Fullbacks – The Most Important Players on the Pitch

Carlos Bocanegra, Jonathan Bornstein

Jonathan Wilson, one of the most well-respected soccer journalists, contends fullback is the most important position, noting that since 1994 the World Cup “has been won by the team with the best pair of attacking full-backs: Jorginho and Branco for Brazil in 1994; Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu for France in 1998; Cafu and Roberto Carlos for Brazil in 2002; and Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso for Italy three years ago.”

Of course, Wilson admits these teams were quite talented across the board, but his theory has merit, supported by the wave of attacking fullbacks dotting top-flight club rosters. Patrice Evra (Manchester United), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Maicon (Inter Milan), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Dani Alves (Barcelona), and Phillip Lahm (Bayern Munich) are notable examples.

The premise for fullbacks’ increasing importance is their ability to compliment the nouveau forward: an inside-out winger (a winger lining up on his weak-foot side). These attackers tend to push inward toward their stronger foot, creating extra space along the touchline. Marauding fullbacks then fill the void left by winger’s run.

For example, pictured is a right back advancing to support an inside-out winger (assume the ball is moving up the right side). The fullback’s advance forces an opposing player to stay wide, giving the winger one less defender to worry about.

His new position does leave a hole in the back. In our example, one of the center backs moves wide to cover the fullback’s forward movement, though some clubs may keep a more rigid shape – operating under the assumption that the opponents’ left midfielder will be forced to drop back anyway – and others may have a defensive midfielder move wide to fill the gap.

USA Implications

If Jonathan Wilson is correct, the United States needs its fullbacks to provide some offense this summer. With that in mind, here’s a rundown on the 5 fullbacks currently competing for what could be 4 roster spots.

Carlos Bocanegra – Captain America may be the forerunner at left back, yet he doesn’t fill the modern fullback role. He lacks pace, doesn’t have the fanciest footwork, possesses a relatively weak cross, and has spent most of the past 3 years as a starting center back. However, he does play left back for his club and did an adequate job for the US at last summer’s Confederations Cup. His experience – and hesitancy to go forward – will leave the defense with the best shape (as in formation, not stamina).

Jonathan Spector – The most talented right back in the pool, Spector supplies one of the United States’ most accurate crosses. Like Bocanegra, he’s an experienced defender who rarely gets caught out of position, but he too is not fleet of foot and was in poor form the last few weeks of the club season.

Heath Pearce – The US fullback with the best combination of size, speed, and offensive production, Pearce could have already locked up a starting role, but a terrible 2009 season for club and country has left him the fullback most likely to get cut.

Jonathan Bornstein – After Pearce, the Chivas USA man is the fullback most comfortable with the ball (he’s a converted striker) and can keep up with all but the quickest of wingers, but Bornstein has become infamous for making one or two costly mistakes per match.

Steve Cherundolo – Cherundolo used to be USA’s first-choice right back but was surpassed by the younger Spector in 2009, losing out to Spector’s better crossing ability and larger size. Cherundolo is no slouch with the ball, and if Spector can’t get over his poor play from the end of the season, Cherundolo could get his spot back.

Best offensive pairing – Pearce, Spector

Best defensive pairing – Bocanegra, Spector

World Cup prediction – Bocanegra, Spector

Any gringos with fullback preferences? Let’s hear ‘em.

2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. bensTEN says:

    Having seen Pearce in person here a few times for FC Dallas, I have to agree with your assessment that he’s a good offensive option. My initial impression of him was that he kind of “loafed” around the pitch, but when I saw how hungry he was to score and put pressure on the opponent’s goal, I was converted. He’s even a legitimate and decent free-kick threat. Though Bocanegra and Spector are likely to be first picks, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Pearce to get a spot on the squad for Bradley to have that little extra offensive option up the line.

    I also love the animation. It’s very interesting how that played out this weekend in the Champions final. Robben/Lahm are the classic example right now of this dynamic, though Lahm hardly made any runs–partly due to the fact that Inter basically had Robben plugged into the corner and wouldn’t let him get across for that deadly left foot shot of his.

    • Gringo_Prime says:

      Hopefully we’ll get to see Pearce in action Tuesday night.

      Bradley may use the first friendly to look at fringe players, as he’s said he intends to announce the 23-man roster before the next match.

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