gasperini is the opposite.

Sheffield United

Of course, it wouldn’t be a wide centre-back analysis without covering Wilder’s Sheffield United. The Blades were not completely gung-ho like Atalanta during that iconic 2019/20 season, that would have been suicide for a newly-promoted team, but the wide centre-back system was put to good use by Wilder, and it left plenty of experienced managers in the Premier League rattled and tactically perturbed.

Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell were the two players tasked with surging up the turf under Wilder as wide centre-backs, with John Egan holding the fort further back. Despite playing with three central midfielders (John Lundstram, John Fleck and Oliver Norwood), the majority of Sheffield United’s attacks occurred down the flanks, emphasised by Basham and O’Connell’s heat maps.

Again, like Toloi and Djimsiti for Atalanta, the Blades’ own attacking No. 5s spent the majority of their time hugging the touchline. It is no wonder then that Basham finished the 2019/20 Premier League season as the only centre-back to complete over 20 take-ons (24). O’Connell, meanwhile, created the most Big Chances of any centre-back that season (six) — and this, in a division containing Guardiola’s City and Klopp’s Liverpool.

O’Connell also attempted the most final third passes of any centre-back (427), ahead of Virgil van Dijk (374) and completed the most crosses (11), as one of only two centre-backs to complete crosses with a double-digit finish. He, alongside Basham, also attempted the most (both on 51).

RB Leipzig

One final example we can look at is Julian Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig from the Bundesliga last season. The now Bayern Munich coach, who has previously worked under Thomas Tuchel at Augsburg, used a system almost identical to Chelsea’s current wing-back approach.

The 3-4-2-1 deployed by Nagelsmann catered for just one traditional centre-back in Dayot Upamecano, with Marcel Halstenberg (a left-back by trade) and Lukas Klostermann (a right-back by trade) occupying the space beside him.

The versatile Germans were required to progress up the turf and double up on the flanks with Angelino on the left, and Nordi Mukiele on the right. Overloads were created to stretch the play and draw defenders out of position, allowing the likes of Dani Olmo and Emil Forsberg to tuck in and exploit the half space. By doing this, numerical advantages were created in the most vulnerable parts of the field and opposition defences were stretched.

Once again, Klostermann’s heat map shows that his predominant position was in the opposition half, underpinning just how high he pushed up the field despite being a centre-back on the team-sheet. It will come as no surprise therefore that Halstenberg created the second-most chances of any Bundesliga centre-back last season (27) finishing just one below David Alaba (28) of Bayern Munich.

The Leipzig man also finished with the second-most completed passes in the final third (254), again only below Alaba (359), and this despite playing just 24 matches to the Austrian’s 32, while he also completed the third-most crosses (15, 10 more than Alaba’s five). For what it’s worth, Halstenberg finished ahead of Alaba with the highest completed passes in the final third per 90 minutes of any centre-back last season (13.84 to 12.07).

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