A history and analysis of full-backs at Barcelona
“No one wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville!” Jamie Carragher infamously said. The full-back position – whether right or wrong – has often been defined as an unflattering position, one characterized by those not defensively solid enough to be centre-backs, and not crafty enough to be wingers. To be frank, it was seldom a team’s selling point.
Over the last few decades, the position’s importance, duties, and complexities have sharply risen. An attack-minded (and capable) full-back used to be a bonus. Now, it’s a requirement. A full-back must be capable of fulfilling multiple roles in a single match.
We are at a point where full-backs define some of the world’s most elite teams. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Alphonso Davies, Achraf Hakimi, Joao Cancelo, and Jordi Alba, to name a few, are some of football’s most revered players. Who doesn’t want to be them?
Barcelona has been at the heart of the contemporary full-back revolution. While there are pioneers found throughout history, such as Roberto Carlos or Cafu, it is over the last decade or so that things have truly skyrocketed.
In the following piece, we’ll take a deep dive into the history of the full-back position, their crucial role in recent Barcelona sides, and how Xavi has furthered that innovation.
This is the story of football’s most versatile position, with the Blaugrana at its core.
A look back
Before delving into the modern game and present-day iterations, let’s take a trip down memory lane into the origins of the position. Interestingly, the full-back position – as we know it – did not exist in the early days of the Beautiful Game.
Old formations including the 1-1-8 (yes, you read it right), 2-2-6, or 3-2-5 (commonly referred to as WM) did not incorporate such a role.
It wasn’t until the rise of Brazil’s 4-2-4 and Gustav Sebes’ Hungary sides in the 1950s that the modern idea of “full-backs” began taking shape, particularly in regards to affecting the attacking side of the game.
Early trailblazers include Nilton Santos and Djalma Santos (2-time World Cup winners with Brazil), Giacinto Facchetti (Inter Milan and Italy from 1960-1978), and Carlos Alberto (another Brazillian World Cup winner).
As the game evolved into the 21st century, attacking full-backs played an even larger role in a team’s chance creation and attacking phases of play. The position asked for consistent runs down the flanks and crosses into the box.
Full-backs offered width, an extra man in attack, and the ability to stretch out opponents to devastating effect.
It was no coincidence that World Cup-winning teams like Brazil in 2002, and Italy in 2006 had the tournament’s best full-back pairings: Roberto Carlos and Cafu, and Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso, respectively.
Flash forward to 2022, and football is all about fluidity. It’s about mastering open space and narrow corridors. It’s about lining up in a 4-3-3 and shifting into a 2-3-5 only minutes later. In other words, it’s all about full-backs.
The Golden Era
As mentioned before, Barcelona has played a principal role in the development of expansive and versatile full-backs in modern football. When you think of attacking full-backs, you think of Barcelona.
More so, you think of how devastating they were – and are – to the opposition. Looking from the 2000s onwards, ex-Barça players such as Gianluca Zambrotta and Giovanni van Bronckhost fulfilled these roles admirably.
But, when Pep Guardiola took over in 2008 and signed Dani Alves, new and unfathomable heights were reached.
Guardiola’s mastery of full-backs is well-documented. His Barcelona sides of 2008-2012 were synonymous with right-back Dani Alves and left-back Eric Abidal playing high and wide, albeit the latter took on a more conservative role.
In buildup, both would touch the sidelines. As the team transitioned into midfield and attack, both Alves and Abidal continued to keep width and operated like wingers, dribbling down the flanks and looking to send crosses into the box.
Guardiola employed this approach for various reasons. Incidentally, his utilization of full-backs has since changed – with Xavi following suit – but more on this later. First, it allows for overloads in the final third; opposing defenders would have to cope with not only three forwards, but two additional full-backs.
That’s not counting marauding interiors, either. Second, the use of full-backs in wide positions stretches the opposition backline, granting space for forwards and interiors to thrive inside.
