Through six decades, fullback role has undergone evolution
Is a fullback primarily an attacker or a defender? It's not an easy question, and there's no right or wrong answer. The word "back" might point strongly to the latter option, but soccer is a dynamic sport, and one of the reasons for its global popularity is that it's open to so many different interpretations.
Many years ago, however, there was a definitive answer: A fullback was a defender. Most sides played the "WM" formation, so called because in numbers it could be expressed as 3-2-2-3, where the distribution of the players on the field resembled the two letters, one on top of the other.
The defensive line of three was the top of the W, two fullbacks on either side of the center back. The right back marked the opposing left winger, the left back took the right winger and the center half played against the center forward.
But the extraordinary talent of Brazilian strikers forced a defensive rethink. Take Ademir da Guia, top scorer of the 1950 World Cup. He was lightning-fast, turned quickly, could shoot off either foot with deadly power and was good in the air. How on earth could a team defend against someone like that?
The answer lay in dropping another player into the middle of the defense to provide extra cover, so one center back would be marking while the other one was spare to snuff out danger if the line was pierced, and so the back four was born.
As a consequence, the fullbacks now found themselves pushed wider, and began to see they had plenty of space in front of them to make forward bursts and link up with the attack. For Brazil, the legendary Nílton Santos did plenty of this from left back, and Djalma Santos also pushed forward down the right.
The England boss was watching. Alf Ramsey had been a cultured fullback in his playing days and, in the mid-1960s, he was quick to seize on to the implications of the modern back four. England won the 1966 World Cup with the new 4-4-2 formation, which has gone on to be perhaps the most successful system in the history of the game. Ramsey saw that if his fullbacks could play a prominent attacking role down the flanks, there was no need for specialist wingers. He had midfielders in Alan Ball and Martin Peters who would occasionally drift wide, but who also gave him all-around service, dropping inside to mark or ghosting into the box to shoot.
By 1970, Ramsey had refined the system still further. In Keith Newton down the right and Terry Cooper on the left, he had fullbacks who were expected to be wingers as well, bursting past the opposing defensive line to cross. In that year's World Cup quarterfinal against West Germany, Newton set up two goals -- but he never played for England again. Ramsey made a mess of his substitutions, his reserve goalkeeper fell apart under pressure, the Germans came back from two down to win 3-2 and the project was shelved. English fullbacks became primarily defenders once more.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, they were taking on ever more attacking responsibilities. When the Brazil squad is announced, the players aren't divided into defenders, midfielders and strikers. Instead, the categories are center backs, fullbacks, midfielders and strikers. The fullbacks are in a category of their own because their function is unique; the midfielders play narrow, leaving a huge corridor on the flank which they are supposed to charge up and down.
Manchester United looked enviously on this great tradition. Three years ago, the club plucked a pair of fullback twins straight from Brazil's Under-17 side: Fábio on the left and Rafael on the right. Taking them across the Atlantic before they had ever played a senior game for Fluminense followed a simple logic -- left in Brazil, it wasn't likely they'd have much chance to refine the defensive side of their game. United hopes to groom them into becoming all-around fullbacks.
Rafael came on for the last few minutes of United's Premier League debut against Newcastle last Sunday. The striking thing here is that his opportunity is coming before twin brother Fábio, who was, by some distance, the more impressive of the pair when they played for Brazil. Has Fábio found it harder to bridge the gap between what's expected of a fullback in Brazil and England?
This season there will be more evidence of such differences at Chelsea. In the days of José Mourinho, Chelsea's fullbacks had only limited license to push forward. Mourinho believes that games are won and lost in transitions -- those moments when possession changes hands. A rapidly executed attack is the best way to the opposition's goal, a swiftly organized defense the best means of protecting your own. So the back four kept closer together and Ashley Cole, such an enterprising left back with Arsenal, had few chances to play his natural game.
Under the Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari the early evidence points to a change of emphasis. Against Portsmouth last Sunday, Cole and new acquisition José Bosingwa on the right provided plenty of width in the attacking third of the field.
Chelsea's Brazilian-style fullbacks will create attacking possibilities, but they'll also leave space behind them which opponents will be able to exploit. Like all players in the physical intensity of the modern game, fullbacks are both defenders and attackers -- with the difference that they have more space to cover in order to carry out their dual function.