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.
But the 2018/19 season has seen a dip in form from both – in the case of Neuer, an injury-curtailed campaign as well – and the duo have been caught up by the rest of a talented group of shot-stoppers.
The emergence of an excellent goalkeeping class has led to some stunning displays on the top stage from the likes of Jan Oblak and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, and several others have made their case this season.
Were any able to overtake the established duo of De Gea and Neuer? Take a look in our tiered rankings for the best keeper.
Jan Oblak, Atletico Madrid
A remarkable stat emerged after Atletico Madrid’s derby draw with Real Madrid in September: at that point, Oblak had kept more clean sheets, 72, than he’d conceded goals, 71, since the start of the 2014/15 season, when he joined the Rojiblanco.
That sort of form was unsustainable – for the record, the numbers are now 91 clean sheets and 96 goals conceded, so in theory, if he kept a clean sheet in all five of Atletico’s remaining games this season, he’d end the campaign with those numbers level – but it just shows the level he’s reached in recent years.
The Slovenian has tied himself down to another four years at the club and that could well be Diego Simeone’s best signing in 2019.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Barcelona
There’s no doubting who Barcelona‘s best player is. And at the moment, there are probably few questions over the identity of their second-best. What it means for the club that it happens to be their goalkeeper is something Barca’s hierarchy should consider, but in the meantime, they can marvel at how good Ter Stegen’s become.
Several times over the last two seasons, he’s single-handedly kept them in, or even won them, games where they were below-par. The list of goalkeepers with that ability is short.
His reading of the game, distribution, and shot-stopping ability make him the perfect Barca keeper. It’s only a matter of time before he usurps Neuer for Germany – an achievement in itself.
David de Gea, Manchester United
That even in a bad year, De Gea’s standing among his peers only goes from top-one to top-four shows just how good he’s been over the last two or three seasons.
Yet there’s no question that his form has dipped. It started at last year’s World Cup, with a howler in Spain’s first game against Portugal, and since then he’s not looked the same as the unbeatable, superhuman man between the posts that he’d been before.
Manchester United‘s poor defence hasn’t helped, but De Gea is making errors that no one would expect. Yet, he can still put up performances like the one he produced in United’s 1-0 win over Tottenham, when he made 11 saves in the second half.
Alisson’s reign as the most expensive goalkeeper in football history lasted less than a month. No matter, however, as he’s since made Chelsea’s decision to pay more for Kepa Arrizabalaga than Liverpool paid for him look like quite the blunder.
Having Virgil van Dijk in front of him is no doubt a huge asset, and the former Roma man has had his share of nervy moments in his first season in the Premier League.
Yet at times this season his form made him look like the best goalkeeper in the world, not merely a top-five candidate. And he’s looking good to win the Golden Glove in his debut season.
Ederson, Man City
Ederson had already proved last season that he was the perfect Pep Guardiola goalkeeper, as he was part of a league-leading rearguard in the first Premier League team to amass 100 points in a season.
There are still moments when his ability purely as a shot-stopper come under scrutiny. He’s been guilty of letting in some soft goals that those above him in this list would almost always keep out.
Of course, when you have a goalkeeper who can not only cut out attacks playing as an auxiliary fifth defender, but ping passes all across the pitch and even directly assist a goal, some errors can be tolerated.
Thibaut Courtois, Real Madrid
Thibaut Courtois won the Golden Glove award at last year’s World Cup, and soon after, secured a dream move to Real Madrid. It was the perfect summer.
The season since hasn’t quite lived up to that form, as his debut campaign for Los Blancos has been a mixed bag. At times the Belgian produces saves that reminds everyone of his class, but he’s also been partly responsible for a few shambolic results, such as the 5-1 loss to Barcelona.
It looks like he will enter next season as Madrid’s first-choice keeper, which will give him a chance to restore his reputation.
Samir Handanovic, Inter
Samir Handanovic continues to quietly go about his business at Inter, flying under the radar compared to the more feted goalkeepers in Europe but still anchoring one of Italy’s best defences.
He’s likely to end the season with the most clean sheets in the league, and potentially his third Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year award – only Gianluigi Buffon, with a whopping 12, would have more.
The Slovenian is some distance short of the form of a few seasons ago, when he would have been higher up in this list, but the newly-installed Inter captain remains one of the best at his position.
Keylor Navas, Real Madrid
It’s been a frustrating season for Keylor Navas, one that perhaps symbolises his entire Real Madrid career since joining the club in 2014.
Infamously, Navas was left in tears at the airport in 2015 as Madrid looked to have sealed a move for De Gea, only for that to fall through. The Costa Rican then persevered as the team’s No1 as Los Blancos made history, winning three straight Champions League titles with Navas between the goalposts.
Last summer the arrival of Courtois and a subsequent demotion, for Navas, who’s made only 15 appearances this season. He’s managed just four clean sheets – though that’s a similar rate to Courtois, who has 10 in 30 appearances. Perhaps there’s not much difference between the two.
The ‘Old Lady’ came from behind to beat visitors Fiorentina 2-1, which gave Allegri’s side an unassailable lead over second place Napoli at the top of the standings.
It was an eighth consecutive scudetto (little shield) for Juventus, which is an Italian Serie A record.
Juve are also in the last four of the Coppa Italia, but the club’s Champions League dreams were dashed for another season when they were knocked out of the competition by Ajax last Tuesday.
“We put aside Tuesday’s elimination, an elimination which brought us disappointment and bitterness. Luckily we had this match three days after, a match so important it sealed the title for us,” said Allegri.