Of the many ways football has changed in the modern era, the role of the full-back is the most intriguing.
Where it used to be okay to be a solid defender who could join the attack, modern full-backs must be ball-playing defenders who can play out from the back, double up as midfielders when required, and serve as among their teams’ chief creative forces.
So when a full-back gets double-digit assists for his team and still shuts down the opposition’s best attacking players, the team knows it has a special player on its hands.
Robertson has scaled the heights to reach the same level as Barcelona’s Jordi Alba, long regarded as one of the best full-backs in football – and the two face off next month in the Champions League semi-final.
For now, they’re both in our very top tier of full-back rankings – have a look at the whole list.
Andrew Robertson, Liverpool
Two years ago, who would have predicted that a player from Hull City would be one of Europe’s best full-backs? Perhaps not even Liverpool could have expected exactly what they were getting for the absurdly low fee of £7 million that they paid for Robertson after the Tigers were relegated.
To call that a bargain would be an understatement. Robertson is leading Premier League defenders in assists this season, and has held his own against some of the best players in Europe. Even Neymar and Kylian Mbappe had a go at besting him. Robertson refused to be beaten.
Jordi Alba, Barcelona
If Luis Suarez was ever feeling insecure about his strike partnership with Lionel Messi, it’d be Alba’s fault. The Barcelona left-back has emerged as Messi’s favourite provider over the last two seasons, as the two players link up with an almost telepathic understanding.
You’d think defenders would be wise to it now, yet there goes Alba, bombing past the back-line, latching onto a perfect lofted pass and then sending it back into the box. Barcelona needed to replace Neymar, but who thought it’d be a left-back who’d do the job?
Alba’s propensity to attack can leave him caught out too far up the pitch, but he’s a pretty good 1v1 defender, too. The perfect modern full-back.
Joshua Kimmich, Bayern Munich
Joshua Kimmich is fearless on the pitch, bombing forward from right-back and equally adept at getting back to defend. He’s also fearless off it – when Germany and Bayern Munich both went through crises in form this season, he was often the most vocal player.
Kimmich has the modern full-back’s versatility, as well. He can play in midfield – indeed, he does, for his national team – as his ability on the ball have helped him adapt to an unfamiliar role with aplomb.
The scariest thought? Kimmich is this good – and this current season might actually be a dip compared to previous campaigns. And he’s bound to improve regardless. What will Kimmich look like at 28?
Joao Cancelo, Juventus
How much Inter Milan must be ruing their inability to sign Joao Cancelo on a permanent transfer last summer. The Portugal star’s impressive form in his first-ever season at Serie A had helped the Nerazzurri back into the Champions League, and that form caught the eye of the one team in Italy that is impossible to turn down.
So Cancelo completed his spell at Inter on loan from Valencia, then joined Juventus. And it just so happened that Portugal team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo joined the club the same summer. That Cancelo to Ronaldo connection is nascent, but it could end up giving the other full-back-striker partnerships a run for their money.
And the 24-year-old is only going to get better. It’s no wonder some of Europe’s other leading clubs are after him.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool
Liverpool found a gem in Andrew Robertson – and then paired him with another one that cost them even less. Trent Alexander-Arnold emerged from the Reds’ academy, showed a penchant for scoring some spectacular free-kicks, and drove forward as a key part of Liverpool’s attack last season, but his defending came under scrutiny at times.
So he went back and improved that, too. This season, he’s held his own against some of the Premier League’s best attackers, while arguably even joining their ranks. He’s created more goals than Mohamed Salah, Bernardo Silva, and Aaron Ramsey this season. In fact, only four players have more league assists than Alexander-Arnold.
Dani Carvajal, Real Madrid
Dani Carvajal has had a stop-start season thanks to injuries, and though no one player could have stopped Real Madrid from slumping the way they have, they certainly missed the Spaniard when he was out.
Carvajal isn’t quite the force he was a couple of seasons ago, when he had a legitimate claim to the title of best right-back in the world. But as he works his way back into form, what’s impressed this season is his burgeoning leadership ability. He’s delivered frank assessments of his own performances and Madrid’s, and when he speaks about his beloved club, he exudes authority.
It’s the sort of maturity that must be marking him out to become Sergio Ramos’ deputy and, possibly, eventual replacement as Madrid captain. It will have been an honour well-earned.
Kyle Walker, Manchester City
Kyle Walker has always been one of the quickest players in the game. What’s elevated him in the last two seasons is how he’s taken his passing and playmaking to another level, making him the perfect Pep Guardiola full-back.
Though his speed usually makes up for being caught out of position, Walker can still be a little shaky defensively, but it was a huge vote of confidence when Gareth Southgate trusted him to play at centre-back for England at the World Cup last summer.
The Manchester City right-back continues to add new dimensions to his game. That there’s still room for improvement only underlines what an exciting prospect he still is.
David Alaba, Bayern Munich
At one point David Alaba was in the conversation for best full-back in Europe – now he’s probably not even that at his own club! That’s largely down to the emergence of Kimmich, and together the duo make a lethal combination down the flanks.
Alaba’s reading of the game makes him an effective defender, while he’s a tough prospect for any attacker 1v1. Going forward, that ability to pick a pass makes him the perfect player in the position for Bayern Munich. And it’s worth remembering the Austrian is the usual free-kick taker for his national team. Alaba is a complete player.
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