Tactics Tuesday: A Statistical Analysis of Fullbacks

Prior to last summer’s World Cup, Jonathan Wilson – author of Inverting the Pyramid, a history of soccer tactics – claimed that the winners of the ’94, ’98, ’02, and ’06 World Cups each possessed that tournament’s most in-form attacking fullbacks. Wilson noted, however, that the recent managerial preference for a 4-2-3-1 has restricted the space in which attacking fullbacks used to thrive.

Indeed, as you’ll see below in our survey of fullbacks’ passing statistics, Spain and Netherlands, the 2010 World Cup finalists, were among the teams that made the least use of their fullbacks. But that’s not to say fullbacks are any less an offensive force than they were prior to the rise of the 4-2-3-1.


In order to delve into fullbacks’ role in offensive strategy, we compiled passing statistics for 10 matches (or, in other words, 40 fullbacks). The data was provided by three applications – the Guardian’s Chalkboards, the Total Football Champions League Iphone App, and the Total Football World Cup Iphone App. The teams surveyed represented a variety of competitions and formations.

CompetitionTeam ATeam A's FormationTeam BTeam B's FormationResult
Premier LeagueBolton4-4-2Wolverhampton4-5-11-0 Bolton
World CupSpain4-2-3-1Netherlands4-2-3-11-0 Netherlands
Champions LeagueTottenham4-2-3-1Inter Milan4-2-3-13-1 Tottenham
Premier LeagueManchester United4-4-1-1Fulham4-4-1-12-2 Draw
Champions LeagueReal Madrid4-2-3-1AC Milan4-3-32-2 Draw
Premier LeagueLiverpool3-5-1-1Chelsea4-3-1-21-0 Liverpool
Champions LeagueArsenal4-2-3-1Barcelona4-2-3-12-1 Arsenal
World CupEngland4-4-2USA4-4-21-1 Draw
World CupAlgeria3-6-1USA4-4-21-0 USA
World CupBrazil4-2-3-1Chile3-3-1-33-0 Brazil


For this week’s purposes, we’ve created a table that lists:

  • Each team’s total attempted passes (Total AP)
  • The right back’s attempted passes (RB AP)
  • The left back’s attempted passes (LB AP)
  • The right back’s ranking – compared to his teammates – for attempted passes (RB Standing)
  • The left back’s ranking – compared to his teammates – for attempted passes (LB Standing)
  • The fullbacks’ percentage of the team’s attempted passes (Fullbacks’ % of AP)

Below is the data from four teams. In order to save space, we’ve created a separate page for the full data set. Go here if you’d like to view it.

Fullbacks' %
of AP

Initial observations

Given that a team fields 10 outfield players, it would be rational to assume that the fullbacks, as 1/5th of the available players, should be participants in 20% of a squad’s passes. Of course, that simplistic view doesn’t take into account the flow of a game. In some matches one team dominates possession, so, naturally, that teams’ fullbacks have a higher chance of attempting more passes. Conversely, a team with less possession theoretically provides their fullbacks less time on the ball.

The results were anything but intuitive. In 60% of the matches, the fullbacks on the squad with less possession attempted a higher percentage of passes than the fullbacks on the squad with more possession. The former averaged 24.3% of their team’s attempted passes while the latter averaged 22.6%.

The reason for this quirk is threefold. First, the team with less possession is more liable to play on the counter, a strategy that lends to using space along the flanks. Also, the longer a team retains possession, the higher a chance players further up the pitch will see the ball, which, in turn, reduces the fullbacks’ overall percentage. Finally, there are formation issues at play, a topic we’ll cover in-depth next week. To whet your appetite, squads using a 4-3-3 made the least use of their fullbacks.

Now that managers view the field in 4 bands instead of 3, many players are specialists, staying in just 2 or 3 zones. Fullbacks are the only players to consistently move through all 4 bands.

Topping the charts

Fullbacks weren’t just averaging a high percentage of their team’s attempted passes. At times they attempted more passes than anyone else, an outcome that was true for 8 of the 20 teams surveyed.

Many of the reasons listed above apply here, but there is another tactical trend causing them to play a high percentage of their teams’ passes. Managers in the modern era view the pitch in terms of four bands as opposed to the historical three (see diagram). This shift, in part, led to the rise of holding midfielders, a reduction in the importance of box-to-box midfielders, and, consequently, an increased burden on fullbacks to participate in build-up play – ie the reason they’re producing a high percentage of teams’ attempted passes.

Next Week

Come back next Tuesday to find out how formations impact a fullback’s ability to contribute in attack. We’ll also offer some musings for how Bob Bradley can make the best use of his stable of fullbacks (we know he’s dying to read them).

Gringos, what do you think of the data? Notice any trends we didn’t cover?

5 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Gringo Primal says:

    Cool stuff.

    I look forward to seeing the information on how formations influenced their statistics.

  2. Stephen says:

    Great analysis

  3. Jarred says:

    Great analysis. As a coach and former player I love reading Tactics Tuesday. Excited to read next week which will hopefully add to this analysis data concerning dribbles completed and dribbling distance as they can both be telling statistics of a players attacking prowess. That said, keep up the great work!

    • Blake Owen says:

      Thanks, Jarred! Part 2 is here if you missed it (I accidentally placed it in the wrong category, sorry).

      It’d be great to examine dribbling efficiency, but, unfortunately, the data isn’t available. The best I could do would be to examine how many take-ons players win, which isn’t exactly the same thing. I’m sure we’ll come back to this topic sometime, though. So keep your eyes open.

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