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.