Cafu and Philipp Lahm are the best full-backs of all time in tiered rankings

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  • The physical demands of playing in a full-back role is like no other on a football pitch.

    Those operating in that position need to be a sort of hybrid footballer, proficient in both attack and defence. They are required to defend their lines one minute and play as auxiliary wingers, threatening on the overlap and charging into the final third next.

    From tier one to four, we examine eight of the best – retired players only – that have ever graced game.

    TIER 1


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    Pep Guardiola once declared Philipp Lahm “the most intelligent player” he’d ever trained. Coming from someone who at the time had coached the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andes Iniesta, that was high praise.

    The then Bayern Munich boss had transformed the full-back into a central midfielder orchestrating a possession-based system, a decision that revealed the extent of Lahm’s talent and tactical understanding.

    However, it’s at full-back where he’ll be remembered and rightly so after revolutionising the role. His versatility allowed him to feature on either flank and was not only born out of his two-footedness but also his superior positional awareness.

    With endless energy reserves, Lahm patrolled the length of the field like any good full-back but his ability to blend into midfield created a new dynamic and allowed him to have more influence on proceedings.

    Lahm was a quality crosser of the ball and the cleanest of tacklers, ending his career without a single red card. A World Cup-winning captain with Germany, he won 21 trophies at Bayern but his greatness lay in his character and resolve. Slight of frame, Lahm showed big character, commanded respect and led by example. He was an understated genius.


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    During the nineties, Cafu was the right-back who laid down the blueprint for all aspiring in that position to aspire to. Modern day full-backs have vastly demanding roles and often need to be the fittest players on the pitch. Cafu was one of the first in that mould.

    He was listed as a defender but with relentless forays down the right flank, his attacking influence was immense. He was dynamic in style, defensively astute and attacking by instinct. Crucially, his energy was unparalleled and his crosses unerring.

    An athletic specimen he most certainly was but he also boasted the tactical sophistication to be counted among the elite. His positional sense and intelligence meant he would effortlessly feature at centre-back or even as a right winger on occasion.

    Part of his legendary status though is owed to his leadership. He captained Brazil to the 2002 World Cup trophy. After a trophy-laden start to his club career in Brazil, he won Serie A twice, with Roma and then AC Milan, while also securing a Champions League crown with the Rossoneri.

    The Brazilian’s professional career spanned over 18 years. He retired at the age of 38 and is the only player to have featured in three World Cup final matches.

    TIER 2


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    In his prime, Lillian Thuram was the Virgil van Dijk of full-backs – an absolute colossus at the back, indomitable in the air, technically sound, brilliant in one-on-ones and a supremely powerful yet tidy defender.

    The Frenchman’s intimidating physique was nearly impossible to surpass but he was also deceptively mobile, keeping up with the most fleet-footed forwards while embarking on his own attacking forays, charging down the flanks like a freight train.

    His ability with both feet as well as his excellent reading of the game meant he could feature on either side of defence or even in the centre while he was renowned for making heroic last-ditch tackles. It’s no wonder for the likes of Juventus and Barcelona during his career while winning the World Cup with France in 1998, a tournament that incidentally produced his defining moment.

    A rare mistake from Thuram in the semi-finals against Croatia played Davor Suker onside who gave the dark horses the lead. The full-back reacted magnificently, bombing down the right flank before finding himself in the box to score the equaliser in the very next minute.

    Another inspiring run from Thuram culminated with a superb left-footed shot into the bottom corner before some outstanding defending helped France hold on to a 2-1 win and make it to the final where they would beat Brazil.


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    Some forwards were born to dribble past defenders and score goals. Paolo Maldini was born to stop them.

    Ever since he first threaded onto a football pitch, he displayed an innate ability to defend his goal and when he began his professional career he showed maturity beyond his years.

    It was like his mind was pre-programmed, capable of calculating risks, reading danger and assessing the best courses of action before executing them perfectly.

