Counter-intuitive Nature of Overlapping Fullbacks

I've been watching a whole lot of World Cup soccer. Usually when I watch a sport at its highest levels for long enough I start to begin to see it through the eyes of a coach. One of the strategies of contemporary soccer that still puzzles me, however, is that of the overlapping fullback. The general idea is to have a fullback (such as  Danny Alvez, Maicon, Ashley Cole, Sergio Ramos, or Roberto Carlos - the classic overlapping fullback) that comes up the side often enough to be essentially be considered a wing player while on offense.

They make runs down the sidelines as attacking midfield players bring the ball up slowly, drawing the opposing backs to pickup their runs. Usually, this leaves them open to recieve the ball from the midfield, take the ball to the corner, and cross or opens up the space in front of the attacking midfield for a pass down the middle or provides an opportunity to wind up for a shot.

Usually, overlapping fullbacks have to be in incredible shape. One thing, fans of other sports simply do not realize is the incredible amount of distance soccer players cover and the overlapping fullback is probably the most extreme case since they have to essentially run the full length of the field to the opposing corner and then sprint back to the last quarter of their half that they are responsible for. I used to be left back when I wasn't a goalie, so I can appreciate how vulnerable a defense with a winded fullback can be and this is one of the things about this strategy that puzzles me.

Also, such fullbacks need to have good ball control and passing ability in order to effectively play the roll of a wide player. Sergio Ramos, an excellent fullback in his own right, is also an excellent crosser of the ball. So, such fullbacks are usually fairly valuable to their teams.

Regardless of whether or not a back is in excellent shape, eventually if he has to make such runs (as often as the best of them do) he will inevitably become winded and it will effect his ability to close down crosses from wingers who have less work to do over the length of the game. This vulnerability is significant for opposing offenses that either rely on play from the wing or are just lucky enough to have wide player with pace and the ability to provide excellent service from the wide areas.

So that said, it would seem good strategy for offenses to counteract repeatedly overlapping, attacking fullbacks by emphasizing the wide play of an equally aggressive, speedy winger such as Jesus Navas of Sevia (in the Spanish Primera League) on the other end to keep them honest. Yet, I rarely notice this explicit strategy.

It would be the equivalent of what is often done in basketball.  Consider the NBA finals. Paul Pierce is a significant contribution to the firepower of the Boston Celtics. A typical basketball strategy to neutralize an offensive threat is to force them to play defense through as much of the game as possible by - for instance - having the player they cover be more aggressive than usual. So, in the case of the NBA finals this year, Ron Artest (better known for his defensive
prowess than his offensive capabilities) took a significantly large number of shots and drove to the basketball quite often.  As a result, in the latter part of the series, Paul Pierce was much less effective as he usually is.

Maybe the open-ended nature of soccer makes it difficult to be able to sustain such a strategy, but it just seems to be to be something I would do if I was a soccer coach who was up against a perpetually aggressive, overlapping fullback and had a speedy wide player at my disposal to use to neutralize him.
3 responses
Roberto Carlos and Cafu pretty much modernized the role of the overlapping fullback, and revolutionized that position. The mechanism is pretty well tested. When one side's fullback bombs forward, the rest of the defense rotates to cover. In teams with a mobile and skillful libero-style holding midfielder, such as Spain's Xavi, that player often rotates wide to cover. In teams with more mobile central defenders, you'll often have one do the job.

Even then, you're quite right there is an exploitable gap on a counter. That's why an attacking fullback *must* be good at crossing. They must cross such that either it finds their forwards, or the defense is forced to clear. If the defense can get a hold of the cross and rapidly pass into midfield, the counter is on. If the cross does its work, it doesn't matter that the countering team has a mobile winger deployed, because he won't see the ball until the fullback has time to recover.

I won't spoil this morning's game, but there were several very interesting examples of that chess game on display ;)

Of course, one very interesting point is that Argentina is probably the only team remaining who do not have a single attacking fullback. Their philosophy is definitely old-school: straight through the middle. I guess that's a luxury you have when someone like Messi allows you to instantly change angle of attack int he final third. Will be interesting to see how that works against Germany's very attacking style.

Well, it didn't worked for Argentina against Germany, although Argentina has tecnically much better players than Germany, that strategy wasn't appropiate. Argentina could played with an attacking fullback (Clemente Rodriguez) but that required a different game strategy which includes Veron. We still don't know why Maradona didn't changed tactics for the germans.

Anyway the last serious change in tactics in soccer belongs to Carlos Bilardo and Franz Beckenbauer in the period 1984-1986. People who can really invent something strategically new in soccer is very few, Van Gaal is one of them, Zagallo was another one. It takes years of hard study to develop a new way to play a game.

Jason, I agree about ARG. It is definitely baffling why Maradonna didn't change the tactics before or during the game. And I guess even worse than having a gap from a fullback going forward is having fixed fullbacks who are too slow to cope with the opposition's wingers.

As for your second point, I don't know. It of course depends on how high a standard you set on what you call a serious change. Clearly you set a very high standard, but I'm just as sympathetic to a lower one. To me the likes of Roberto Carlos and Cafu really did change the game, and I believe that Bielsa at Chile, by mixing a classic formation in modern tactics also did something very new, though it didn't work out so well for him (insufficient talent, I'd say). But it does make for a good debate :)