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5 greatest full-back pairings of all time

Denis Irwin has been hailed as Manchester United
Denis Irwin has been hailed as Manchester United's unsung hero by Gary Neville.
Modified 04 May 2020, 23:26 IST
Top 5 / Top 10

One of the sports’ most-used clichés is ‘Hunting in pairs’ wherein not one but two players from the opposing team come roaring and leave the opposition hiding for cover. In football, we witness such moments when both full-backs are either bombing forward at full-tilt to join the attack or are in total sync to shut out the attacking opposition.

Football as a sport has evolved a lot over the years, with fullback's position going through several transitional phases. The full-back roles tend to vary with every manager. Some may ask both full-backs to stay in their halves while another manager may want them to go up and down the wing throughout ninety minutes.

Over the years, we have had some exceptional right-backs and left-backs gracing the game through different eras. Some of them even have gone on to become outstanding full-back pairings as well. Today we look at the five most incredible full-back pairings of all time.

Five greatest full-back pairings of all time:

#5. Trent Alexander-Arnold – Andrew Robertson (Liverpool)

Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have shocked, dominated, and above all, entertained English football like no other team in recent history. The Reds currently have a commanding 25-point lead at the top of Premier League table, with 82 points from their 29 games, winning 27 of them.

Klopp’s ultra-attacking football is modelled on two specific elements – Hard Press and Full-backs running the show. When the former Borussia Dortmund manager took over the reins at Liverpool, he tried to adopt the same method but lacked the personnel to carry out his plans to perfection.

Trent Alexander-Arnold was slowly making his mark from the youth team, and everyone was pinning their hopes on him to be Liverpool’s new right-back for the next generation. However, Klopp was still not finding the balance on both flanks.

After a struggle of three seasons and playing James Milner at the left-back position, the Reds signed Andrew Robertson from Hull City in the summer of 2017 for just £ 8million. Since then everything seemed to have transformed at the club.


Come to the 2017-18 season, Liverpool started to outscore and outrun teams in the Premier League for fun. Much of it was down to Alexander-Arnold and Robertson’s tireless running for the entire ninety minutes. That season, Liverpool reached the Champions League final but could not get past the mighty Real Madrid at the last hurdle.

However, there were clear signs of a Liverpool team eager to bring back their glory days. The 2018-19 season followed a similar theme where both Alexander-Arnold and Robertson were the best full-back partnership in the league and that too by some distance.

Liverpool had to swallow another bitter pill in the 2018-19 season, though, when they missed out on their first league title in almost three decades after finishing runners-up to Manchester City in an epic title race. Pep Guardiola’s men won the title with 98 points while Jurgen Klopp’s side fell agonisingly short with 97 points.

However, Anfield celebrated in joy as the English side won their sixth Champions League title by beating Tottenham in the 2018-19 final. This was Liverpool’s first Champions League triumph since the 2005 final in Istanbul.

The 2018-19 season was all about the Arnold-Robertson full-back pairing and how they were re-writing the rules of modern full-back play. The England international ranked up 12 assists last season while his Scottish counterpart managed 11 assists to his name. The duo were the only defenders in the Premier League’s Top 10 assist makers previous season.

Jurgen Klopp likes to make the pitch as wide as possible for his opponent and hit them with the brisk pace of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, and his dynamic full-back duo. Liverpool are currently blessed to have both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson as the pair tick all the boxes of being the best full-back pairing in today’s game.

Both players are supremely fit, brave enough to attack on every possible opportunity and not worry about conceding a goal. Both full-backs have unbelievable crossing ability and are insanely fast. Premier League teams have had nightmares dealing with Liverpool’s counter-attacks this season. Much of it has been down to both Alexander-Arnold and Robertson covering the ground in a matter of seconds.

In terms of numbers, Alexander-Arnold is the second-best assist maker (12) in Premier League this season while Andrew Robertson has seven assists to his name so far in 2019-20. The duo defines what Liverpool are all about under Jurgen Klopp – fearless, aggressive, ruthless and emerging as the winners.

We are yet to see how this season ends given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and whether Liverpool are awarded the title or not if the league fails to restart. However, one thing is sure. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson continue to be the best full-back pairing in the game right now and indeed have the potential to be one of the best full-back pairing of all time.

