As we all know, proper football – with its rampant betting company sleeve-sponsorship, bajillion-pound transfers and the continued and perplexing existence of Niko Kranjčar – was invented in 1992 with the formation of the Premier League in England and Wales, the years prior being little more than a murky, hazy mist of deliberate hacking, humorous philosophical antics and 1966 And All That.
Yet out of this haze stumbled two traditions that perplexed the young Casey: the naming of wide defenders ‘full-backs’, and their conventional numbering as numbers 2 and 3 in English defences. On the first point, they are not the fullest backest players on the pitch, that honour going to goalkeepers and central defenders, and are often some of the more attacking wide players in a side; and on the second point, would a system of numbering, from 1-11, as described below make more sense than the, from right to left, 2, 5, 6, 3 often seen in the English game?
The 2, 5, 6, 3 setup became the norm in English football as teams moved from ye olde 2-3-5 formation to a back four via the W-M, as described here on the superlative Squad Numbers Blog, and similar, but different, variations exist in countries on every continent as they each moved different wing-halves into a four-player defence over time, generating the somewhat unusual and illogical numbering patterns that can be seen on a football pitch.
There is a similar explanation behind the description of the no. 2 and no. 3 as ‘full-backs’, despite their relative lack of defensive responsibility in the modern game. In a 2-3-5, those wearing no. 2 and no. 3, those who would be pushed out to the flanks in the English game to play as wide defenders, were the two most defensive players, the ‘2’ in the 2-3-5. It was therefore logical to dub them ‘full-backs’ as, for a time, they were indeed the fullest and backest players, apart from the goalkeeper.
However, not all full-backs are one and the same, and there is a reason that this post clamorous for a no. 2, rather than a no. 3, a reason that we could call Giacinto Facchetti. Facchetti was the left-back in the great Inter Milan team of the 1960s that won three Italian league titles and consecutive European Cups, and was, according to Jonathan Wilson in his excellent Inverting The Pyramid, a key component of a team that was decidedly less rational and symmetrical than we are used to today.
Inter’s asymmetrical system – the Catenaccio, or ‘chain’ – used energetic wide players to simultaneously provide width going forward, and enable a sweeper to be deployed at the back of the team without wholly abandoning the flanks to opposing wingers. While the system eventually fell out of use, to be replaced with a flat back four that was easier to implement and less reliant on highly-specialised players like Facchetti, its contribution to the 2, 5, 6, 3 numbering of a back line is clear. The no. 2 in the Catenaccio pushes wide, the no. 6 steps up to join the no. 5 in central defence, and the no. 3’s attacking impulses are reigned in. The upshot of this is that, for me at least, a no. 3 will always feel like a more attacking, or at least progressive, defender, whereas a no. 2 will be a more conventional, foot-through-ball, body-on-line stopper.
Obviously, in an age where the numbers 0, 01 and 99 have all been worn by professional players, squad numbers and their significance ought to be taken with a grain of salt; these days, numbers serve as accessories to and component parts of a player’s personal brand, rather than functional descriptions of their wearer’s role and position on a pitch, and so yearning for a particular number as shorthand for a type of player is the sort of thing that is rarely found beyond the pages of pretentious sports blogs.
My yearning is, essentially, for a defensive full-back, a breed which seems to have all but died out with the retirement of Everton cult hero Tony Hibbert in 2016. In yesterday’s late game, Chelsea overcame Arsenal 3-2 in a hugely entertaining shootout, but Arsenal could have scored the same goal at least three times, as attacking players charged past opposing full-backs, before cutting the ball back to the penalty spot for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to hilariously balloon over the bar. It is also interesting to note that those positions were exactly from where Bernardo Silva scored his second for City against Arsenal, so perhaps an early hallmark of the Unai Emery era is a totally harmful relationship with shots taken from around the penalty spot; woe betide the Gunners if they ever find themselves in a penalty shoot-out in a cup competition this season.
