KEOWN TALKS TACTICS: The incredible rise of the full back

KEOWN TALKS TACTICS: The evolution of the full back has been incredible… from Cancelo to James, Alexander-Arnold to Chilwell and more, the number of top performers in the Premier League is astonishing

  • The evolution of the full back role over the last 30 years has been remarkable 
  • The sheer number of top players in the position in the Premier League is scary
  • Chelsea have Reece James, Ben Chilwell and Marcos Alonso; Manchester City have Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker
  • Liverpool have Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson – the list is endless
  • It goes well beyond the elite teams, with West Ham, Brighton, Southampton and Aston Villa all boasting top attacking full backs 

It is hard to think of a position where the roles and responsibilities have changed more over the last 30 years than full back.

They have always been important and my ex-Arsenal team-mate Ashley Cole is one of the best attacking full backs seen in the Premier League. But now we have an array of top players in this position and it is astonishing to see.

Today’s full backs and wing-backs are some of the most talented footballers at a club.  

Chelsea full backs Ben Chilwell (left) and Reece James (right) have had outstanding seasons

They are so technically gifted that they could easily play in midfield — and Chelsea’s Reece James did that with an accomplished display against Zenit St Petersburg in the Champions League. 

But a midfielder would struggle to fill the boots of a full back or wing-back in the way they overlap, underlap, cross balls and cover vast distances. 

As well as this desire to attack, they must know how to fulfil their defensive duties by being able to read danger and use their one-v-ones. It is a skillset of the highest order and it is no coincidence that the Premier League’s top four teams have the best full backs and wing-backs. 

Manchester City have Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo, Liverpool have Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, Chelsea have James, Ben Chilwell and Marcos Alonso, West Ham have Ben Johnson and Aaron Cresswell.

A weekend scarcely goes by without one of these players scoring an outstanding goal or providing a superb assist.


It would be incredibly difficult to name this season’s best full back or wing-back. There are so many candidates, not least Cancelo.

You could almost call him a ‘false full back’, with the way Pep Guardiola allows him to step into midfield and stay there so City can outnumber opponents in that area.

When Cancelo hits the ball with the outside of his right boot, it is like watching Roger Federer effortlessly execute a backhand.

His pass for Raheem Sterling against Everton is a contender for assist of the season. His onboard navigation system plotted the path the ball needed to take and he completed it with absolute certainty.

Manchester City’s Joao Cancelo is almost a ‘false’ full back given how he steps into midfield

Unusually, Cancelo is a right-footed left back — the same as Italy’s Leonardo Spinazzola, one of the standout performers at Euro 2020.

Left-footed right backs are even rarer, however, and you wonder how long it will be until City boss Guardiola finds a left footed-player to play at right back. That would mirror his opposite flank. It has big benefits.

When Cancelo is on the left, for example, he is comfortable at coming inside on to his favoured right foot. When he crosses the ball, it is inswinging and heading towards goal. That causes problems for defences.


Another candidate for the best full back or wing-back would be Alexander-Arnold.

He ranks first in the Premier League in terms of crosses and corners and passes played into the box, and second in chances created.

These players are so effective that their coaches want them in forward positions whenever possible. 

Chelsea facilitate their wing-backs by having a back three as protection. James on the right is in the form of his life, with five goals underlining his attacking threat under Thomas Tuchel.

Trent Alexander-Arnold has the most crosses, corners and passes into the box from full back

But if you are playing a back four, like Liverpool, you need fast and efficient centre backs who can cover for their colleagues, otherwise you leave yourself vulnerable to the counter-attack.

Jurgen Klopp also tells Fabinho to drop deep so that Alexander-Arnold and Robertson can fly forward. If the opposing winger is not prepared to track back, then the opposition are in trouble.

The emphasis on attacking full backs is not just limited to the top four. Others include Tariq Lamptey at Brighton, Tino Livramento at Southampton and Matty Cash at Aston Villa.

It feels as if the competition and importance of this position is only encouraging full backs to get even better.  

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