Nowadays, every club sees these two and want their full-backs to deliver what the duo is doing. The Liverpool pair has become the benchmark of how a modern-day full-back pairing should function. And based on that merit alone, we have featured them in our list of 5 most incredible full-back pairings of all time. We have listed them more based on what they can do in the next 4-5 seasons rather than where they are right now in comparison to the former greats.

#4. Gary Neville – Denis Irwin (Manchester United)

Gary Neville and Denis Irwin after the 1999 Champions League title
Gary Neville and Denis Irwin after the 1999 Champions League title

If you ever try to recall some of the finest full-back pairings in the last few decades, this one may slide under the radar as Denis Irwin, and Gary Neville were not the most flamboyant full-backs by any means.

Denis Irwin, a veteran of 368 league appearances for Manchester United, started his Old Trafford journey way back in 1990 and was the perfect role model for the emerging full-backs at the club - Gary Neville and Phil Neville.

Sir Alex Ferguson oversaw a massive transition to his squad between 1992-1994 where we saw the ‘Class of 92’ youngsters becoming a regular feature in the playing XI at Old Trafford. Gary Neville slotted in the right-back role with Irwin having made the left-back position his own.

Over the years, we have heard both Neville and Irwin speak fondly about their time as Manchester United’s first-choice full-back partnership. Gary Neville has even hailed Irwin as the best full-back the Red Devils have ever fielded during the former's time at the club.

Neville even thanks Irwin for his calm presence and the way he helped all the younger players, including the former England international. What made the Neville-Irwin partnership click was their ability to pick moments to attack from the flanks.

Unless it was late in the game and Sir Alex Ferguson’s team were chasing a win or a draw, we did not see both Neville and Irwin bombing down the wings at the same time. There was more method to their madness than people credit them for. Neville being the younger player, often made dashing runs from the right flank. Irwin, the more gifted of the two, used to hang back and pick a diagonal pass or a through ball to split defences wide open.

The Neville-Irwin full-back partnership is one of the most successful ones in Premier League history, as the duo won seven titles in nine Premier League seasons they were a part of. The pair were part of the only English team to complete a treble-winning season till date.

The Red Devils had made a habit of winning league titles back in the 90’s. While the likes of Eric Cantona, Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis, Andy Cole and others scored for fun, it was Gary Neville and Denis Irwin. They provided the defensive solidity as well as the occasional attacking impetus. 

#3. Dani Carvajal – Marcelo (Real Madrid)

Carvajal-Marcelo laid down the foundation for modern-day Real Madrid success.
Carvajal-Marcelo laid down the foundation for modern-day Real Madrid success.

In the last decade, Real Madrid’s front three have dominated the headlines. But the club's effectiveness often comes from the selfless and tireless work on the wings by their impeccable full-back pairing of Dani Carvajal and Marcelo.

The Brazilian left-back joined the Madrid giants back in 2007. But he had to wait for another six seasons to find his ideal right-back pairing when Los Blancos signed Carvajal before the 2013-14 season. Within no time, the duo went on to establish themselves as one of the best full-back pairings in the modern game.

Until the 2013-14 season, Real Madrid’s trophy cabinet was mostly about their past glories. However, it is no coincidence that the moment the Carvajal-Marcelo partnership began to click, Real Madrid started to dominate European football like never before.

The Spanish side won four out of the five Champions League titles between 2013-14 and 2017-18 season that included a hat-trick of titles under Zinedine Zidane. The former French World Cup winner gave Marcelo and Carvajal license to run down the wings, and it took Real Madrid’s game to a whole new level.

Speed became a massive factor to the success of the Brazilian and Spaniard’s full-back pairing as they overlapped at every available opportunity. However, it did not make the team defensively weaker as both were willing to track back and put last-ditched tackles whenever the ball was lost upfield.

However, the most surreal part about the Carvajal-Marcelo partnership is their ability to put quality balls into the box throughout ninety minutes. It should not surprise you to know that Marcelo (71) and Carvajal (35) combined have registered over 100 assists during their time at the Santiago Bernabeu, that is practically an assist every seventh game.

Marcelo, 31, is having to battle for his place in the Real Madrid playing XI these days while Carvajal, 28 continues to be the first choice right-back for both club and country. The Spanish-Brazilian duo may not play together as often as they once did, but they will surely go down as one of the best full-back pairings of all time.