While players like David Villa, Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o and Pedro, can do damage on the flanks, their world-class finishing would be wasted. As such, they “lined up” as wingers, but had the full-backs fulfilling those roles instead.
Dani Alves, arguably the greatest full-back of all time, was simply put, a nightmare to defend against. He was – and remains – an embodiment of Joga Bonito, a masterful dribbler of the ball and magician of the game. Under Guardiola from 2008 to 2012, Alves tallied a staggering 83 goal contributions in four seasons.
Abidal, on the other hand, was a versatile centre-back and full-back hybrid who could admirably get past defenders and send crosses into the box. Still, due to his defensive acumen, Guardiola granted him an additional role.
When building up from the back, the Catalans would often face two pressing forwards – one for each centre-back. While Sergio Busquets would sometimes slot in to provide numerical superiority (now a 3 v 2 situation), Abidal often performed the same duty, slotting into a “left centre-back” position and creating a back-three.
Here, Busquets could influence the game higher up the pitch. As such, the left-sided interior (typically Andres Iniesta), or left-forward (David Villa), kept width up front, while Alves did so on the right.
A continued tradition
Even after Guardiola departed the Camp Nou in 2012, the love story between Barcelona and their full-backs only grew stronger. In addition to Alves still being only 29, this was undoubtedly influenced by the 2012 summer arrival of a certain diminutive left-back from Valencia: Jordi Alba.
For context, at this time, Abidal was in and out of the lineup battling a tumour diagnosis.
With Alba, Barca could now deploy two fully-committed attacking full-backs. This meant an even larger offensive threat but diminished defensive stability too.
To combat this, the Catalans had to make sure to win the ball back within seconds of losing it, or ensure interiors would cover the vacated spaces. Furthermore, Busquets would slot in between the two centre-backs.
Under Tito Villanova and then Gerard “Tata” Martino, from 2012 to 2014, Dani Alves and Jordi Alba continued to thrive in their “traditional” full-back roles. Much remained the same when Luis Enrique took over in 2014.
The iconic front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar Jr. were sandwiched by two of the world’s best full-backs. Enrique’s more direct style of play asked less of Alves and Alba, but they were still crucial as ever.
When Alves left Barcelona in 2016, Enrique often toyed with a Johan Cruyff-inspired 3-4-3, thereby relying less on Alba’s services. To be fair, the Spaniard still made 39 appearances in the 2016-17 campaign.
When in a classic 4-3-3, not much changed in regards to Alba’s responsibilities. The new starting right-back Sergi Roberto fulfilled the same task of bombing up and down the flanks – albeit to lesser success than his predecessor.
Barcelona’s reliance on Alba underwent a massive increase when Neymar departed in the summer of 2017. Without the standout Brazilian, the team’s left-wing spot was virtually nonexistent.
With manager Ernesto Valverde opting for a 4-4-2 with either Andres Iniesta or Philippe Coutinho on the left. As such, Alba was elevated to a primary contributor, a constant trusted target for Messi to play one-twos and through balls to.
Culés will never forget the countless cutbacks that Alba would perfectly time for the Argentinian.
Alba went from 17 combined goal contributions in 2015/16 and 16/17 to 34 the next two campaigns. Goals and assists aren’t everything, but here, they demonstrate how much he increased his offensive output, and how much he stepped up to the task.
The left-back’s importance would remain until this very day, where he is still one of the first names on the team sheet – and deservedly so.
Additionally, Alves’ successors never warranted sufficient respect from the opposition when marauding down the flanks. Right-backs Sergi Roberto and Nelson Semedo lacked the necessary offensive firepower, placing more responsibility on Alba’s shoulders.
Fortunately, since arriving in late 2020, Sergiño Dest has shown promise and is a threat at right-back. Alves’ triumphant return in January 2022 should also not be understated.
In all, with more magnetic players on the right-hand side, Barcelona can capitalize on qualitative superiority found through quick switches of play across the pitch. This means what looks like an attempt to play down the left is merely a smokescreen to get one-on-one situations on the right.
