Fast and physical, the role of the modern full-back and why Jesus Navas is one of the best

Andy West 09:28 06/01/2020
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Sevilla full-back Jesus Navas

A milestone was marked as La Liga returned to action on Friday night, as Sevilla stalwart Jesus Navas made his 500th appearance for the club in a 1-1 home draw with Athletic Club de Bilbao.

Navas’s achievement is even more notable for the fact that he spent four years away from his boyhood club with Manchester City, but – even though he is now 34 years old – the consistently outstanding performances produced by Navas this season strongly suggest he has many more games yet to come.

The vast majority of those 500 appearances for Sevilla, during his first spell with the club, saw Navas establish himself as one of Europe’s elite wingers, with his speed on the ball and ability to deliver pinpoint low crosses earning 42 caps for Spain (including a substitute appearance in the triumphant 2010 World Cup Final) and eventually leading to a big-money move to City in the summer of 2013.

Since returning to his hometown in 2017, however, Navas has established himself as one of the game’s best right-backs – a process that was initiated (surprise, surprise) by Pep Guardiola during their time together at City, where Navas covered for an injury crisis by playing several games in the right-back slot during his last season in England.

And far more than merely being a ‘converted winger’ who is stringing out his playing days by regressing closer to his goal as his energy levels dwindle, Navas is arguably producing the best football of his career in his new role, and can even be seen as the epitome of a modern full-back: fast, direct, full of energy and more important for his attacking qualities than his defensive abilities.

The full-back position has changed perhaps more than any other over the last couple of decades, and Jesus Navas is one of the greatest examples of the new breed.

Creators and scorers

This was a good weekend for full-backs in La Liga, starting with Navas himself: the Sevilla skipper marked his landmark 500th game by playing a role in his team’s equalising goal, clipping a clever pass into the stride of Lucas Ocampos, whose cross from the byline was turned into his own net by Unai Nunez.

That was enough to earn Sevilla a point, cancelling out an opener from one of Navas’s competitors for the status of La Liga’s best right-back (and another former winger), Athletic’s Ander Capa, who surged onto a diagonal ball and broke into the box to fire a fine low shot into the far corner.

The full-backs continued to deliver on Saturday, which started with Valencia beating Eibar with a goal from Maxi Gomez, who headed home a perfect cross from right-back Daniel Wass. Then Atletico Madrid gained a 2-1 home victory over Levante after the first goal, netted by Angel Correa, was created by a wonderful cross from Kieran Trippier, before the winner was headed home by Felipe after a centre from the home team’s other full-back, Renan Lodi.

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And on Saturday night, it was no surprise when Jordi Alba played a key role in Barcelona’s turnaround against Espanyol: first he assisted the equaliser for Luis Suarez with a well-placed low cross to the near post, before also playing a role in the second goal by again finding Suarez, whose marvellous delivery was converted by Arturo Vidal’s thumping header.

This set of decisive contributions from full-backs is nothing new. Across the board, full-backs have now replaced wingers as the prime source of width, stretching the pitch and delivering crosses into the penalty area, while modern ‘wingers’ increasingly follow the ‘inverted’ fashion of cutting inside, often onto their stronger foot, to link up play or shoot.

Stats from this season’s La Liga campaign bear out the importance of full-backs: the players with the most successful crosses are not wingers, but full-backs Pervis Estupinan (Osasuna), Jonathan Silva (Leganes) and Cote (Eibar); the man with the most touches per game is not a midfield playmaker, but Alba.

Marcelo, Dani Carvajal and Ferland Mendy of Real Madrid, Sergio Reguilon of Sevilla, Yuri of Athletic Club, Victor Diaz of Granada, Jose Gaya of Valencia, Damian Suarez of Getafe, Emerson and Alex Moreno of Real Betis…the list of La Liga full-backs who play an absolutely fundamental part in their team’s attacking strategy just goes on and on.

Brazilian flair the early exception, not the rule

Although the position originally evolved as an entirely defensive measure (hence the name), full-backs making memorable attacking contributions is nothing new.

This year, for example, marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous goals in football history: the exhilarating strike by Brazil captain and right-back Carlos Alberto, who strode onto a pass from Pele and thrashed a fierce drive into the bottom corner in the latter stages of the 1970 World Cup Final against Italy.

Until recently, though, that kind of attacking play was the exception rather than the norm for full-backs, whose chief and in some cases sole concern was marking the opposing winger and holding his position in the back four – with the emphasis firmly on ‘back’.

One example is Kenny Sansom, who became one of England’s most-capped players as he held down the left-back role throughout the majority of the 1980s and reached the end of his international career with 86 appearances and just one goal.

Even at the turn of the century, attacking full-backs, such as Roberto Carlos, were relatively unusual. Perhaps the greatest left-back in history, for instance, was Paolo Maldini. The consummately classy Italian was a glorious all-round player and he certainly didn’t lack ability on the ball, but over the course of 1,028 appearances for Italy and AC Milan he scored just 40 goals – the equivalent of just two per season (and most of those came from set-pieces). Even more tellingly, Maldini was only credited with 25 assists during his 902-game club career; Alba, by way of comparison, already has 66 assists in 458 appearances for Barca.

The game, quite clearly, has changed significantly even in the relatively short space of time since Maldini retired in 2009.

Fast and physical: the modern full-back

Coaches will tell you there’s a fairly simple explanation for the drastic change to the demands of the full-back position: the vastly superior physical capacities of modern players. Full-backs, these days, are expected to bomb up and down the pitch, providing crosses at one end and rapidly chasing back to block them at the other, simply because they can.

“It’s the physicality of the position, and the athleticism needed for the distance run, high intensity runs, and sprints made, which has changed so much,” says Damien Comolli, one of the modern game’s most influential thinkers, who worked under Arsene Wenger as a scout at Monaco and Arsenal before becoming director of football at Tottenham, St Etienne, Liverpool and now Fenerbahce.

“Full-backs are being asked to attack a lot more, and provide the team’s width, but at the same time they are expected to rush back if the ball is given away and defend,” he told the Daily Telegraph in 2017. “You’re being asked to do two positions at once, whereas it used to be just one.”

Even teams with relatively defensive outlooks now routinely integrate their full-backs into their attacking strategies, with the best example coming from the crucial roles played by Juanfran and Filipe Luis in Atletico Madrid’s title-winning team in 2013/14.

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Anybody who has watched Liverpool during their stratospheric start to the current Premier League campaign will easily acknowledge the attacking importance of full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold (eight assists and two goals so far this season) and Andy Robertson (six assists and one goal), while – to return to the place started – perhaps no team in Europe makes more use of their full-backs than Sevilla, where Navas has attempted more passes than any other player in La Liga while Reguilon is not far behind (17th out of all players in La Liga).

And if Navas looks extremely comfortable as a full-back despite spending his first decade as a winger, perhaps that’s because he spent the first few years of his career gaining an up-close weekly masterclass from arguably the most influential exponent of modern full-back play: when Navas first earned a place on Sevilla’s wing, the man playing alongside him as the team’s right-back was none other than Dani Alves.

He learned from the best, and now Navas himself is one of the best.

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