#2. Cafu-Roberto Carlos (Brazil)

Cafu and Roberto Carlos are hailed as all-time greats in their positions.
Cafu and Roberto Carlos are hailed as all-time greats in their positions.

Arguably the two best full-backs of our time or in any era for that matter. For a considerable period, there was a constant debate to find out the best full-back during the early and late 2000s. Only two names made the final cut – Cafu and Roberto Carlos.

This debate was like Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo, but only without the glamour of scoring a record-breaking number of goals. Ironically enough, Cafu and Roberto Carlos never played for the same club but were instrumental in Brazil’s World Cup success back in 2002.

For over a decade Cafu was hailed as the best right-back in world football. Often people forget Cafu’s defensive steel because of his attacking prowess. The former Brazilian captain had the tenacity to go up and down the wing for an entire game without even breaking a sweat. The legendary right-back may not have been as flamboyant as Roberto Carlos while dribbling, but what Cafu lacked in glamour, he certainly made up for with consistency.

Cafu was instrumental to Brazil’s success throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The AS Roma and AC Milan right-back was part of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning team as well. However, it was his full-back partnership with Roberto Carlos that is fondly remembered till date by many football fanatics.

Roberto Carlos, on the other hand, was the more flamboyant of the two. Carlos was more of a risk-taker and ready to bulldoze past opposing players every single time. The famous left-back became a household name after joining Real Madrid in 1996 where he went on to play 370 league games. Carlos won four La Liga and 3 Champions League titles to go with his World Cup triumph in 2002.

As a full-back pairing, Cafu and Roberto Carlos went from being two amazing full-backs to two great defenders. They could stop any winger and virtually every kind of attack. Such was their aura that them being in the playing XI was enough to bring opposing attackers to their knees.

Are they the best ever? We leave that to you to judge, but one thing is certain. Cafu and Roberto Carlos would always be the benchmark of being a quality right-back or left-back player. Any emerging full-back coming through the ranks and making rapid rise, the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson for example, will always be compared to Cafu and Roberto Carlos. These two Brazilian greats are and will remain the measuring stick for a full-back player for a long time to come.

#1. Paolo Maldini – Mauro Tassotti (AC Milan)

Maldini-Tassotti went 58 consecutive games unbeaten between 1991-1993.
Maldini-Tassotti went 58 consecutive games unbeaten between 1991-1993.

Whenever we talk about the legendary defences, we inevitably end up with AC Milan's team from 1987 to 1995 when the Italian side dominated on both domestic and European fronts. Led by the charismatic Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, AC Milan of the late ’80s and early ’90s could go down as the most outstanding European side of all time.

Mauro Tassotti joined the Italian side back in 1980 at the age of 20 and went on to play 429 games for the Rossoneri. Tassotti was an uncompromising right-back who had almost perfected the art of a sliding tackle. The former Lazio man was soon to partner with a young Paolo Maldini who joined AC Milan’s senior team in the 1984-85 season.

The Maldini-Tassotti duo was an instant hit as they both complemented each other’s no-nonsense defensive style. While Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta kept hold of the opposing strikers, Maldini and Tassotti had mastered the art of offside rule and were always in sync with the back four. 

While Tassotti was the hard tackler, Maldini’s ability on the ball allowed AC Milan to break up opposition play and set up quick counter-attacks. Such enthralling defensive plays allowed the Italian side to win 17 trophies during an eight-year spell that included five Serie A titles and three European Cups (now known as the Champions League).

The Maldini-Tassotti full-back duo led AC Milan to an entire unbeaten domestic season in 1992, and the Rossoneri went on a 58-game unbeaten streak from 1991 to 1993. The standout feature of Maldini-Tassotti’s defensive masterclass was their last-ditch tackling and slide tackles that were timed to perfection almost every single time.

The pinnacle for this outstanding full-back partnership came in the 1994 Champions League final against Barcelona where both Baresi and Costacurta were ruled out. Fabio Capello had to rely on Paolo Maldini and Mauro Tassotti to come up trumps, and the duo did it in some style. 

With their dominating full-back duo, AC Milan kept a clean sheet and won the final 4-0 to lift their third Champions League title. That AC Milan side will go down as one of the best ever in European football and indeed that back four of Maldini-Baresi-Costacurna-Tassotti will be hailed as perhaps the greatest defensive lines to have ever graced the game.

Published 04 May 2020, 23:26 IST
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