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Redefining the Fullback Position

The role of the fullback is one of great complexity. For decades it had limited strategic importance on the pitch. But as formations evolved, so did the position. Fullbacks are now expected to possess a deep understanding of the game, provide width, and supplement the attack in addition to their defensive responsibilities.

During the early part of the 20th century, the fullback position was predominantly occupied by the least talented players on the team. Thanks to the success of World Cup winners like Roberto Carlos and Philipp Lahm, the perception of the trivialized position shifted. More recently, one young man has taken it to the extreme. Despite being just 21 years of age, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold has already redefined what it means to be a modern fullback.

Evolution

Historically deployed as purely defensive players, fullbacks have become better at understanding the game in recent times, using space, movement and creativity to make a difference. Brazilian left back Roberto Carlos proved that wide defenders could be goal-scoring threats during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Renowned for his lung-busting overlaps and ferocious attacking intent, Roberto Carlos struck fear into goalkeepers’ hearts every time he lined up to take a shot.

After winning it all with Messi and Henry starting as inverted wingers at Barcelona, the ever-innovative Pep Guardiola came up with a new system in the mid-2010s. With David Alaba and Philipp Lahm at his disposal, the Spaniard introduced the idea of inverted fullbacks during his stint at Bayern Munich. Rather than overlapping, inverted outside backs tuck inside and provide cover for marauding midfielders, almost acting as deep-lying playmakers.

The Prodigy

Trent Alexander-Arnold is the best of both worlds, pairing the offensive velocity of attacking fullbacks with superb playmaking ability. He and his Scottish counterpart Andrew Robertson are the most important creative pieces on Jürgen Klopp’s seemingly invincible team.

The Englishman grew up idolizing Steven Gerrard and modeled his game after the legendary Liverpool captain, even playing in midfield for much of his adolescence. Since being deployed at right back and rising through the youth ranks, Alexander-Arnold has reached another level. Under the stewardship of Klopp, Trent has evolved into a hybrid between fullback and unconventional playmaker.

The magnum opus of his still-young career occurred in Liverpool’s remarkable comeback against Barcelona in 2019. His quick thinking off a corner was instrumental in the demise of Barça, and his set-piece delivery has only improved since. After recording back-to-back seasons with a record-breaking twelve assists, Alexander-Arnold has to be considered one of the most decisive fullbacks in the game.

The young right back is a phenom the likes of which football has never seen before. His role is unique, his production unrivaled, and at 21, with a Champions League winners medal, a World Cup appearance, and soon a Premier League title already under his belt, Trent Alexander-Arnold could reach unprecedented heights.

 

Illustration by @inakivector.

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