This is an issue which may initially seem quite low down on the list of things wrong with football and while racism, homophobia, the poor quality of refereeing, the price of a hotdogs and the development of young English talent are all important, I feel that no-one is worried about the demise of the once noble position of fullback.
When I started watching football there were fullbacks such as Stuart Pearce, Paulo Maldini and Paul Parker: players whose first priority was defending and who could tackle hard when required.
When it was possible they would venture forwards to support the winger and make the occasional cross into the box. These players were fairly anonymous and this was to their credit – they did a functional job for the team. Great partnerships were formed between fullbacks and their wingers – one of the best being between Beckham and Gary Neville who defended and attacked together.
And then a shift came. France 98 displayed the skills of some excellent attacking fullbacks in Cafu and Roberto Carlos for Brazil and Lizarazu and Thuram for France. These players offered a lot more going forward than previous generations and their impressive displays seemed to have heavily influenced a new generation of English fullbacks.
Flash forward to today and the Premiership is flooded with a horrendous collection of fullbacks. There are exceptions to this. I was at Craven Cottage last Saturday for the visit of Everton. On show were four fullbacks whose first priority was defending, they knew how to defend and overlapped with their wingers when appropriate. The standout one being Leighton Baines who has really developed into an excellent player, but looking round the rest of the Premiership the picture isn’t quite as rosy.
Watching Glen Johnson trying to defend is like watching a bear riding a bicycle – a little amusing but ultimately cruel. The man clearly has no idea where he is on a pitch. He is constantly out of position, he can’t tackle and in truth he isn’t that effective going forward – he actually rarely gets into a position to cross and doesn’t cut inside to any effect. Last season he had 2 assists and 1 goal – pretty amazing stuff. So he can’t attack or defend – so what does he do?
The tragic list does not end there. Ashley Cole and Kyle Walker who are constantly applauded by the media for their apparent attacking and defending qualities are equally as inept. In the recent Premiership clash between Spurs and Chelsea watching Walker he loses concentration so easily. His lack of positioning and awareness directly cost two of the four goals. He drops behind the defensive line, playing forwards on side and allows wingers to run past him without tracking. As for Ashley Cole the man has spent a whole career being five yards out of position. A quick watch of the England Germany highlights from the 2010 World Cup will sum up Ashley Cole’s career nicely. I can still remember clearly him running after Muller as he strolled passed him for the umpteenth time.
We also have a range of appalling imports in the fullback department. Take Andre Santos. This Arsenal player is an embarrassment. Against Man Utd recently I think I witnessed the worst performance by a Premiership player. He was too tight when he should have given the attacker space and too far away when he needed to be tighter. He also demonstrated how fundamentally how he doesn’t know how to tackle by tackling square on to the attacker. Then there’s Maicon – an embarrassment for Inter Milan against Gareth Bale at the San Siro in the Champions League, he repeated his lack of defending know how against Real Madrid for Man City (he lasted 74mins before being substituted). There are others too but it would take too long to list their ineptitudes (Sagna*, Rafael, Fabio, Bosingwa).
There are plenty of players in the Premiership who are not amazingly gifted players and some make up for this by working hard but these players are fundamentally poor footballers. As already stated they cannot defend or attack effectively and players that were once fairly anonymous are now liabilities to their team. They seem like players who aren’t good enough to be central defenders or wingers so have ended up as fullbacks.
There are some of very good modern fullbacks – Jordi Alba and Philip Lahm being two examples, but for me they are outnumbered by the countless number of utterly useless players who lack concentration, positioning and the art of how to defend.
I would like to see this trend reversed – returning to a time when fullbacks like Gary Neville achieved much but under the radar through hard work and graft. I’ll take that over a Glen Johnson any day.
Follow me @fulhamsteve84
*on the Sagna point I was at the Emirates this Saturday for Arsenal against Fulham. Kacaniklic’s goal was a direct consequence of Sagna not knowing where he was and allowing him just to stroll past him.