Why four right backs? That's asking the wrong question

Instead of wondering why Gareth Southgate is taking four right backs to Euro 2020 we should be wondering why England suddenly has so many good right backs to choose from

I spent the past week on holiday and was only sporadically checking in on Twitter for all the latest news so I may have missed some stuff. One of the things that seemed like a big story when it came out was England manager Gareth Southgate selecting four right backs for his final 26 man Euro 2020 squad.1

I might be a week late here and this story may have completely blown over by now2 but I’ve got thoughts on the matter so I’m going to go ahead and write about it. I get that kind of freedom here.

Right back has been a position of contention for England recently and heading in to last week there were many rumors circulating that Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold would be left out of the squad after a perceived “poor” season.3 Southgate put all that to bed last week when he selected Alexander-Arnold along with Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, and Reece James to the squad.

Naturally the conversation focused on that decision as you can’t possibly need four right backs for a tournament and the inclusion of all four means you needed to leave out some quality players in other positions. Why in the world do you need all four?

Tactically, Southgate has made it clear that he wants versatility and depth in his squad. He wants to be able to play with both a four man and three man defense. Walker is a great right back who can move over to right center back in a back three. Reece James and Kieran Trippier are both very good wing backs (and Trippier can play on the left as well). Alexander-Arnold is not really suited to playing as a wing back but ~can~ play in midfield if needed.4 Depth and versatility.

Regardless all four players are deserving of their place in the team and instead of asking why Southgate selected four left backs we should be asking ourselves, how the hell does England have such a sudden influx of talent at the right back position in the first place?

England doesn’t just have four quality right backs. This is just the top four. Aaron Wan-Bissaka - a stalwart defensive right back who’s attacking game is a tad underrated and is arguably better than some of these guys5 - can’t even get a call up to England camp these days.

How the hell did right back become the premier position in England?


The answer to that question is not inherently difficult. While the influx of talented right backs in England seems sudden this is really just a simple case of gradual evolution.

As always, it all goes back to the 90s.6 As Grace Robertson said this earlier this week, “the revolution came to European football, and England missed it.”

The Heysel Disaster, and England’s subsequent ban from European football would have a long standing effect on English football. In Europe, tactical revolutions were sweeping the continent starting with Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan and evolving from there, but with England not participating in the European Cup, they weren’t seeing it.

Football back then wasn’t the product that it is now. Matches weren’t televised internationally. The only time you saw teams from other countries and their subsequent styles was when you played against them in competition. With England not participating in said competition, they weren’t getting that exposure and were left to just do their thing.

That thing was old school 4-4-2.

In the early days of the Premier League it was almost unheard of for anyone to play something other than a 4-4-2. Even early days Arsene Wenger played a 4-4-2 when he first arrived at Arsenal. It wasn’t until the late Henry era Arsenal teams/early Jose Mourinho Chelsea teams where we saw big teams start making the shift to a 4-3-3.7 For all intents and purposes it was all 4-4-2 all the time.

Two banks of four, two shuttling workhorse midfielders, pacy/tricky wingers, and two up top (typically that big man/little man target man and player who ran in behind striker pairing). The idea was simple, get the ball out wide to your tricky/pacy/possibly creative wingers and let them try to create something. And by create something, I typically mean whip a cross into the box.

Your fullbacks were there to support the wingers but contrary to what your memory might tell you, when it came to attacking responsibilities, they really didn’t really get too involved.

Look no further than Gary Neville. Neville had the England right back position on lock from the mid/late 90's to early ‘00s. His partnership with David Beckham on United and England’s right side is highly regarded. Neville is currently fifth on the Premier League’s all time assists table for fullbacks. That’s pretty good and certainly sounds like he was an attacking threat!

Gary Neville’s most prolific Premier League campaign saw him score two goals and add four assists. This season Aaron Wan-Bissaka scored two goals and had four assists - his second straight season with four assists. Wan-Bissaka is considered a right back that can’t attack.

Different times indeed.

Wingers back then were essentially wide midfielders. They played on their natural sides to increase their crossing opportunities. The idea of a winger playing on their “off” side and cutting in on their stronger foot to shoot had yet to become popular (even Arjen Robben didn’t catch on at Chelsea).

With fewer left footers out there than right footers, finding good left wingers was not easy.8 Since you wanted a left footer out there, it wasn’t all that uncommon for a left footed player to be preferred over a better player that was right footed. In other words, unless you had Ryan Giggs, the teams best attacking player was typically your right winger and the worst attacking player was typically the left winger.

Right back thus became the perfect place to “hide” your weakest player. Defensively he’d be facing the opponents weakest attacker. Going forward you had your best player in front of you to carry the burden. You didn’t stick a good player at right back. If a player had any sort of attacking talent you pushed him up to a winger.9

Things started to change towards the end of the decade but it was slow and gradual. We started to see wingers move around to their “off” sides but they were still playing like wingers/midfielders and not like the ‘wide forwards/attackers’ we have today.

