Tactics: ‘Inside-out’ full-backs find room to roam

While analysing the tactical trends that emerged during the 2009-10 Premier League season, Football Further speculated that the increasing popularity of ‘inside-out’ wingers could lead to full-backs being re-deployed on the opposite side of the pitch in a bid to counter the threat of wide players cutting in from the flanks onto their stronger feet. There are no clear indications that any such counter-trend has taken hold just yet, but the experiences of Liverpool’s Glen Johnson and Sunderland’s Phil Bardsley provide interesting case studies.

Johnson and Bardsley, both right-backs, have been playing at left-back for their clubs this season. Johnson was moved to the left side of the pitch by Kenny Dalglish a few weeks ago, in order to accommodate 20-year-old Martin Kelly in the other full-back position, while Bardsley has been filling in at left-back since taking over from the injured Kieran Richardson (himself a converted midfielder) at the end of September.

While using a right-footed player at left-back makes sense against a left-footed winger, such as Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben, who constantly seeks to move infield onto his preferred foot, Johnson and, particularly, Bardsley have demonstrated with their recent performances that they can also provide interesting options in the attacking third.

Wide midfielders and full-backs are often instructed to ‘pass on’ wingers who cut inside to their defensive midfield colleagues, but if those wingers are followed by full-backs doing exactly the same thing, the defensive team can find themselves overloaded. A winger who pulls wide towards the touchline, meanwhile, creates space in the inside-left or inside-right channel for the full-back to move into. Full-backs advancing forwards and moving infield thus often find themselves in more space than they would if they attempted to beat their opposite number on the outside, where they can be more easily funnelled towards the corner.

Bardsley took full advantage of this space in Sunderland’s recent 4-2 defeat at home by Chelsea when he opened the scoring early in the game with a fine low drive after angling infield from the left. Meanwhile, Johnson created Liverpool’s first goal in the 2-2 draw against Everton last month with a similarly bold attacking manouevre from wide on the left, driving at the isolated Phil Neville before lifting a cross to the back post for Dirk Kuyt.

Right-footed left-backs are nothing new – former Manchester United left-back Denis Irwin being a prime example – but what is unique about Bardsley and Johnson is the freedom to attack that they have both been granted. Bardsley said he was “practically left wing” in Sunderland’s 3-2 loss at Stoke on Saturday, and Johnson – who made his Liverpool debut at left-back – was able to get forward even more than usual in his side’s 1-0 win at Chelsea on Sunday due to the fact he had three centre-backs playing behind him.

Dalglish concedes that Johnson is “doing us a favour” by playing out of position and he is unlikely to adopt the role on a permanent basis, particularly as he harbours ambitions of holding onto his status as the first-choice right-back for England. Bardsley will also have long-term designs on the Sunderland right-back berth, and his unease on the left was demonstrated during the game against Stoke when he ran the ball out of play under no pressure while attempting a dribble down the left-hand touchline in the first half.

Nevertheless, whether attacking space vacated by a mobile team-mate or simply turning right-footed defenders or midfielders onto their weaker sides, Bardsley and Johnson have demonstrated the problems that an enterprising full-back playing on the other side of the pitch from his usual flank can cause. With modern teams typically set up to defend against classic, over-lapping full-backs such as Maicon, Dani Alves or Ashley Cole, the inside-out full-back carries a threat that few teams are set up to defend against.

11 Responses to “Tactics: ‘Inside-out’ full-backs find room to roam”

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by gunther.furlong, FM Pundit. FM Pundit said: seems like ever wide play now wants to play inside @tomwfootball looks into the new inside-out full back http://cot.ag/escmSU […]

  • Andy:

    Nice piece. Makes a good change from the is he worth £x, which club is ‘bigger’, or BS transfer debates everywhere else.

    I feel Johnson’s attacking ability means he’ll make an impact with the ball in most wide positions. One of the keys to his return to form has been Liverpool’s renewed vigour all over the pitch. In particular, Kelly’s fine form at right-back and the extra bite instilled in the midfield has allowed Skrtl and Agger to concentrate more fully on their own jobs and not be stretched as much across the back line allowing Johnson more defensive security.

