Full-back is typically an afterthought place in football. In your free league game, it’s where you stick the new person that hasn’t proven they can play. And at the maximum level of the game, it’s where talented youth players go when they are not quite good enough at their primary places to play there as pros.
Over the last 20 years or so, there were two kinds of fullbacks: 1) transformed central defenders who are good athletes, but not great in the air, and 2) converted wingers who have good athleticism and work rate but aren’t tricky dribblers. Most fullbacks go into the position with half the necessary skillset then attempt to learn another half, hoping to get the most out of the talent.
However, the fullback position does not have to be mere filler on the pitch, something Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold is intent on demonstrating. He and his partner in crime left-back Andy Robertson, have been two of Liverpool’s most creative players throughout the club’s yearlong unbeaten run in the Premier League, in addition to playing well defensively.
After Liverpool’s triumph over Sheffield United on Thursday, Alexander-Arnold gave an interview in which he talked about his ambition to revolutionize his position.
“we would like to change the method by which the position has been thought about,” he said. We wish to bring a different method of thinking about fullbacks, and I believe that is what we’ve been doing over the last 18 months.”
Alexander-Arnold has eight assists in the Premier League this year, second behind Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne. No other defender has more than four. And both are major contributors to Liverpool’s buildup even when they do not register assists. They are Nos. 1 and 2 on Liverpool in xG Buildup, which StatsBomb describes as the anticipated goals of possessions a player was involved in other than those in which they were shooting or assisting. To put it differently, they are always making great passes early to start attacks.
Robertson is a slightly better passer than the ordinary fullback, but he still plays the game fairly traditionally. He is an up-and-down, athletic fullback who often gets crosses in from the byline. Alexander-Arnold is somewhat different, however. He’s not quite as quick, or as good at dribbling as Robertson, but he’s probably the greatest long-range passer at fullback in the world.
Credit Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp for recognizing Alexander-Arnold’s ability and freeing him up for a deep-lying playmaker. As Michael Caley points out, Liverpool always feeds the ball to Alexander-Arnold and asks him to try low-percentage passes, knowing he’ll connect a comparatively substantial number of these and create clear-cut scoring chances for his forward.
Fans often like to ruminate on how legendary players from the past whose positions are eliminated might be used in the modern game. David Beckham had to learn how to play as a central midfielder at the end of his career when 4-4-2 formations with wide midfielders who crossed from deep became obsolete. Today, Beckham could have become a participant like Alexander-Arnold.
Fullback doesn’t have to be a dumping ground position for hard workers who couldn’t hack it in different roles, and teams don’t necessarily have to choose between great attacking and great defending at the spot. As long as Liverpool can successfully concentrate play through its back, other teams may soon begin looking for their own Alexander-Arnold.