    While dominating defenders were seen as physically intimidating figures who would yield no inch and take no prisoners Maldini was a different, more evolved, breed.

    There was so much elegance about his game. Playing at left-back for most of his career, you could hardly notice that Maldini was naturally right-footed. He was technically superior to other defenders, showed outstanding athleticism and made sliding tackles an art form – clean as a whistle.

    A one-club man throughout, he made an incredible 902 appearances for Milan, winning seven Serie A titles and five European crowns. In the twilight of his career he shifted to centre-back and remained an infallible leader of the rearguard.

    Ronaldo said in 2014 that the Italian was the “best defender” he’d ever faced. When Maldini brought the curtain down on his career at the age of 41, Milan retired his No3 jersey.

    TIER 3


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    You hear the name Carlos Alberto and that goal at the 1970 World Cup immediately springs to mind. A sweeping move from back to front with nearly every member of the team involved captured the very essence of that Brazilian side, still regarded as one of the finest the sport has ever seen.

    It’s fitting that Alberto – Il Capitao – had applied the emphatic finishing touch in that 4-1 victory over Italy. Bombing down the right, he burst into the box and without breaking stride, thumped Pele’s layoff into the back of the net.

    The goal also epitomised him as a right-back; athletic, technically gifted and forward-thinking. It’s no wonder the strike is even familiar to avid football fans today, half a century later.

    During a 19-year career, Alberto achieved success with Fluminense, Santos and then the New York Cosmos. But he’ll always be remembered as the leader of that scintillating Brazilian team in 1970 and one of the greatest full-backs of all time.


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    Giacinto Facchetti oozed class. The towering defender was naturally an imposing figure but he retained excellent composure on the ball and would glide forward from his left-back position frequently.

    A one-club man, he made 629 appearances for Inter Milan and during the sixties and seventies, he was a mainstay on the left side of defence for them as well as Italy.

    The attacking full-back had an eye for goal, netting 75 times during his club career but his ventures forward rarely compromised his team defensively.

    Facchetti won the 1968 Euros with Italy and finished as a runner-up to Brazil in the 1970 World Cup.

    He won four Scudettos, two European and two intercontinental titles with Inter as he went down as one of their greatest. The Nerazzurri retired his No3 shirt after his passing in 2006.

    AC Milan had Maldini, Inter had Facchetti.

    TIER 4


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    There are players who can strike a football hard and then there is Roberto Carlos who had net manufacturers sweating every time he lined up one of his trademark free-kicks.

    The power he would generate is the stuff of legends and his effort against France in 1997 has gone down as one of the best free-kicks of all-time. But that was only one of several spectacular strikes throughout a career that lasted more than two decades.

    In 945 appearances for club and country, Carlos scored 113 goals. Not too shabby for a left-back. The Brazilian also achieved huge success, winning 19 domestic trophies including four La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues with Real Madrid. With the national team, he won the 2002 World Cup as well as two Copa America crowns.

    His incredible stamina, flair and eye for goal make him one of the most attacking full-backs of all-time. However, he was no slouch in defence either. He took a lot of risks and vacated his position at will but always had the pace to recover and was a superb tackler in his time.


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    If you listed all the qualities that would make the perfect modern day full-back, you’d be describing Ashley Cole. In his prime, his greatest strength was that he had no weakness.

    He was attacking by nature but he knew his priority was to defend and fortunately, he was incredibly talented at that aspect of the game too.

    As part of Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ he forged a superb partnership with Robert Pires down the left flank and also linked up well with Thierry Henry who favoured that side.

    He was at his best as soon as the Gunners would win possession, instantaneously charging forward in support of the attack. During his time at Chelsea in particular, his man-marking and positional sense came to the fore under Jose Mourinho though he retained his attacking side.

    Cole won 16 trophies with Arsenal and Chelsea but despite never tasting success with the national team, he is regarded as the finest left-back to have played for England.