Thierry Henry was probably the first time we truly saw someone in the modern ‘wide forward’ mold but he was so before his time that Arsenal just moved him to center forward. Cristiano Ronaldo’s 42 goal season was remarkable for a gluttony of reasons, one of which being he did by still playing like a natural winger. He moved around but still operated mostly from the right. It wasn’t until he went to Real Madrid that they moved him to the left/middle and he became that lethal goal scorer.

By the start of the 2010s we were starting to see a change - probably from teams watching Messi and Ronaldo dominate from the off wings or Arjen Robben cut inside 100 million times. Two striker systems were starting to be abandoned in favor of putting three attackers across a front three.

Those attackers started getting narrower. The focus was no longer about hugging the touchline and whipping in a cross, but getting in front of goal into good goal scoring areas. Less teams were being built around center forwards or late arriving midfielders but now around a wide attacker - typically on the left side. Ronaldo, Eden Hazard, Neymar, Mbappe. Pep Guardiola’s use of Messi as a false-9 ushered in an era of many teams trying to find their own version of wide forwards who can run in behind.

The evolution started slow, but suddenly became very rapid in the early parts of the decade. Wingers were no longer creative midfielders, they had to be attackers, wide forwards, goal scorers.

Perhaps no one personifies this evolution more than Gareth Bale. Bale started his career as a left back but was eventually pushed forward to left midfield due to his attacking talent. He shined on the left side for Tottenham to close out the decade before moving over to the right side at the early part of the 2010’s and becoming the wide creator/goal scorer that earned him a record move to Real Madrid.

Nani had been a pretty successful winger who could play on both sides but he was a winger. He failed to become a goalscorer and his game didn’t hold up. By 2014 he was leaving Manchester United, spending a few years bouncing around tier II European clubs before heading to MLS.

Contrast that with Sadio Mane, a right winger with pretty respectable goal scoring numbers. Jurgen Klopp moved him over to the left to turn him into a goal scoring machine.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that when you play a front three consisting of players trying to get closer to goal you become very narrow and need someone to provide you with width. With teams still focused on controlling the midfield you couldn’t send one of your midfielders out there so… enter the modern fullback.

Suddenly the fullback wasn’t just a support option but was actually the primary wing option who needed to possess a certain level of the characteristics that old school wingers had. You had to have some pace, you had to have some creativity, you needed to be able to cross.

Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia had also built solid careers as wingers, but they were wingers, not goal scorers. In order to survive they had to move to fullback. Being pacy and tricky didn’t land you on the wings anymore. It moved you to the back.

Along with all that, you needed to be able to defend as you were typically matched up against your opponents best attacker. You can’t hide your worst player there anymore!

From a tactical standpoint there was one more thing at play. Football has always been a chess match of moves and counter moves. One of the reasons teams started moving their right footed stars over to the left was because the right back was typically the worst player and therefore that matchup favored you. Another reason was because your best attacking players typically do the least defending, and if the right back is the worst player, you didn’t have to worry about them going the other way against you.

Well guess what, these days those left wingers that teams are built around still don’t like to track back, which means if you can drop an attacking in behind them, you’ve suddenly given yourself a big advantage when you’re attacking.

All of a sudden the right back has become a very important position and thus more and more clubs are putting an emphasis on developing players for it. 20 years ago if you were athletic with any sort of attacking ability, you played anywhere other than right back. Now clubs are taking kids who have good ball skills and attacking ability and putting them at right back! They’ll pick up the defending aspects as they get older.

It’s really that simple. Over the last 25 years right back has gone from a forgotten position to one of the most important ones on the pitch. If you have a good one, you can create so many advantages for yourself. As a result more and more clubs are focusing on developing players in that area and putting their good ones there. 25 years ago Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kieran Trippier would have been right wingers. These days they’re right backs.

As a result, England suddenly has a lot of talent there.

1

Which is now down to three after Trent Alexander-Arnold’s injury

2

Again thanks to Alexander-Arnold’s injury

3

Insane how high TAA’s standards are that we now look at 1 goal 7 assists because he had to play much more conservatively since Liverpool didn’t have centerbacks as a “poor season from a right back.” He’d be first name on the team sheet in 2016!

4

Probably

5

In my opinion he is, but I’m biased

6

After all - we all know football was only invented in 1992 (*ducks for cover*)

7

Those late Henry Arsenal sides and Mourinho’s Chelsea certainly brought the 4-3-3 to the Premier League but it really wasn’t until the start of the next decade that it become more widely adopted.

8

Just like how finding good right wingers these days isn’t easy!

9

We shouldn’t forget that United made consecutive Champions League finals with Wes Brown and John O’Shea - two players who were very much not right backs - playing right back