In defining the fullback role, their main job is to take up a position wide in their defensive line aiming to prevent opposition players from putting the ball into the penalty area as well as tracking the runs of players from wide positions. As a secondary role, they are also required to support team attacks out wide; this can be in terms of overlapping the winger or actually providing the width for their team if they play a narrow formation. Whereas initially, fullbacks were generally solid and reliable, who were there to mainly provide defensive stability; more and more teams have fullbacks who actually provide an outlet to their teams attacks from wide positions.
It is easy to overemphasise how the fullback role has evolved over the last 10 years. Currently, a lot of teams still play with ‘solid’ fullbacks who can do a defensive job and in fact in a lot of cases, teams play central defenders as fullbacks to ensure that they have a strong defensive line and are able to maintain their shape. This tends to be the case for less technical teams who are not likely to retain a lot of possession and are far more likely to be defending during matches where there would be less need for fullbacks to be bombing forward and to support their team attacks – in fact this may be seen as a negative since it may leave the defensive line far more exposed when they lose the ball. A typical example of a team which has played this way successfully is Stoke City. The role of a modern fullback on the whole tends to apply to teams that play attacking football and/or for teams that are looking to play with a possession, looking to build attacks from the back.
The main reason for the fullback role evolving is difficult to pinpoint; however, the role changed roughly at the same time as when teams put more emphasis on possession football, especially outside the UK where teams started to ‘pack’ the midfield to try and control matches which can be won or lost. Fullbacks became essential in a lot of team moves because they were often the only players with a lot of space on the pitch due to the centre of the pitch being crowded. For teams to be able to profit from this, fullbacks need to be extremely fit so that they can provide an attacking threat out wide as well as dropping back when their team is defending. The flip side of this change in emphasis is that many teams have placed a lot less importance on natural wingers in the process. For teams who do not play with natural wingers, the fullback tends to perform the roles of both a fullback and a winger though other positions are able to compensate to an extent. AC Milan have been famous over the years for playing without wingers and having attacking fullbacks. Pace and stamina are without doubt the most important attributes for a fullback since they are likely to cover the most ground on the pitch if they are able to do their job well since they will have the most space.
Due to the attributes required to be a modern day fullback, it is no surprise that there are a shortage of players who play in that position compared to other roles. In fact, most modern day fullbacks used to be more attacking players who were then retrained to play the fullback role. Examples include: Ashley Cole, Patrice Evra, Daniel Alves and Zambrotta. The fullback role has developed to such an extent that in many important games, many teams set out specifically to try and stop the runs of the fullbacks and in rare cases some teams even set out to try and given their own fullbacks attacking freedom. For example, in Europe, Manchester United tend to play with more ‘defensive’ wingers in Antonio Valencia and Park specifically to track the runs of the opposition fullbacks. Other teams may play with contrasting wingers, one side specifically for many of the attacks and the other to mainly track the runs of the fullback.
Daniel Alves is an example of a fullback in which the team actually adjusts their shape to suit him. He is particularly strong at making runs from deep, has fantastic speed and stamina and provides width on the right hence a lot of the time Barcelona play a fairly narrow front three (especially on the right side) in order to accommodate him. He is a rare case since Barcelona profit from having so much possession during their games; this combined with his attributes enables him to primarily support his team’s moves. It remains unlikely that other teams may adopt this approach in the near future, but with an increasing importance in fullbacks today, one can see the role developing further and perhaps it will be more common that teams will set tactics to try and stop the forward runs of fullbacks more in order to limit their role in games than is the case at the moment.