    Although positionally disciplined under Dalglish, Johnson needs the space that a confident team allows to see his best. He is an excellent player with the ball at his feet – perhaps even the devalued ‘world class’ in an attacking rb/lb sense. 3 CB’s gives Johnson even more licence to express himself. He will under-perform more than most of his teammates when Liverpool struggle because for someone who plays in a defensive position his attacking ability is so much stronger than his defensive talent. In a side which dominates, Johnson has the opportunity to hit the heights. Liverpool are really not ‘that’ good yet but if Suarez and Carroll show the form they were bought for they will push opposition defensive lines back towards their own goal and clear even more space for a player like Johnson who spots and uses space well and is keen to isolate and attack defenders on both sides. And, with Suarez’s clever and willing movement along the line and around the corners of the box there is no reason to expect Johnson to move right this season as he will have just as many attacking options down the left.

  • David:

    Interesting to hear Dalglish say that Johnson is “doing us a favour.” Considering Dalglish’s willingness to play a 3-man back line with Johnson and Kelly playing wing-backs against Chelsea it would seem that this will be the preferred line-up for the rest of the season. Though to be fair, Dalglish might have just being tactically smart by using the formation to counter Chelsea’s 4-4-2 diamond formation. I also don’t think that by moving to left wing-back that Johnson is hurting his chances of playing regularly with England. A smart coach will see this move as a welcomed addition to his versatility. There is nothing that prevents Capello playing Johnson at right back while he continues to play on the left with Liverpool. It also would have made the injury to Cole less of a worry this past summer.

  • Niall:

    Obviously Johnson hasn’t become a world class player all of a sudden just like he didnt become a championship standard player over night but his situation is really interesting to contrast Dalglish and Hodgson.
    Under Hodgson it seemed from watching and hearsay that no matter who the opposition was Liverpool’s emphasis was on playing with a rigid formation to deny the other team scoring. This meant that even against the so called weaker teams the players were playing a game where maintaining your position and keeping a rigid defensive formation constantly was your number one job. 100 percent of Liverpool’s games were now being played with the tactical intensity usually kept fot games against the big 4-5 clubs.
    For Johnson this caused two problems. Firstly his positioning isn’t his greatest strength, although I dont think it’s as bad as people have said or even his performances for the first half of the season suggested. And secondly, it goes against his greatest strenght, he is a natural attacking footballer.
    If you take the game last week against Stoke as an example, Liverpool went about that game worrying about what each player was to do in attack. They planned and succeeded in dominating posession and Johnson looked like the quality footballer he is even playing on the opposite side.
    HE still wont become a world class fullback because he still has major flaws but at least he wont look hilariously confused and out of sorts against Blackburn.

    • Tom:

      Some insightful points here, Niall. You’re right, Johnson is clearly at his best when he’s given as much licence to attack as possible (witness the assist for Ashley Young in last night’s England friendly). Rigorous defensive discipline has never been his forte.

  • An enjoyable read, but surely a piece about inside-out full backs is not complete without an honourable mention to Vincent Candela? :-)

    Keep up the great writing!

  • […] Elsewhere, Football Further takes a look at the right footed left fullback, as seen in the Premier League of late with […]

  • Jay Wright:

    Good article and something I haven’t really thought about too much – its an interesting theory to contemplate springing a surprise on teams that will not have been used to countering such a system, but I still prefer the idea of the more skillful players (the attacking wideman) being responsible for taking the ball inside ( where there is more opposition), with the fullback primarily remaining an outlet on the outside.

    Nevertheless, consider this blog added to my list of regular reading!

  • I think the telling thing here is that Johnson is playing as a wing-back rather than an orthodox full-back – and generally with (a) one defensive midfielder and (b) three centre-backs which make things easier for him to bomb forward without so overt defensive duties. Quite often Lucas drifts into full-back areas to cover.

    Is this a reaction to the tend of inside-out wingers?

    I’m not sure he’d do so well in a 4-4-2 even with Maxi protecting him.


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