Tactics Tuesday: A Statistical Analysis of Fullbacks (Part Two)

In the first installment of our analysis of fullbacks’ passing statistics, we cataloged the percentage of a team’s attempted passes that were played by the two fullbacks. Today we break down the same statistics, but by formation.


While you’ll only see 4 formations listed in the following charts, we surveyed 8 formations. For clarity’s sake, we’ve grouped the formations into umbrella categories: 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, and 3-5-2. This means stats for a 4-4-1-1 are listed under 4-4-2, a 4-3-1-2 under 4-3-3, a 4-5-1 within 4-2-3-1, and any formation with 3 center backs falls under 3-5-2.

This was done in order to allow the following charts to fit on one page. The overall data didn’t change. Excising the lesser-used formations (4-4-1-1, 4-3-1-2, and the 4-5-1) didn’t change the umbrella formations’ percentage of fullback possession.


As might be expected from the above percentages, fullbacks were more likely to top a team’s passing charts in a 4-4-2 and 3-5-2, an outcome that occurred 2/3rds of the time. In a 4-2-3-1, fullbacks were first in just 25% of the games, whereas in the 4-3-3 they never finished higher than 2nd.

Taking both charts into account, the 3-5-2 apparently stymies opposing fullbacks as much as it frees its own.


If you’re a fullback, you’ve got to love both playing for and against a 4-4-2. With only two center midfielders, the fullbacks’ importance in build-up play increases. And since 4-4-2′s have to use two lines of four defenders against a 4-2-3-1 (go here for an explanation), opposing fullbacks enjoy plenty of space.

Conversely, fullbacks enjoy hearing their manager call out for 3 at the back but dread facing a similar formation. While a fullback playing against a 3-5-2 only faces one opposition flank player, the 3-5-2 is normally used as a defense-first formation in the modern game, reducing all players’ chances to break into space. But going forward, formations with 3 center backs rely almost exclusively on the wingbacks to provide width.

As Jonathan Wilson pointed out, the 4-2-3-1 creates a major problem for opposing fullbacks. The wingers play much higher up the pitch than in a 4-4-2, limiting the fullbacks’ space (a dilemma also caused by the 4-3-3). If the fullbacks manage to advance beyond the winger they will find open ground, but given that the 4-2-3-1 was created as a means of pressing high up the pitch, this is easier said than done.


While much of last week’s data focused on the production of 40 fullbacks, today’s iteration sometimes included information from just three matches. In our 10-match survey, six teams used a variation of 4-4-2, eight a 4-2-3-1, three a 4-3-3, and three a 3-5-2.

The 4-3-3, in particular, presented major problems. With only three teams to analyze – Barcelona, AC Milan, and Chelsea – it was hard to draw solid conclusions. While Milan and Chelsea used their fullbacks for 23% and 22% of possession, Barcelona only employed their fullbacks to the tune of 19% of possession, the second-lowest total in the survey (only Brazil’s 17% was lower).

Though that low percentage obviously brought the average down, it’s a very misleading figure. Barcelona’s right back, Dani Alves, attempted 96 passes. No other fullback cleared 76. Barca relies so heavily on their center midfielders that it drives down the fullbacks’ percentage.

Given a more complete data set, the 4-3-3 figures should closely mirror those of the 4-2-3-1, as the fullbacks are needed to shuttle the ball between the three center midfielders and the attacking trio.

USMNT Implications

In the two USMNT matches in the survey, Steve Cherundolo attempted more passes than any other gringo (60 in both games). Assuming the above conclusions aren’t misleading, it’s unlikely Cherundolo will continue to routinely top the passing charts as Bob Bradley continues to shift toward a 4-2-3-1. The extra midfielder (compared to a 4-4-2) will reduce the need for Stevie C to be a constant outlet for the holding midfielders.

That’s not to say Cherundolo, or Carlos Bocanegra on the left, will be less important to the squad’s offensive strategy. As we hinted at in the Caveats section, different squads use formations in different ways. Though Alves may have attempted 96 passes in Barcelona’s 4-3-3, Gianluca Zambrotta attempted 40 in Milan’s 4-3-3. Alves was third on his team. Zambrotta was second.

The style of Bradley’s formation will be just as vital as the overall shape. If the US presses high up the pitch and employs tiki-taka passing, Cherundolo’s percentage might drop but his overall attempts rise. But if Bradley uses a counter-attacking mentality, both fullbacks might see much less of the ball.

Either way, Bradley will have to decide how to differentiate the two fullbacks. Carlos Bocanegra, who patrolled the flank opposite Cherundolo, didn’t produce anywhere near as many passes as his counterpart. Bocanegra’s two-game sum of 68 barely clears Cherundolo’s total from either match. In essence, Bocanegra functioned as an auxiliary center back. The move to a 4-2-3-1, and the 2 holding midfielders it brings, could free USA’s left back to advance a bit higher.

And, as always, tactics do not exist in a vacuum. The opposing team greatly determines your style of play, as noted above. USA’s fullbacks need to adjust to the new formation yet remain flexible enough to adapt given the opposition’s strategy. Against a 4-2-3-1 they might be a bit hesitant to go forward, while against a 4-4-2 they’ll have less to worry about.

Of course, form also plays a large part in game-to-game statistics, and if Bocanegra and Cherundolo consistently produce above par performances, they’ll always be a vital part of the attack, regardless of formation.

2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Bradley's Receding Hairline says:

    That is odd that the 3-5-2 gives fullbacks’ a decent bit of possession but restricts the opposing fullbacks at the same time.

    The data does make me feel better about Bocanegra at left back. In the first post, you could see that his number of attempted passes wasn’t that much lower than quite a few other fullbacks.

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