Chelsea’s inability to defend the channels – the pockets of space between a full-back and centre-back in a four-player defence – makes two points about the lack of Tony Hibberts in modern football. Firstly, that full-backs must attack, getting forward to press their opposite numbers. The need for full-backs to attack in this day and age, providing crucial width and additional runners against packed defences that seek to eliminate all space in and around their penalty area, means that full-backs who can cross and dribble are more heavily sought-after than those that can tackle and defend.
This leads to the second point illustrated by the Chelsea-Arsenal game, that many full-backs simply cannot defend. Beyond the vulnerabilities in the channels – the spaces between full-back and neighbouring centre-back exploited at will by Arsenal – consider Tottenham’s opening-day victory over Newcastle, a somewhat fortuitous 2-1 win that involved a ridiculous passage of play in which nominal Spurs right-back Serge Aurier had completely abandoned his post on the right of the back four, for reasons perhaps beyond the realms of human comprehension, and was gleefully heading balls to Newcastle players down the Tottenham left wing. The result were hilarious scenes in which Magpies forward Joselu hits a pass to winger Kenedy who has found himself in about 30 yards of space on a pitch less than 100 yards wide.
The problem may continue to worsen, only exacerbating my cries for a return of Hibbert to our screens and pitches. Many teams that aim to dominate possession, and use full-backs to provide width as notional ‘wingers’ instead cut inside to support the attack from a central position, at least tend to deploy a defensive midfielder of some description to balance out the relentless attacks of the full-backs. At each of his three great sides – Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City – Pep Guardiola has deployed a defensive-minded midfielder alongside a pair of centre-backs, who has often been the key to the whole system; Sergio Busquets at Barcelona, Philipp Lahm at Bayern, and Fernandinho at City have all enabled the back end of the team to morph into a back three if possession is turned over, a much stabler base to resist opposing attacks from than a pair of overwhelmed central defenders.
At the World Cup, however, even this most basic of precautions was not taken by the holders and, for many, pre-tournament favourites Germany. With the retirement of Lahm – who tended to play as a full-back for the national side anyway- the Germans deployed Sami Khedira, Sebastian Rudy and Toni Kroos as their midfield two across their three games, and none of these are defensive midfielders of anywhere near the quality that Guardiola has used. In all of their games, the German full-backs pushed on relentlessly, and their midfielders were always taking a step forward to support attacks, rather than checking over their shoulders to mark the runs of opposing forwards, and the defending champions conceded three preventable counter-attacking goals to Mexico and South Korea to crash out of the World Cup at the group stage. While Guardiola’s continued use of Fernandinho, and the integral nature of N’Golo Kanté, Eric Dier and Nemanja Matic to teams at the top of the Premier League’s elite suggests that, at club level at least, teams aren’t quite ready to abandon defending altogether, Germany’s selection is a cause for concern. If teams are willing to forsake defensive solidity in both the wide areas and central midfield, where will that leave a sport where last season’s Champions League, the pinnacle of the club game, saw a record-breaking 401 goals scored in 125 games? Will last year’s staggering average of over 3.2 goals a game be beaten? Will the record be blown out of the water as we hurtle ever-closer to the 4-goals-a-game mark? We’re certainly a far cry from ‘One-nil to the Arsenal’.
What is the most amusing, for me, anyway, is the cyclical nature of all of this. The 2-3-5, with its shorthanded defence and forward-heavy structure, seems laughably naive by today’s standards, with our back fours and our holding midfielders, but we’re edging ever closer to the attack-minded style, if not the exact shape, that gripped football over a century ago. Looking at Manchester City’s starting line-up from their game last week reveals five players who could all be called forwards, or at least attacking midfielders, with a great degree of accuracy: Riyad Mahrez, İlkay Gündoğan, Sergio Agüero, Bernarno Silva and Raheem Sterling. Toss in two aggressively-forward minded full-backs in Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, who spent more time in midfield and beyond than they did defending their own penalty area, and it’s suddenly apparent how the 2-3-5 wasn’t so preposterous after all.