The rise of inverted full-backs
Now in 2022, Xavi’s Barcelona is a sight to behold. The team works in unison like never before; they dissect opponents with pace and accuracy, and they put four goals past opponents like clockwork. This is, in no small part, due to Xavi’s utilization of the full-back position.
Xavi, following in the mould of his ex-manager and teacher Pep Guardiola, prefers a different profile: the inverted full-back.
Rather than fulfilling traditional duties as a quasi-winger – keeping the width and sending crosses into the box from the flanks – inverted full-backs drift into central positions, providing additional support in central midfield.
This is perfect for teams with versatile full-backs and wingers who do more damage out-wide than near the box.
Guardiola popularized (and perfected) this new position during his stint with Bayern Munich from 2013 to 2016. He took advantage of David Alaba and Philipp Lahm’s versatility as they had all the necessary attributes to play in midfield.
In this case, wingers such as Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery kept width by hugging the touchline.
Both inverted full-backs shift to either side of the pivot (in a 4-3-3) in attacking phases. Offensively, this provides numerical superiority in central positions, a winger isolated out-wide, and enough cover for interiors to drift into the box.
Furthermore, this puts more creativity in the middle of the park and offers outlets for underlapping runs.
Defensively, this results in a more compact midfield that could quickly win back lost balls and support the single pivot. Perhaps most importantly is that it works as a buffer against counterattacks down the middle of the park.
To this day, Guardiola uses Joao Cancelo, Oleksandr Zinchenko, and Kyle Walker in such roles. In fact, Jurgen Klopp does the same with Trent Alexander-Arnold. Although, it is a fluid position that still requires full-backs to keep width at times.
In Barcelona, Xavi employs the same principles with Jordi Alba, Sergiño Dest, Dani Alves, and Ronald Araujo. In particular regard to Alves and Alba, it is intriguing to see some of football’s most iconic “classic” full-backs embrace new duties.
This approach also makes sense when considering Barca’s wide options such as Ousmane Dembele, Adama Traore, and to a lesser-extent Ferran Torres, as all three excel at establishing natural width.
Both full-backs keep the width in the build-up phase but navigate to either side of Sergio Busquets as the team transitions into the opposition half. Again, this helps Busquets defensively, as well as providing numerical superiority in the midfield.
The interiors Pedri and Frenkie de Jong are also granted more license to roam into the box, covered by the full-backs. With both interiors pushed up, Barcelona present a five-man front-line against a (typically) four-man backline.
As culés know, there is nothing deadlier than Dembele or Traore in one-on-one situations. To Xavi’s credit, inverted full-backs help achieve this. To cover the full-backs in central positions, opposition players must stay centrally as well. As a result, wingers are often left isolated one-on-one out wide.
Xavi has created an extremely fluid system, and the full-backs play a significant role in this. While they often invert, there is a constant push and pull between them and the wingers, dragging defenders out of position.
This accommodates Alba in particular, who still remains a lively threat down the flanks. Dest has shown immense skill taking defenders on, and now he can use his close control in the halfspaces as well.
For Dani Alves, this new role alleviates the 38-year old’s need to expend significant energy for 90 minutes as he no longer has to run the full length of the pitch. Also, his experience as a number ’10’ in recent years is being fully capitalized on.
Classic and inverted full-backs present different opportunities for Xavi, and his versatile use of the position must be commended. The fresh-faced manager is taking full advantage of his players’ traits, and the results back that up.
The full-back position has seen plenty of changes over the years, and there are countless pioneers to appreciate, from the Brazilian World Cup-winning teams of the 1950s to Barcelona of the 2010s.
One can only wonder how much enjoyment players like Nilton Santos or Carlos Alberto would have, playing in 2022 where the attacking full-back has never been more important.
Looking at Barca, whether classic or inverted, full-backs are still key to setting the Blaugrana’s attacking phases of play into action and creating chances. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Without a doubt, the position will continue to display some of football’s most dynamic talents. Here’s hoping the future has Barcelona written all over it.