When it comes to left-backs, there is currently a rich array of talent in Europe. Once upon a time, the position didn’t command respect and a handful of players probably had their hearts set on other positions. I started off as a left-winger, but bit by bit, I started moving backwards. After playing as a left-sided midfielder, I eventually landed up as a center back for Shamrock Rovers, which was my first club as a professional footballer.
At the time, there was a crisis at left-back and that was that for me! I made the position my own and was signed by Liverpool in 1983. I quickly learned that I was better at pinching the ball, tackling opposition players and running forward with the ball when it was time to do so rather than take on a defender and outsmart him - my game was devoid of all that - so it all worked out for the best!
I’m not listing players in any particular order and I also have to say that the top-five left-backs in the world could look a lot different two or three months into the new season. The likes of David Alaba, Jordi Alba, Ferland Mendy, Raphael Guerreiro, Lucas Digne, Ben Chilwell and Marcelo are some of the other contestants who can break into the list at some point in the forthcoming season, but the five that I’ve named are up there with the very best at the moment.
Andy Robertson | Liverpool, Scotland
Andy Robertson has an irrepressible air about him that is absolutely infectious. His spirit and enthusiasm clearly rubs off on the rest of his teammates and he sets the tone with his work rate. What I love about him is that amongst all his relentless running and energy, there is a tough little character in play who has a sense of bravery about him.
I’m not advocating that he should slap players in the head, but he did that to Lionel Messi in the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League semifinal at Anfield. He was pumped and it was all part of the atmosphere on the night, but he showed that he’s a tough little guy who won’t back off from a scruffle. Be it his cheekiness or his audacity, you want these kinds of characters in your team.
As a player, you set high standards for yourself and try to maintain them. Robertson has hit a standard of excellence for Liverpool over the past few seasons and has established himself as a brilliant footballer. He may not be the out-and-out leader in the team, but he makes himself heard and has a sense of reliability about him that you’d love as a manager.
You can’t reinvent the game as a full-back, but Robertson is a model of consistency, so much so that you’re surprised when he doesn’t excel. I just hope he continues to do all the right things on and off the pitch to take care of his body, as injuries inevitably seem to catch up with everyone. Liverpool need him and Trent Alexander-Arnold to go at it from the get-go if they are to reclaim their Premier League crown from Manchester City.
Lucas Hernandez | Bayern Munich, France
Lucas Hernandez unfortunately has a history of injuries and in my opinion, that’s largely down to the fact that he’s the best defender amongst the five that I’ve named. He’s less interested in his desire to move forward and is very conscious of the fact that his primary job is to defend and keep things tight at the back. There’s a no-nonsense tenacity about him that some of the others lack and he tackles with as much bite as the game allows him to.
Lucas rarely gets caught out of possession and has that willingness to go into tackles with all his might, so he leaves himself more open to injuries. I remember watching him and thinking he’s got a feistiness about him - he’s got a strong attitude and is happy to get involved in the dark arts to bail his side out of tricky situations. There’s not a lot that gets past him as he’s always mindful of the fact that his role in the team is to defend.
The only aspect of his game I dislike is his tendency to get a bit theatrical when he gets tackled - he goes from being a mean defender to a silly victim at times. That aside, I’ve always liked Lucas Hernandez and he’s a massive strength in the team, be it for Bayern Munich or France. He’s a tough defender and the kind of player who will never let you down.
His younger brother, Theo, is a fantastic left-back as well, but he needs to develop a little bit more to be considered amongst the best players in the world in his position.
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Alphonso Davies | Bayern Munich, Canada
Alphonso Davies is the kid, the baby of the lot and arguably the fastest footballer on the planet currently. He can take your breath away with his electrifying pace and has a penetration that only few can match in the modern game. Once he sets off on one of his trademark runs, you’re excited and entertained, so I just find him great fun to watch. I once referred to him as Alphonso Messi - he was absolutely on fire for Bayern Munich that night and tore through opposition defenders like they didn’t exist!
For a 20-year-old, he has an awful lot to learn. If he can improve his end product, he can fulfill his absolutely wondrous potential for Bayern Munich and Canada. I don’t think there are too many prospects better than him, certainly not at left-back, but he can reach a level of superstardom if he works on his ability in the final third.
When he’s on his game and manages to mold everything together in his head, he’s unstoppable. Davies is one of those players who can get the whole stadium at the edge of their seats, that’s how good and exciting he is. One thing defenders will tell you is they hate coming up again pace even if they are quite quick themselves. Davies has plenty of pace in his armor and can utilize it for many years to come.
I hope injuries leave him alone for the rest of his career so that he can continue to develop the wonderful start he’s had in Europe.
Luke Shaw | Manchester United, England
I don’t want to make this a big talking point, but Luke Shaw has had to come through quite a bit in his young career so far. He had to manage all that nonsense he got from Jose Mourinho, who, in my opinion, belittled Shaw by going public with his criticism. If you slag your players off publicly, it creates a bit of unrest in the dressing room.
Shaw has been diplomatic in hitting back at Jose and I admire him for the way he’s responded to the situation. Some of the things that were said about him could’ve sunk him and crushed his spirit, but he’s used his anger as a stepping stone to show what he can do for club and country. All the insecurity and the naivety would’ve troubled him as a young footballer, because it’s never nice to receive adversity from your own coach.
He had a tremendous season with Manchester United and followed it up with a fantastic showing for England at Euro 2020. It took a while, but he’s finally found his niche and has been hugely impressive in what he’s accomplished over the past 12 months or so. I like his story - he’s come out on top after overcoming his fair share of obstacles and is thriving at the moment.
I don’t know if Mourinho will claim to have played his part in Shaw's renaissance, but he was a big negative for the Englishman. I didn’t want to take this route but it is part of Shaw’s story and it goes without saying that it shouldn’t have happened. He broke his leg in a game against PSV Eindhoven a few years back - that was a shocking injury that set him back. The incident makes Mourinho’s comments all the more crass and out of order, but that’s history now.
All in all, I’m delighted for Luke Shaw and the fact that he’s been able to overcome everything that’s been thrown at him. He’s up there on merit and will look to take his outstanding form into the new season for Manchester United.
Leonardo Spinazzola | AS Roma, Italy
Leonardo Spinazzola was a free-flowing joy to watch at Euro 2020 and made my Team of the Tournament, so he’s definitely amongst the best left-backs in the world at the moment. I’ve spoken about him in detail in my other columns and I have half a mind to ask the readers to refer to those, but I only have nice things to say about him!
He’s a very intelligent footballer in areas of the pitch that require imagination and has the footwork to make himself a menace in the final third. Spinazzola does it all with powerful running, good acceleration and tremendous commitment, as he gave Italy a formidable left-sided bias in the early weeks of Euro 2020. His relationship with Lorenzo Insigne was fantastic to watch and I remember watching them wreak havoc against Turkey in the group stages. Kenan Karaman, who played as a right-sided midfielder for Turkey on the night, was absolutely terrorized by Spinazzola, as he ripped the right-flank to shreds with a Man of the Match performance.
It’s a real shame about his injury, as he showed at the top level how wonderful he can be. He was thriving on the fact that you only need four good weeks of football to make an impression at a major tournament and played spectacularly well before his unfortunate setback. Spinazzola could’ve easily ended up as the Player of the Tournament at Euro 2020 had not picked up an injury and that is brilliant territory to be in, particularly for a left-back.
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