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.